Affirmative Action and US Applications

Posted on 15th January 2024

On 29 June 2023, the Supreme Court ended the longstanding practice  of affirmative action, which gave positive consideration to race in a student’s university application. However, students are still able to describe within their applications how race has had an impact on their lives. How did applications this cycle—the first after the decision—look different to those before it?

1. Changes to Common Application (and other portals). While students can still complete demographic information including race and ethnicity in the Common Application (the main US applications portal) and other portals, colleges will be able to hide this information from their admissions departments when they download applications. 

2. Diversity on college campus.  One of the main ways in which the ruling is likely to affect college campuses is that it may impact the way selective colleges are able to admit students from minority backgrounds, particularly Black and Hispanic students. In states that have previously outlawed affirmative action, like California in 1996 and Michigan in 2006, the percentage of Black students enrolled in flagship public colleges dropped by 43% and 50%, respectively, and has never fully recovered.

3. Changes to college essays. The caveats to the ruling about race impacting students’ experiences have opened up the possibility for the admissions essay to become a space where students can discuss the impact that race has had on their lives. It also opens up an opportunity for students to reflect on the importance of diversity within the college community. A number of US colleges made changes to their college essays with this in mind, including  Harvard and  Emory. Sarah Lawrence College has taken the most provocative approach, inviting applicants to write about how the Supreme Court ruling will affect their educational goals.

Following the shift in essay topics, the most common new prompts across colleges seem to be those about background and life experiences, and communities to which students belong. For some students, these questions are a good space for them to open up about how their race has affected their life experience, perspectives, and goals. Other students whose heritage is less of a shaping factor in their lives can use these questions as a way to share personal experiences: they might write about how being the oldest sibling in a large family has shaped their personality, or how taking part in a youth parliament connects them to both a community of like-minded young people and to the wider local community.

4. Changes to activities lists. The affirmative action decision has had some perhaps unexpected effects on how applications are assessed. For instance, Lafayette College will only consider the top six extracurricular activities within the Common Application. The argument is that a full laundry list of extracurriculars favours well-resourced applicants, whereas lower-income students may have care or work responsibilities that prevent them from taking part in traditional extracurriculars. When listing activities, top-loading the Activities List with the most meaningful extracurricular activities is a good rule of thumb. It’s also worth bearing in mind that activities like caring for a sibling or older relative, working in a paid job, or taking part in cultural activities like attending religious services are just as valid as more traditional extracurriculars like sports, music, and drama.

5. Considering additional factors in admission. To retain their diversity, colleges may need to utilise other factors within the admissions process that overlap with racial diversity, such as socio-economic status, and offer greater financial aid incentives to low-income students. 

Another potential solution that has already been pioneered in the California State university system is, rather than assessing students based on their race, using an ‘adversity index’ to look at how many challenges a student has had to overcome. You can read more about Cal State’s Educational Opportunity Program here.  

6. End of legacy admissions?  A desire to make admissions more equitable is also behind recent calls for the end of legacy admission, a practice in which favour is given to applicants whose family members attended the university. A number of colleges have ended this practice in recent years, including Johns Hopkins, Amherst, and Carnegie Mellon. In late 2023, Wesleyan University ended the practice and Virginia Tech prohibited not only legacy admissions but Early Decision, which is seen by some to favour more privileged applicants, as they can commit to an institution without needing to compare financial aid offers. University of Virginia also issued a statement on limiting legacy as a factor in admissions. 

7. Questioning Early Decision.   The Early Decision application plan, which allows students to apply in November and receive their decision from the university in December, has also come under scrutiny. Some argue that Early Decision often favours privileged applicants because they are able to afford to make the commitment to an institution without comparing financial aid offers. To redress this imbalance, Wake Forest University (recognising that half of its previous incoming class were admitted through Early Decision) has introduced of a new non-binding Early Action option for first-generation students only. This policy is the first of its kind at highly selective institutions. The policy has the potential to have a significant impact on the next cohort, and other colleges may follow suit.

Working with international applicants, we see that diversity is often one of the most important factors that our students are looking for from the university experience. The above changes seem to work to keep diversity flourishing on university campuses, and keeping changes to essays and activities lists in mind will help students make successful applications. For further advice on the overall US application process, you can book a free call with one of UES’s founders here:   

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