Schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, and many public universities ask their applicants questions about diversity. While this question is most common in graduate school applications, it does come up in undergraduate admissions. Yale requests that applicants for a supplementary scholarship respond to this prompt:
“A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”
The Common Application also provides students with the opportunity to talk about some aspects of diversity in the first and fifth prompts.
What Does Diversity Mean?
Many students are baffled about what to write about themselves concerning diversity. Contributing to a school’s “diversity” doesn’t simply refer to the fact that you are a member of a racial or cultural minority. Diversity includes anything about a person’s background that will make his or her perspectives and skills unique. A person’s diverse skills and perspectives are from his or her geography, gender, socio-economic status, race, spiritual beliefs, family background and experiences, special skills and talents, etc.
For example, you might be a strong debater because you grew up in a family of eight, where everyone gave their opinion about a news article over dinner. Or, you might wake up at dawn to start reading and exercising, because you were raised on a farm where the work day started at sunrise. Colleges want a diverse student body so that students can learn about life from each other, as well as from their professors.
Why Do Colleges Ask About Diversity?
Colleges want students to be teachers as well as students. In college, students learn not only from books and professors, but from each other. However, if everyone is exactly the same, what can they learn from each other? So a diverse student body made up of different races, family backgrounds, and beliefs brings a wider viewpoint and perspective and helps in the educational process. Colleges also want students to learn to accept new ideas. A diverse student body does that. The new idea you learn could be something very simple, like your roommate may prefer to eat with chopsticks, has her own pair, and teaches you how to hold them correctly. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.”
What is a Common Mistake in Diversity Essays?
Common mistakes: The college you are applying to will already know your racial and socio-economic demographics through their application form. This means when they ask you to write about diversity in the essay, they are not simply trying to determine your race or ethnic background. In addition, don’t make the mistake of writing something along the lines of “I am diverse.” One person is not diverse on his or her own.
Questions about diversity are looking to determine how your skills and talents make you just the right puzzle piece to fit into the jigsaw puzzle made up of all students on a campus.
Also, students will sometimes think they have nothing to say about diversity because they are not a member of a minority. You might think, “I’m white, what can I write in a diversity essay?” The answer is: A lot! A thousand experiences from your past and dreams for your future make you different from your best friend and from someone you’ve never met. Your essay on diversity should show the college how you will bring your unique point of view to the classroom and campus. What has your grandmother taught you? What book has affected you? Is there a person you try to emulate? Depending on the exact essay question, your essay could also discuss a time when you learned something from someone with a very different background.
A sample diversity essay:
Below is a good example of a college admissions essay about diversity, written by an Essay Coaching student in 2005. Since then, the author has been admitted to his top choices for both undergraduate and professional education, both of which are ranked in the top 10 by US News and World Report.
Why is this a good example of a diversity essay? Read the essay, and read the explanation underneath.
People see me as tall and black, but I am more than that: I am a lawyer in the making. As a 6 foot 5, 220 pound black man, I walk through the crowded corridors of Northern High School drawing looks from nearly everyone. Often people stop to ask me, “Are you on the basketball team?”
To most I simply answer “No.” However, when it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them, “No, but I play lacrosse.” On the rare occasion that a Northern basketball player asks me, I answer yet another way. Anticipating a chance to join in an after-school pick-up game, I tell them that I don’t play basketball—but I’m good.
My tall white friends have told me they are rarely asked about their involvement in sports and it is mostly black people who ask me these questions. I have come to the conclusion that everyone looks at me from the outside in, looking at my height, my race, even my size 16 feet to determine what they think of me.
I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.
I will bring to your university the same qualities I see in my role models: drive, determination, and a logical mind.
Why is this a strong diversity essay?
This is a strong diversity essay NOT because this essay discusses the author’s racial minority status. Rather, this is a strong essay because it:
- Gives the reader a memorable, distinct image of the writer (for example, size 16 feet)
- Reveals the writer’s self-insight (“To most I simply answer “no”… I have come to the conclusion that…)
- Shows his tolerance of others’ views (“When it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them “no, but I play lacrosse”.)
- Provides a great deal of impressive detail about his goals and interests in a compact, compelling way. Although he the writer is talking about ideas, he relates them to his physical self and his activities, so the reader can “see” and remember his ideas more easily. “I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.”
Are You Looking for a College That Emphasizes Diversity?
The literature from many colleges emphasizes increasing diversity on their campuses, and many schools, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky, have entire departments dedicated to diversity. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.” Frank Bruni argues here that diverse demographics are not the entire solution. Bruni admires colleges with programs that encourage a diverse student body to interact:
“Davidson is coaxing campus organizations and even using off-campus trips to orchestrate conversations between white and black students, between religious students and atheists, between budding Democrats and nascent Republicans. By prioritizing these kinds of exchanges, the school sends the message that they matter every bit as much as the warmth and validation of a posse of like-minded people. At Denison University, near Columbus, Ohio, there are special funds available to campus groups that stage events with other, dissimilar groups. Adam Weinberg, the college’s president, told me that he’d attended a Seder at which Jewish students played host to international students from China.”
Read more how to answer the about the diversity question for a college application essay here.
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Graduate programs are always looking for students with distinct backgrounds to help diversify their classes, so being a minority, immigrant, or another underrepresented demographic could be just what you need to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicant pool. Many schools include a question on their application asking you how you will contribute to the diversity of their class (sometimes this is framed as a “diversity statement,” sometimes as a “personal history statement” or other type of essay – the key thing is, they want to know about YOU: what makes you unique, what your values are, what obstacles you may have had to overcome to get where you are today).
When you write your essay, make sure that you highlight the experiences that have shaped you and the strengths you can bring to the school due to your diverse background and lifestyle.
Some of these unique strengths or experiences may include:
One aspect of your diverse background is overcoming obstacles. Are you a member of an underrepresented group? A first generation student? Have you overcome socioeconomic (or other) barriers to education? When mentioning your diversity factor, be sure to highlight any difficulties that you went through as a result of being the odd (wo)man out. This is not an attempt to rally sympathy or plea for pity. Instead, you should illustrate the strengths and skills you have developed as a result of these struggles. Accentuate any character traits that you feel you have built through the adversity and use examples of skills that you currently possess because of these trials.
Displaying cultural breadth
Demonstrate to the admissions committee that you hold a unique set of ideas thanks to your heritage, and elaborate on how these diverse concepts and beliefs can benefit the student body by broadening perspectives and widening tolerance and scope.
Demonstrating varied skill sets
Naturally, various cultures will highlight different values. This is important to a school admissions committee because diverse values will facilitate diverse skills and strengths. Maybe your culture is very family-oriented, focusing on respect, communication, and partnership. These are all critical skills that a graduate student will need for success. Perhaps your culture emphasizes teamwork, perseverance, and mutual understanding. Once again, these are key factors for a productive career in business, education, law, medicine, and many others. Your goal should be to highlight how your unique cultural values have developed these invaluable skills within you, already preparing you to be the best student and professional possible. Maybe one aspect of your identity is bound up in the language(s) that you speak – do those same languages also give you the tools to cross cultural boundaries and work with people around the globe?
Sharing new perspectives
Even if you are a male, Caucasian, third-generation American, you can still illustrate your diversity in other areas. If you have served in the military, traveled to a remote area of the world, taken part in an outstanding event, group, or cause, or had an unusual experience of any sort, play up the distinct impressions, opinions, and perspectives that the involvement cultivated within you. Then, show the admissions committee how you can bring this fresh perspective to the campus for greater diversity in thought across the campus.
Looking for more guidance on how to hone in on your strengths and uniqueness to illustrate to the adcom why you are an ideal candidate for their school? Get your free copy of From Example to Exemplary: How to Use Sample Essays to Make Your Essay Outstanding for more advice on writing an out-of-this-world essay that will get you ACCEPTED.
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