Exploring the University of Tampa with my loyal assistant.
College application essays can be so awkward. Even if you're an excellent writer when it comes to historical or literary analysis, chances are you have never had to sit down and write about how amazing and unique you are -- and how you deserve a spot at this school more than the 40 people who won't get in if you do.
This awkwardness gets compounded when a "non-diverse" student has to write about their diversity or oppression for a supplemental essay.
One of the most common questions I get from my students who come from over-represented groups is, "How am I supposed to write the diversity essay??!!"
"I'm an Indian girl who likes computer science. There are literally millions of girls just like me."
"I'm a Chinese American with immigrant parents -- but I thought I was supposed to AVOID the immigrant essay!"
Here's the thing.
First of all, there are no bad essay topics. Only bad essays. If you've got an immigrant or immigrant parent essay that you think adds context and depth to your story, TELL IT. Just be sure to do so in a way that is insightful and surprising. There is a LOT to be said about a student who can have the same experience as thousands of other people... but take something greater or more or different from it.
Second, admissions officers know that "diversity" encapsulates more than just skin color and gender identity. The admissions officers I have spoken to on this topic have told me about dozens of unexpected essay topics and strategies that "non-diverse" students have used successfully.
I'll review some of them here, and provide examples.
1. If you can't talk about diversity, you can talk about inclusion.
Just because you don't look or identify a certain way, doesn't mean you can't have been an important ally in your community. It doesn't mean you can't have made your school a safer, more welcoming place for marginalized or disadvantaged students.
Approach this essay by being self-aware of the fact that while you are "oppressed" in some ways because of your identity (a girl who loves robotics; a Muslim student in a Christian community; dyslexic; etc.), you recognize that there are others for whom inclusion has been a daily or lifelong struggle.
This is a great place to talk about volunteer work with immigrant or refugee groups; tutoring or teaching you've done in disadvantaged communities; decisions you've made as a captain, founder, president, or leader to create a more inclusive space; etc.
I'm not going to give an example of this, because I think it's pretty straightforward. But, of course, you can contact me if you need help brainstorming and crafting this essay.
2. If you come from a homogenous culture and have not experience much diversity or thought much about inclusion, you can write about why you'd like to be part of a diverse and inclusive community.
Why haven't you been exposed to diversity?
Why do you want to be part of a community that values and cultivates that?
Oppression/diversity essays are typically pretty short -- I can't think of any schools off the top of my head that ask for more than 250 words. Talking about things you hope to learn and causes or groups you would want to get involved with at this school to bring you up to speed and expose you to new perspectives and ideas will likely take up a lot of the allotted space -- while showing that you've done your research about the school.
Here's an example:
Stomps and frenzied cheers filled the gymnasium. Swaying, screaming bodies completely covered the bleachers as I approached the microphone.
3. Location is a type of diversity.
On the one hand, the person who reads your essay is the same person who reads every application from your school.
On the other, the admissions team is working to build a community rich in experiences, insights, and perspectives.
I've spoken with several admissions officers who all independently told me that some of their favorite diversity essays have been about location.
Maybe being a white boy from a mostly white community doesn't seem overtly or obviously diverse to you.
But where we're from absolutely shapes what we know about the world around us -- and it may even shape our potential academic and professional interests.
Here's an example:
You’d never guess it if you saw me dining among ice sculptures and US Poet Laureates in one of Phillips Exeter’s ivy-covered dining halls…
Another thing that can be very interesting about your location is when you find a passion, resource, or opportunity that is not local to your location. This shows curiosity and determination that drives you to chase an opportunity that does not exist where you live.
4. You are more diverse than you think.
Again, just because other people are more oppressed than you, doesn't mean you experiences are not valid. Doesn't mean your pain isn't worth talking about. Doesn't mean your stories aren't worth sharing.
And, again again, there are tens of thousands of students applying to the same schools as you. Odds are, you are not going to have a one-of-a-kind experience. Girls face sexism. People of color face racism. Religious minorities face religious discrimination.
Your experience is not going to make you unique. Your identity isn't going to make you unique.
Your uniqueness relies entirely on your insights about your identity and lived experience.
Here's an example:
While women make up just over 50% of the population, and I’m not sure my membership in this sex class would constitute diversity per se…
5. Just because you're from an overrepresented ethnic or religious group, doesn't mean you can't engage with your identities more deeply or interestingly than other applicants like you.
You can't control what identities you're born into.
You can control the depth with which you engage with your identities.
Remember: admissions officers don't expect you to have engaged with your identity in a way no one like you ever has before. They understand that many experiences are pretty universal for people in your group, and they try not to hold it against you.
However, you can knock their socks off with your depth and commitment to exploring yourself, your identities, inclusion, or diversity. For example, you may think that your arangetram is boring, because so many girls in your community also did one... but in reality, very few teenagers in the world commit to the intense training and time commitment required to showcase their talent in this way. (In psychology, we call this a representation bias.)
And, again, the fact that others have had the experience means that you can stand out by having the same experience... but getting more or different insights from it.
Here's an example:
Ahh -- Pizza Napoletana! The essence of Italian cooking! Prior to our meal, Giulia, the chef, had explained that the tomatoes must be grown in the volcanic soil of San Marzano sul Sarno, while the dough must be crowned only with D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. She’d shown us her traditional wood-fired oven while her two daughters giggled by her side.
As you can see, there are many ways for "not diverse" and overrepresented applicants to approach the diversity essay.
I hope this helped. If you're still struggling, check out my rates and services and contact me through this form or at PavedWithVerbs at gmail.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.