The college essay may become more important after the Supreme Court’s decision, and a place where students can highlight their racial or ethnic backgrounds — but with a big caution sign from the court.
In the decision striking down affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
However, the chief justice also took a shot across the bow at anyone who might be thinking that the essay could be used as a surreptitious means of racial selection.
“Despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” he wrote, underscoring, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”
Some education officials had already strategized on how to use the essay. In a recent presentation sponsored by the American Council on Education, Shannon Gundy, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, said students should tailor their admissions essays to describe how race had affected their lives.
“Right now, students write about their soccer practice; they write about their grandmother dying,” she said. “They don’t write about their trials and tribulations. They don’t write about the challenges they’ve had to experience.”
Starting in the fall, colleges may begin using essay questions to gather information about a student’s background, even if they are worried about running afoul of the ruling, Ms. Gundy said in an email.
“We’ll have to work together to develop useful essay prompts, educate counselors and students about how best to approach the college essay, and provide information to colleges that may be reluctant (or even risk averse) about how to craft questions that are more meaningful,” she said.
Stephanie Saul is a national education reporter based in New York. @stefsaul
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