#College Essays and Applications

In the summer of 2023, the United States Supreme Court determined that the admissions programs used by the University of North Carolina and Harvard University violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The decision restricts colleges’ ability to consider a student’s race in their applications. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that a student “must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.” 

While college admissions essay prompts tend not to change year to year, this sparked a flurry of changes over the course of the next few weeks, culminating in a new trend: the “identity” prompt. 

With carefully worded language, college admissions offices devised new prompts allowing students to reflect on how their race (along with myriad other factors) could be considered part of their “experiences as an individual.” Below are just three of the many examples of brand-new prompts written for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle—and you will notice striking similarities in the language used:

University of Virginia

What about your individual background, perspective, or experience will serve as a source of strength for you or those around you at UVA?  Feel free to write about any past experience or part of your background that has shaped your perspective and will be a source of strength, including but not limited to those related to your community, upbringing, educational environment, race, gender, or other aspects of your background that are important to you.

Northwestern University

We want to be sure we’re considering your application in the context of your personal experiences: What aspects of your background, your identity, or your school, community, and/or household settings have most shaped how you see yourself engaging in Northwestern’s community, be it academically, extracurricularly, culturally, politically, socially, or otherwise?

University of Miami (Florida)

Located within one of the most dynamic cities in the world, the University of Miami is a distinctive community with a variety of cultures, traditions, histories, languages, and backgrounds. The University of Miami is a values-based and purpose-driven postsecondary institution that embraces diversity and inclusivity in all its forms and strives to create a culture of belonging, where every person feels valued and has an opportunity to contribute. Please describe how your unique experiences, challenges overcome, or skills acquired would contribute to our distinctive University community.

Some students immediately latch onto these prompts, certain that their race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural background needs to be showcased for strategic and personally insightful reasons. Other students see these prompts and feel overwhelmed and lost about where to start. 

Here are some words of wisdom to both groups of students:

Of course I am going to write about _____!

If you are thinking this, remember that dozens, if not, hundreds, if not thousands of other applicants all may be writing about the same topic. That should not discourage you from writing about this topic, nor does it diminish your experience. But you need to ask yourself a difficult question: Am I sharing a shared story from my race/culture/ethnicity, or am I sharing my own personal perspectives and experiences within this shared story?

We would argue whether you are writing about your race, family dynamic, favorite tradition—or, for that matter, your academic interests or an extracurricular activity that is meaningful to you on other prompts—this question is always essential. Are you writing about “the thing” or using “the thing” as a portal to illuminate yourself? If there are 100 other essays from students who wrote about having the same race/culture/ethnicity, what will distinguish yours from the pack? How will we have connected personally with you in such a way that makes us feel like we got to know you as an individual? 

What the heck am I going to write about?!

We got this question from many students, many parents on behalf of their students…and even many colleagues and other educators on behalf of their students! We understand this question, of course, but we are proud to say that not once did we feel students were incapable of finding at least one angle or facet of their identity to showcase authentically and meaningfully for these prompts. 

It takes time. It takes self-reflection. But for many students, the key to unlocking ideas came from the phrase “experience.” All of us are a collection of our experiences. We all have our own stories and journeys. Leaning into this idea and reflecting on what experiences have shaped values, perspectives, influences, and dreams led to many truly personal, beautiful, authentic essays. 

You may be an avid bird watcher. Maybe you or a loved one has gone through a debilitating illness. Maybe your family has a shared ritual whenever you are in the car together. From the seemingly trivial to the deeply serious, any experience that has profoundly shaped you as a student can be used to answer these prompts. Celebrate yourself!