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What the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision Means for College Essays

What the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision Means for College Essays

You’ve seen the term “affirmative action” swirling around your social media feeds over the past few weeks. But do you know what it means and how (or if) it affects your college applications?

As college admissions experts, we’ll break down the essential details of the recent Supreme Court decision, its influence on admissions policies, and what it means for your applications.

Supreme Court Ruling Overturns Affirmative Action Precedent: Here’s What You Need to Know; What the Court’s Decision Means For College Admissions; So…Should You Write About Your Race in Your College Essay?; What To Do Now
Supreme Court Ruling Overturns Affirmative Action Precedent: Here’s What You Need to Know; What the Court’s Decision Means For College Admissions; So…Should You Write About Your Race in Your College Essay?; What To Do Now

Supreme Court Ruling Overturns Affirmative Action: Here’s What You Need to Know

Affirmative action in college admissions describes the effort to increase racial diversity in student populations at American universities by considering race as a factor in admissions decisions. It was initially discussed at Harvard in 1968 as a response to the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The dean of admissions announced what might be considered one of the earliest affirmative action programs which sought to increase the enrollment of Black students, a population that had been disadvantaged by admissions practices at Harvard College.

A 1978 Supreme Court case (Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke) affirmed that while racial quotas were unconstitutional, “the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances.”

TLDR: The Supreme Court deemed it constitutional for race to be considered as one of multiple factors in making decisions for the purpose of ensuring fair admissions for populations that were underrepresented due to documented discrimination. 

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that precedent with the ruling that race-conscious admissions programs, like the ones that were in place at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, are unconstitutional. In the cases Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, it was decided that the use of racial preferences in admissions violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. writing for the majority and Justice Sonia Sotomayor offering a dissent.

What the Court’s Decision Means For College Admissions

Chief Justice Roberts explained “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.”

So if you feel that experiences related to your race had a significant role in shaping your character and your readiness for college, your essay could be a place for you to share that AND demonstrate other strong character traits that prove your potential to succeed.

It’s also important to note that since race won’t be a consideration in admissions decisions (at least as a standalone factor), other factors will have more weight. This is especially true at selective higher education institutions around the country; Leaders and admissions officers at the Ivy League of fellows of Harvard are already reinforcing the importance of their holistic admissions processes.

In a message to the university community about the Supreme Court’s ruling on the UNC and Harvard cases, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote that their “holistic review of applicants…will continue to evaluate each student as a whole and individual person, and in the context of their life experiences.”

We already knew that a strong personal score – the score determined by application materials outside of your grades and test scores like essays, activities lists, recommendation letters, and interviews – can increase your admissions chances by 10x. This is especially relevant after the Court’s enforcement of race-neutral admissions policies because colleges will turn to your essays to understand your life experiences and what you’ll bring to their campuses! 

High school seniors: we’ve been telling you that the goal of the college application is to prove you’ll be successful in college and beyond by demonstrating the 5 Traits Colleges Look For:

  • Drive
  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Contribution
  • Initiative
  • Diversity of Experiences

On the recent happenings in Washington D.C., Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, “University leaders should use this moment as an opportunity to…focus even more attention on understanding…an applicant’s overall capacity to learn, lead and improve society.”  He also reinforced the university’s goal to “graduate people who will be engaged, sensitive citizens.” 

Those qualities he’s looking for sound an awful lot like intellectual curiosity (“capacity to learn”), contribution and drive (“lead”), initiative (“improve society”), and diversity of experiences (which ensures that college campuses are full of “engaged, sensitive citizens”)!

In the face of race-based affirmative action being overturned, it’s more important than ever for you to share the experiences and growth opportunities that make you, you and show your potential for future success since admissions readers can’t use race as a factor in making an admissions decision. 

Now…how do you do that? Given that we’re college essay experts, you can probably guess what our answer will be, but you don’t have to take our word for it.

In California, race-conscious admissions programs have been banned in public universities since 1996, so we can look there to understand the role of essays in the absence of affirmative action. 

The University of California, Davis Law website states "Our process allows for a personal statement that may discuss…factors, including academic promise, background information…growth, maturity and commitment…[and] other factors relating to diversity."

What this tells us: even where colleges can’t factor a student’s race into their admissions decision, they’re able to consider their diversity of experiences and how that speaks to their potential for college success!  

So…Should You Write About Your Race in Your College Essay?

Nothing in the court’s decision prohibits you from writing about your race or universities from considering it. But that also doesn’t mean that every applicant, or all students of color, should write about their race. 

Similar to how we advise students considering topics related to any aspect of their identity (be that race, ethnicity, gender identity, or otherwise), we suggest keeping in mind the 5 Traits Colleges Look For.

Then, ask yourself: Does writing about your race give you access to experiences from your own life (not the history or experience of a larger racial group) that demonstrate one or more of those traits?

If your answer is yes, here’s what we encourage you to think about next:

Focus on your actions 

While your life circumstances may provide helpful context for your personal growth, colleges will find details about what you did more useful than information about what happened to you in determining your potential for future success. You might mention difficult life circumstances in your essay, but the focus should be on what you did in response to and as a result of your situation.

Too many students assume that colleges will be able to make inferences about their growth and achievements just based on information about the circumstances they faced. In reality, colleges want specific examples of what you did to overcome those challenging obstacles.

Consider whether you’re ready to engage deeply with your experiences

Many students already feel that they need to write about their most traumatic experiences in their college essays. Now that colleges can’t consider race as a factor in making admissions decisions outside of a student’s self-reported life experience, some students will likely feel an added pressure to share a painful story related to racial discrimination. 

Here’s the thing: the idea that colleges are looking for trauma stories is a myth. Admissions readers want evidence of growth, and not all students are ready to reflect on the potential-proving aspects of their experiences – This is OK!! If you don’t feel comfortable exploring a difficult experience, that probably means it’s not the best choice of a college essay topic.

Our essay philosophy is based around choosing experiences that demonstrate your strongest character traits. If a trait is truly your strongest, that means that you’ve inevitably used it in many different situations, so you should have plenty of material to work with! (Read on for some resources to help you identify this material)

Show, don’t tell

If you do choose to write about an experience related to your race in your college essay, the key is to show the reader evidence of your growth rather than just telling them about it. 

Beware general reflections that aren’t supported by evidence! Topics about experiences related to a student’s race might provide opportunities for reflecting on concepts like resilience, change-making and cultural pride (among many others). These themes can be compelling in a college essay, but only if you can point to specific examples of what you did to demonstrate resilience, make changes, engage with your culture, etc. The reader will be looking for concrete evidence of your actions, impacts, and the ways in which you think and act differently as a result of the experiences you had.

What To Do Now

Now that you understand the affirmative action  decision and its role in college admissions, here’s how we encourage you to proceed:

Use our brainstorming modules to determine which of the 5 Traits Colleges Look For best describes you and your experiences. 

By signing up for a (free!) Prompt account, you’ll gain access to our simple brainstorming module that will reveal your strongest traits and related experiences in under an hour.

Once you’ve taken our straightforward quizzes, you can circle back to the question of whether to write about race in your college essay. If you’re considering writing about an experience related to your racial identity, ask yourself whether it will help you to demonstrate the strong trait(s) you just identified. 

Before we go:

If you’re feeling discouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision about affirmative action policies, take a moment to acknowledge that your emotional reaction is valid! Then, use our process to take advantage of the admissions-boosting application components that are in your control.

Cassandra Cloutier
Cassandra Cloutier is a NY-based actor, writer, and educator. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 2019 with a BFA in acting, and her acting credits include Evil Lives Here on Discovery+ and productions at The Actor’s Temple and Shakespeare NYC. She worked as a Writing Coordinator and the Social Media Manager for Prompt for several years and until August 2023.