Should you hide your race on your college applications? We’re going to talk about this question, some different sides to the story, and some examples of previous students’ experiences to hopefully untangle this for you guys.
Hiding information is something that a lot of people do on all sorts of applications. If you got fired from your last job, there is no rule that says you have to put that information on your next application, because that information could clearly hurt your chances rather than help them. Brooke has also previously spoken about this idea in terms of tailoring your application, such as maybe not writing about mental health struggles as it can flag your college application and therefore might not be in your best interest.
Race is different because, in a perfect world, it should not really matter at all, and you could check whatever box you wanted to and choose to speak about it or not, and what would matter the most either way would be who you are.
But that’s not reality. And given the current lawsuits stewing in the Supreme Court, we know that race does matter.
Over the past decade, we have known that Harvard and certainly other competitive universities are using race as a factor in their admissions, and that is very evident in their statistics and their admissions rates when divided up by race. We also know that admissions officers have in many cases awarded higher “personal scores” to students of some races over others.
Looking at the admit rate by race/ethnicity and academic decile—which means dividing students into percentiles of 10—we find that in the top decile, White students get in at a rate of 15.3%, Asian American students get in at a rate of 12.1%, African American students get in at a rate of 56.1%, Hispanic students get in at a rate of 31.3%, and the admit rate for all applicants overall is 14.6%. This data is surprising to a lot of people because we always knew there was some sort of role that race plays in admissions, but many didn’t realize to what extent.
And so when you check that box, you have to consider what colleges and universities are doing with that checkbox. Another chart from the Harvard lawsuit shows that being Asian actually has a negative coefficient estimate on your admission chances at Harvard between the classes of 2009 and 2016. This means that if you checked the Asian box, you have a negative chance of admission.
With the Supreme Court case coming down the line, you may not get to choose because there may not be a checkbox next fall. But we think that race is still going to matter in admissions because we can see from these lawsuits that race isn’t just a “checkbox” but is also considered holistically.
So, while some people believe that colleges are going to start focusing on race-neutral alternatives to gain diversity, such as low income or first generation, Brooke believes that we might see the race checkbox replaced with a box that is basically a “How are you diverse?” essay.
These essays might start mattering more because they showcase the narrative of diversity and display secondary markers of race such as tolerance, acceptance, and overcoming challenges due to discrimination. Therefore, the diversity essays might be even more prized and may become an alternative to the consideration of race in admissions, at least at highly competitive universities.
For a glimpse at what this might look like, we can look at what Duke University is already doing: offering an optional diversity essay. Their question states: “We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself.”
That question is the future of race in college admissions, and it means that if you want to talk about your background, you’ll need to make it matter in a way that tracks story-wise, not just as an identifier or a checkbox.
But in Brooke’s experience, this really isn’t clear-cut, and there are choices to be made. She’s seen two students go to Harvard by writing essays that clearly embrace their culture as South or East Asian students, while another half-Asian student got into two of HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford) by downplaying the Asian half of his identity because it might’ve worked against his best interests. She’s worked with another Asian student who spoke about her race in a mostly white world and got rejected early by Penn but got into MIT.
A recent New York Times article profiled Asian students who were hiding or downplaying their race and ethnicity to increase their chances of admission. And there are several different ways they chose to downplay their background. Some students simply didn’t check the box. Other students hid some of their stereotypically “Asian” activities. For example, one student decided not to talk about her chess talents in her application because she didn’t want to be stereotyped. In addition, some students modified what they wrote in their essays and avoided certain narratives, such as not telling the “Asian immigrant” story about how it was difficult to learn English when they moved to America—which Brooke agrees is on her list of cliché essays, race and ethnicity aside. It’s important that you don’t write a “common” story and instead find something uncommon to help you stand out. Also, Asian students as a group tend to be overrepresented, and therefore, their narratives tend to become “less original” more quickly, which can lead to being penalized more than a student from another background.
You need to make a choice about whether or not you believe that adding your background to your application will help you build your best story or hinder it. The game in admissions is to tell a story that will stand out. So consider: will talking about your race do that?
When deciding whether to include your race and background, ask yourself why your race matters, how your race or experiences related to it make you a better fit for the college, and how your experiences have informed who you are and help you bring diversity to others. If that information doesn’t serve the story or narrative you’re telling or doesn’t help you because it’s a valued “diversity” card, it might not be in your best interest to include it on your application.
There is a flip side to this: if you’re from an underrepresented minority, it’s going to become very important that you do talk about your race and diversity when you have the opportunity. If colleges start to use these kinds of “race-blind” narratives as a replacement for actual race, you will need to leverage your experiences to best compete in the admissions landscape. In these competitive school environments, there are too many qualified candidates who have high GPAs, and colleges are becoming more test-optional. Your story is all you have to cut through the noise right now, and therefore, it’s going to matter the most. And part of your story is diversity, no matter where you’re from.
If you can find your inner awesome, put it on paper, and share it with the world, there is an undeniability to the human spirit no matter what background you’re from or what race you are. We don’t want to live in a world where we have to hide who we are; we want to live in a world where we celebrate who we are. And we think that your story, narrative, or essay is the magic key we have that can encapsulate who we are in a way that creates meaning and significance and can ultimately pierce through the unfortunate battle that is numbers, fairness, quotas, and policies that we can’t control.
All we can do is respond, react, and make choices. There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to the question of whether or not to put race on your college application, and we hope that this blog has helped you at least understand some of those components and given you guys questions to think about when trying to make that decision.