More About How to Answer the Challenging Diversity Question

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Schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, and many public universities ask their applicants questions about diversity. While this question is most common in graduate school applications, it does come up in undergraduate admissions. Yale requests that applicants for a supplementary scholarship respond to this prompt:

“A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”

The Common Application also provides students with the opportunity to talk about some aspects of diversity in the first and fifth prompts.

What Does Diversity Mean?

Many students are baffled about what to write about themselves concerning diversity.  Contributing to a school’s “diversity” doesn’t simply refer to the fact that you are a member of a racial or cultural minority. Diversity includes anything about a person’s background that will make his or her perspectives and skills unique. A person’s diverse skills and perspectives are from his or her geography, gender, socio-economic status, race, spiritual beliefs, family background and experiences, special skills and talents, etc.

For example, you might be a strong debater because you grew up in a family of eight, where everyone gave their opinion about a news article over dinner. Or, you might wake up at dawn to start reading and exercising, because you were raised on a farm where the work day started at sunrise. Colleges want a diverse student body so that students can learn about life from each other, as well as from their professors.

Why Do Colleges Ask About Diversity?

Colleges want students to be teachers as well as students. In college, students learn not only from books and professors, but from each other.  However, if everyone is exactly the same, what can they learn from each other?  So a diverse student body made up of different races, family backgrounds, and beliefs brings a wider viewpoint and perspective and helps in the educational process. Colleges also want students to learn to accept new ideas. A diverse student body does that.  The new idea you learn could be something very simple, like your roommate may prefer to eat with chopsticks,  has her own pair, and teaches you how to hold them correctly.  Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.”

What is a Common Mistake in Diversity Essays?

Common mistakes: The college you are applying to will already know your racial and socio-economic demographics through their application form. This means when they ask you to write about diversity in the essay, they are not simply trying to determine your race or ethnic background. In addition, don’t make the mistake of writing something along the lines of “I am diverse.” One person is not diverse on his or her own.

Questions about diversity are looking to determine how your skills and talents make you just the right puzzle piece to fit into the jigsaw puzzle made up of all students on a campus.

Also, students will sometimes think they have nothing to say about diversity because they are not a member of a minority. You might think, “I’m white, what can I write in a diversity essay?” The answer is: A lot!  A thousand experiences from your past and dreams for your future make you different from your best friend and from someone you’ve never met.  Your essay on diversity should show the college how you will bring your unique point of view to the classroom and campus.  What has your grandmother taught you? What book has affected you?  Is there a person you try to emulate?  Depending on the exact essay question, your essay could also discuss a time when you learned something from someone with a very different background.

A sample diversity essay:

Below is a good example of a college admissions essay about diversity, written by an Essay Coaching student in 2005.  Since then, the author has been admitted to his top choices for both undergraduate and professional education, both of which are ranked in the top 10 by US News and World Report.

Why is this a good example of a diversity essay?  Read the essay, and read the explanation underneath.

People see me as tall and black, but I am more than that: I am a lawyer in the making. As a 6 foot 5, 220 pound black man, I walk through the crowded corridors of Northern High School drawing looks from nearly everyone. Often people stop to ask me, “Are you on the basketball team?”

To most I simply answer “No.” However, when it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them, “No, but I play lacrosse.” On the rare occasion that a Northern basketball player asks me, I answer yet another way. Anticipating a chance to join in an after-school pick-up game, I tell them that I don’t play basketball—but I’m good.

My tall white friends have told me they are rarely asked about their involvement in sports and it is mostly black people who ask me these questions. I have come to the conclusion that everyone looks at me from the outside in, looking at my height, my race, even my size 16 feet to determine what they think of me.

I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.

I will bring to your university the same qualities I see in my role models: drive, determination, and a logical mind.

Why is this a strong diversity essay?

This is a strong diversity essay NOT because this essay discusses the author’s racial minority status. Rather, this is a strong essay because it:

  • Gives the reader a memorable, distinct image of the writer (for example, size 16 feet)
  • Reveals the writer’s self-insight (“To most I simply answer “no”… I have come to the conclusion that…)
  • Shows his tolerance of others’ views (“When it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them “no, but I play lacrosse”.)
  • Provides a great deal of impressive detail about his goals and interests in a compact, compelling way.  Although he the writer is talking about ideas, he relates them to his physical self and his activities, so the reader can “see” and remember his ideas more easily.   “I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.”

Are You Looking for a College That Emphasizes Diversity?

The literature from many colleges emphasizes increasing diversity on their campuses, and many schools, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky, have entire departments dedicated to diversity. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.”  Frank Bruni argues here that diverse demographics are not the entire solution. Bruni admires colleges with programs that encourage a diverse student body to interact:

“Davidson is coaxing campus organizations and even using off-campus trips to orchestrate conversations between white and black students, between religious students and atheists, between budding Democrats and nascent Republicans. By prioritizing these kinds of exchanges, the school sends the message that they matter every bit as much as the warmth and validation of a posse of like-minded people. At Denison University, near Columbus, Ohio, there are special funds available to campus groups that stage events with other, dissimilar groups. Adam Weinberg, the college’s president, told me that he’d attended a Seder at which Jewish students played host to international students from China.”

Read more how to answer the about the diversity question for a college application essay here.

Need more assistance with writing your story or your college application essay? No one was born knowing how to write, let alone write an application essay. Write debbie@essaycoaching.com. We educate and motivate. You create.

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