If you’re in the process of completing college applications, there’s a good chance that at least one of your schools requires you to submit a diversity essay. If you’re not sure of what I mean by the term “diversity essay” or what a prompt like this might look like, consider the following examples.
First, we have the University of Michigan. This application cycle, U of M requires all applicants to respond to this prompt:
Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
This is a diversity essay prompt because it asks the student to reflect on one or more of their identities and the larger communities that identity makes them a part of.
This next prompt from University of Colorado Boulder uses similar language:
At the University of Colorado Boulder, no two Buffs are alike. We value difference and support equity and inclusion of all students and their many intersecting identities. Pick one of your unique identities and describe its significance.
Check out this last one from the University of Washington:
Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the UW.
You can see how similar this prompt sounds to the first two. However, UW adds an extra element; instead of just describing their identity/ies and background, the student is asked how these things might contribute to a culture of diversity at UW.
When I completed my college applications 10,000 years (JK, more like almost a decade) ago, I don’t remember there being the same degree of focus on diversity and inclusion as there is today. The proliferation of prompts like the ones above shows that American universities - many of which were once elite institutions that only accepted a narrow range of scholars - are beginning to lean into the importance of inclusivity and respect - even celebration! - of students from diverse backgrounds. This shift can only be a good thing, especially for members of marginalized communities, some of whom are being included in the college conversation for the very first time.
So if the diversity essay requirement signals to the applicant that the university values students of varying identities, what is the diversity essay supposed to show the school’s admissions committee? Well, any application essay’s most obvious goal is to help the admissions officers get more information about a student than just what appears in other materials, like transcripts and lists of extracurriculars. This specific kind of application essay, however, is also meant to encourage the student to thoughtfully reflect on their own identity/ies. A well-written diversity essay shows the admissions committee that the writer is not only self-aware enough to describe their background with specificity and clarity but also has the maturity to understand how that background has affected the way they experience the world.
If you’re a high schooler reading this and feeling out of your depth, I understand. I have a much deeper awareness of my background and evolving identities as an adult than I ever had at your age (my diversity essay would have been trash!). It’s okay if you haven’t really thought that much about the ways the communities you belong to help make you who you are. However, to write a good diversity essay, start with some self-reflection.
Where to Start
Long before you begin writing the first paragraph, you first need to understand the prompt’s language. When a university asks you to write about your identity, community, or background, these are the kinds of things they want you to consider:
Your family’s socioeconomic status
Your cultural group(s)
Your gender identity
Your sexual orientation
Your home country, state, or town
Your neighborhood/the area you live in
Your workplace (if applicable)
Your interests (especially ones you might think are “weird”)
Clubs, organizations, or programs you’re actively involved in
The length of this list might have left you a little overwhelmed. How are you supposed to write about all these elements in one tiny essay?! Well the good news is that no university expects you to address ALL of these. Not only would that be a ton of work, but it would also end up far above the maximum word count. In fact, instead of trying to tackle even a few of these elements of your identity, I would encourage you to limit your discussion to just one or two aspects, depending on the essay’s length. This will ensure that your essay has a tight, specific focus, and it also lets you go deeper into one or two areas instead of shallowly skimming over a bunch of different ones.
Once you’ve decided which element(s) of your identity to write about, consider these prompts for reflection and expansion:
What makes this identity or community unique? This might seem like a tough question at first. The groups we belong to are so familiar to us that they just seem “normal” - not unique at all! However, there’s a reason you’re not just considering yourself as having an identity of homo sapiens or being a member of the human race. It’s because your identity or group IS unique and different, so think hard about the elements that define it. For example, maybe you grew up in a really small town. How does the town’s size affect the relationships its residents share? What impact does it have on the kinds of businesses/gathering places that are common? In a town so small, what do people do for work? For fun?
What are some examples of the ways you express your unique identity? Now that you’ve thought about what makes your identity or community unique, think about the ways you show the world your identity or community membership. How would a stranger know these things about you? For example, maybe you’re Roman Catholic, and you and all your siblings have volunteered as altar servers. Perhaps you participate in charitable activities because they align with your faith’s values. How do you show the world this aspect of who you are?
How does your identity or community influence your goals for the future? (This might be one you really haven’t thought about yet, but that’s okay. Now is a great time to start!) An obvious example of an answer to this question might be something like this: if you’ve been really involved in the technology and entrepreneurship clubs at your school, then you’re probably interested in creating or joining a tech startup during or after college. Another answer might be that you grew up in an area where most of your neighbors were senior citizens. You became friends with a lot of older people and came to understand that they can be as much fun as the kids your age. Because of this, you’re passionate about programs that bring young and old people together or that give senior citizens greater access to the things they need. Maybe there are things you can do during or after college that support these kinds of programs.
Thoughtfully considering the questions above should leave you with a lot of great ideas. Your job is then to decide which ideas to include and which to leave out and how you can organize your final thoughts most effectively. As with any essay, make sure you give yourself enough time before the deadline to write multiple drafts and carefully proofread until you’re 100% happy with the finished product.
If you’d like some extra, one-on-one professional help with college admissions essays like this one (or any other part of the application process!), check out ThinquePrep’s college counseling services. Our knowledgeable counselor-tutors are here to help you find the best colleges for you and craft applications you can be proud of.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
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