Kendra Wilmer, a rising high school senior, had planned to write her college entrance essay about her struggles as a Black student in a predominantly white school. But on this mid-August morning, she wasn’t so sure.
She questioned whether mentioning race in her essay would disadvantage her. “Is it worth it to write it at this point?” asked Wilmer, who attends Oakland Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.
That day, she went to a workshop to learn how to perfect her essay. It was organized by the Crossroads Foundation, a nonprofit that provides college readiness programming to students of color and those of low-income backgrounds. Crossroads marketed the annual event differently this year, emphasizing to families that the essay may now carry heightened importance in students’ applications, said Executive Director Esther Mellinger Stief.
The reason? In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities can no longer consider an applicant’s race in the admissions process, a practice sometimes referred to as “affirmative action” which supporters say leveled the playing field for students of color but critics say provided unfair advantages. Students are still allowed, however, to discuss the impacts of their race in their essays, so long as universities consider their stories only as reflections of their ability or character.
Universities across the country are trying to understand what the ruling means for them. Most accept the majority of applicants, meaning that more selective universities will likely feel its impact and see a drop in enrolled students of color, according to observers of higher education. Many institutions don’t require essays, either, and others don’t factor them significantly into admissions decisions.
Still, the essay is a window for students to tell selective colleges who they are, and what their strengths are. Without explicit considerations of race in applications, it could now be the means for students of marginalized backgrounds to express the systemic disadvantages they’ve faced. Some students of color, though, would rather not focus their essays on that topic.
“For many of our scholars, they don’t want to be deficit-based. They don’t want to be writing, ‘This horrible thing happened to me, or all of these things were a struggle.’ They want to be able to be proud of who they are and come at it from a strength-based perspective,” Mellinger Stief said. “I worry about it suddenly becoming a competition of ‘Who has the hardest story to tell?’”
Wilmer was one of about 15 high school seniors who showed up to the workshop at Crossroads. She said she’s interested in studying marketing or mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, among others. That university accepted about 60% of applicants in the 2021-2022 academic year and had considered race in the process.
What does this mean for the admissions process?
In Pittsburgh, at least three universities said they considered race in admissions prior to the ruling: the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University. Chatham, Point Park and La Roche universities said they do not consider race, and information was not publicly available for Carlow and Robert Morris universities.
Pitt and CMU declined to make admissions officials available for interviews about the ways they’re responding to the ruling and did not respond to written questions for comment.
Duquesne spokesperson Gabriel Welsch said the ruling will not impact the institution that much. The university, which accepts about 88% of applicants, has for years considered “the entire person” and their qualities that may foster academic success, he said. He pointed to the university’s membership in the Coalition for College, a group of 150 institutions seeking to improve access to higher education, as one effort to attract diverse students.
“We will continue our approach and believe that our efforts to attract and retain a diverse community of students have been working,” Welsch said. White students made up 80% of the university’s undergraduate student body in fall 2022.
The high schoolers at the Crossroads workshop, most of whom were students of color, got a glimpse into how universities are navigating this new terrain. Fabian Cotten, who previously worked at Crossroads, is now an admissions counselor for Pittsburgh at the Pennsylvania State University. Standing in front of a Google Slides presentation, he told the class that some universities will make greater efforts to attract diverse students through recruitment to offset new restrictions on admissions policies.
He said that Penn State and other universities are now ramping up direct marketing through emails and social media; strengthening and forming relationships with community-based organizations like Crossroads; and simplifying the application process. Penn State, for example, helps students complete the required Self-Reported Academic Record, a process Cotten said can otherwise take up to an hour.
And though universities can no longer consider race in applications, Cotten said there are other identifiers that could help in recruiting, such as residential ZIP codes and first-generation status. Penn State, like other universities, also purchases student names and information from the College Board, which can include their ethnicity. With that data, the university can “see what you’re interested in, and then we can send you a bunch of flyers and emails.”
“My office – we’re in Pittsburgh, Downtown – our sole mission is to recruit underrepresented students,” Cotten told the students. “We don’t want to have the same students from Central, Oakland Catholic or predominantly white schools. So we’re also going into inner-city schools as well, Pittsburgh Public.”
He asked the students: “What do you think makes a good applicant? Anybody, just jump in.” The students, quiet that day, offered: Dedication. What they’re involved in. Academics. All are valuable, he said, adding that Penn State seeks students who demonstrate leadership skills, community engagement and authenticity.
He told the students that the last characteristic, authenticity, is an important component of the entrance essay. “It doesn’t have to be something tragic. Just tell your story. The idea is for the reader to know more about you as a person, something that we cannot see on your transcript. That’s just black-and-white. It’s a bunch of numbers.”
Crossroads is encouraging students to narrow their lists of top universities and establish personal connections by visiting campuses, calling admissions counselors and sending thank-you notes. If a university knows a prospective student, admissions staff can advocate for them, Cotten told the class. He recalled that a Crossroads student visited Penn State twice last spring, wrote an essay about his financial situation and earned a full-ride scholarship.
“It was really up to me,” Cotten said. “I know you guys are in Crossroads for a reason. You guys want to be successful. … So, it’s that simple guys, just get to know people.”
For some students, ‘I don’t want my race to be the factor’
Back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two cases filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a multiracial group led by conservative activist Edward Blum. The group sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, arguing that their admissions policies were racially discriminatory and violated the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiffs argued that the universities’ admissions policies discriminated against Asian-American applicants. Opinions on the ruling, however, vary widely among Asian Americans. About half of Asian Americans who’ve heard of affirmative action say the practice is beneficial, according to a June survey from the Pew Research Center, but only 20% of Asian adults believe that colleges should consider race.
Shreya Pant, a senior at North Allegheny Senior High School, performs in marching band and serves on her school’s student council. She plans to study political science and law and is considering Georgetown, George Washington and American universities, all of which reported in recent years that they considered race. Pant, who is Indian, wants to focus her essays on her life experiences – potentially on what she’s learned through travel – and not her race.
“I don’t want my race to be the factor that gets me into college, and if the college is going to base how they choose me off of my race, then that’s not a college I think I’d want to go to,” Pant said. She believes that admissions decisions should be based on merit, adding: “I wish the process was more transparent, like, colleges were more transparent with why they choose kids.”
Pant has received academic support from Pittsburgh Prep, a college preparatory organization that lists Brown, Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins universities among its student acceptances. Terri Koprivnikar, one of Pittsburgh Prep’s college admissions counselors, said she’d recommend that students applying to selective institutions consider focusing supplemental, optional essays on their race, even if they’re white.
“Everyone has been impacted by their race, at some level.”
She said that a lot of the students of color that Pittsburgh Prep works with “are concerned that it’s going to hurt them in the process, not being able to say what minority they identify with. But we said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll put an essay in.’”
Marcia Sturdivant, however, doesn’t think the Supreme Court’s ruling will significantly impact students from marginalized backgrounds. She’s the president and chief executive officer of NEED, a local nonprofit offering preparatory programming with a historic mission of serving Black students.
Even when universities could consider race, they admitted only students of color who were qualified, she said. She believes institutions that care about diversity will continue to accept those who are capable, as long as they feel encouraged to apply.
“We have to make sure that we stay steadfast in helping them understand that they are qualified, that they’re capable, to not let someone define what they see you as,” she said. “We have just superior students here, and we just have to continue to motivate them not to be discouraged.”
A peek into potential essays
After taking a brief recess, the seniors at Crossroads took a look at the seven essay prompts available this year through the Common Application. Wilmer, who had considered writing about her experience at a predominantly white high school, was mulling over two. One would have her discuss a moment that led to personal growth; for the other, she would write about how gratitude has motivated her.
“The fact that people have done something nice and generous for me makes me feel like I can do this for somebody else,” she said about the latter.
The students later read two essays from former, anonymous Crossroads students. In one, the author discussed growing up in a nine-person, four-bedroom household, struggling with financial insecurity, diving into an internship program and falling in love with optometry.
“… although I had to grow up quickly, I am prepared for what is ahead. I am using everything I have experienced to tackle life head on,” the student wrote. They concluded, in bold text, “I am ready for my future.”
Marcus Hart, a senior at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School, sat in the front row. Having a passion for animals, he was planning to apply to several HBCUs to study environmental science and biology. He hadn’t thought too much about what he’d write about in his essay, but he was considering drawing on his background.
That day, he wasn’t feeling deterred.
“Fabian just said it’s supposed to be a peek into your life,” Hart said. “I’m not going to stop myself … especially if it’s a part of me.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.