#College Essays and Applications

In recent years, many colleges and universities have expanded their supplemental college essay prompts to include topics about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This shift has increased dramatically in the past year, so read on to learn more about some of these prompts and how to prepare for your essays effectively and authentically.

What is the purpose of the DEI essay?

The increase in DEI essays shows that colleges want to know about students’ values and social awareness more than ever. They are looking for applicants who have bettered their communities in some way and who will bring those same contributions to their campus. Not only that, but they want to know about your personal identity; who are you and where do you come from? How do your values fit with their philosophy and how will you contribute to positive change on campus?

Giving students an additional space to discuss their identity and engagement gives admissions officers a more complete picture of an applicant. It also gives students more room to showcase various aspects of themselves without being limited to the personal statement or supplements that have a different focus. However, that is not to say you can’t talk about DEI in a non-DEI prompt! Just be mindful of whether a school has a dedicated space for this information so you’re not repeating the same content in multiple essays.

What questions might I be asked to answer?

DEI essays vary widely in scope and may cover topics such as social activism, identity, and cultural awareness. Some of the newly added prompts include: 

Brown: Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?

Emory: Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.

Lehigh: What would you want to be different in your own country or community to respond to issues of inequality, inequity, or injustice?

Princeton: At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future? AND Princeton has a longstanding commitment to service and civic engagement. Tell us how your story intersects (or will intersect) with these ideals.

Richmond: Please share one idea for actions or policies that you think would begin to address an issue of racial or social injustice.

St. Olaf: We have a goal to create a community of students from diverse backgrounds with unique ideas, identities, and perspectives. Reflect on an experience that made you reconsider the way you see the world. How did you engage with new and challenging ideas?

Tufts: Where are you on your journey of engaging with or fighting for social justice?

Tulane: Tulane values the lessons gained from pursuing an education alongside a student body that represents a wide range of experiences and perspectives and is reflective of our multicultural world. If you would like to share a perspective related to your family, cultural group, sexual or gender identity, religious group, or some other aspect that has shaped your identity, please do so here.

UNC: Describe an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far? AND/OR If you could change one thing to better your community, what would it be? Why is it important and how would you contribute to this change?

(not a new prompt, but) Duke: Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better–perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background–we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.

How can I prepare to write a DEI essay?

As mentioned earlier, DEI prompts are a way for admissions officers to learn more about students’ identities, values, and engagement in their communities. So, the first step in writing a DEI essay is to reflect on who you are. There may be clear markers of your diverse background, such as race or gender identity, but remember there are many more traits that make you unique. Do you speak another language? What is your family or personal history? What is your community like? How have your life experiences expanded your awareness? And most importantly, how do all of these characteristics impact who you are and how you see the world? And, don’t feel pressured to write about the most obvious “diverse” trait you have. Write about what is most important to you

Once you reflect on what defines your identity, think about your values. What issues are you passionate about and how will you address them? How does your identity impact your positionality in relation to these issues? It’s nice to talk about what you value, but it’s much more significant to show how you have put those values into practice, so consider what you can do to get involved in your community. Community engagement comes in many forms, from volunteering to fundraising to promoting awareness, so choose what you love and thrive doing. At the same time, push yourself to get out of your comfort zone, especially considering that some DEI prompts specifically ask about how you have challenged and exposed yourself to new perspectives. 

How can I prepare to write a DEI essay?

Many students shy away from including their community engagement experience on their college applications, thinking it could hurt their admissions chances. What if the person reading my application does not agree with what I did? 

If a school is directly asking about your values through a DEI essay, you should have nothing to worry about. But whether or not this is the case, it is important to be authentic in your application. As long as you did not engage in any irresponsible activities, you should not be penalized for participating in advocacy, no matter what kind. Admissions officers should put their personal biases aside when evaluating applications, but if it were the case that your actions negatively impacted your admission, then it is worth asking yourself: If this school does not agree with my values, is it really the right fit for me anyway?