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Speak Your Truth: Sharing Your Identity in College Essays

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Sara Calvert Kubrom

Written by Sara Calvert-Kubromon September 21st, 2023

My passion for higher education and working with students began as a resident assistant, admissions overnight host, and study abroad enthusiast as an undergraduate student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Working with high school and college students has been at the core of my professional experiences ever since. My first few years out of college included serving as an AmeriCorps member, working in public health, and teaching yoga. I later worked for the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Boston College and subsequently served as a lead administrator of a freshman study abroad program at Northeastern University in collaboration with their admissions team. While at Northeastern, I worked with faculty, deans, students, and parents in a wide-array of academic disciplines in several countries. It was exciting to provide robust academic and cultural experiences for students all over the world as they started college before returning to Boston to pursue the rest of their degree. I most recently served as an admissions officer at my alma mater, where I recruited students of diverse academic interests primarily from the East coast, California, and Arizona, and worked with applicants from all over the United States and the world. While at Lewis & Clark I worked with deposited students taking a gap year, coordinated the college’s release of admissions decisions, served as an athletics liaison working with athletic coaches and recruits, helped oversee visit and student-interviewer programs, and managed and trained new admissions counselors.
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by Sara Calvert-Kubrom, former admissions officer at Lewis & Clark College Since the June 2023 Supreme Court decision that colleges and universities can no longer practice race-conscious admission, our team of expert college admissions consultants has been busy fielding questions from families as they navigate this new reality. I’ve had several students nervously ask me if they are allowed to disclose racial identity in essays. Others wonder why some colleges are asking about diversity or background in supplemental essay prompts if they’re supposed to be practicing race-neutral admissions. Many students in turn worry they don’t have anything interesting to write about in response to these prompts. These questions and concerns are all understandable. Whenever I talk about the role of essays in college admissions, I start with these basic concepts that are unchanged with the SCOTUS ruling: The first priority of admissions officers is to determine academic readiness by evaluating academic rigor, grades, and other qualitative and quantitative indicators. The second priority is to be community builders. Admissions officers are inviting students to not only take classes, but to live in the residence halls, share meals in the dining halls, join organizations, partake in dynamic conversations embracing diverse perspectives, and more. College application essays are a unique space for the admissions officers to envision applicants as active members of their communities, as the essays are a place where students can pop out of the computer screen as a holistic person. Although the SCOTUS ruling halted the use of simplistic race and ethnicity check boxes on college applications, it still allows for the exploration of experiences, including the impacts of personal identity (e.g. ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and geography) in applications. Although the SCOTUS decision changed what college admission offices can and cannot do, it doesn’t require students to censor any part of their identity in their applications. As I often tell my students, college essays are a space to “speak your truth” and invite the reader to understand who they are. As a teenager, my “truth” was rooted in feminism and the realities of being the oldest child raised by a young widow. For my husband, it was the realities of being raised by refugees from Eritrea and code switching as he traversed his home and school cultures. For countless students I’ve worked with, their truths have entailed layers of identity: gender, nationality, health conditions, learning disabilities, mental health challenges, substantial life challenges, family education background, political views, and much more. For others, more subtle yet equally important layers of their lives have been central in their formation: being a twin, having a passion for cooking or a love of cultural dance, or enjoying robust engagement in a specific community. There are limitless experiences that impact students’ lives and development that surface in the college admissions process. The Cultural Competence Learning Institute has a helpful Diversity Wheel that can help students explore and reflect on nuanced layers of their identity and experiences as they research colleges and prepare to write college essays. Once students start working on applications, there are several places identity may come forward in their materials:
  • Most college essays, including the main Common Application essay and University of California Personal Insight Questions, invite broad reflection on experiences which can be linked to student identity.
  • Some colleges invite students to share more through supplemental essays specific to their applications. Many colleges changed these essays this year to signal their institutional values and assess student readiness to engage with difference in college. Inside Higher Ed has a helpful article with examples of these prompts.
  • Many applications have an additional information section where students can share any important context about their experiences. Although I encourage students to be concise (this isn’t an extra essay!), and to avoid being redundant with information provided elsewhere, this can be a fantastic area to utilize if a student wants to share important elements of who they are without having to use the main essay for this purpose.
  • Activities lists might feature identity-based clubs, organizations, and initiatives.
Should your student disclose nuances of their identity in their college application? Frankly, it depends, but I encourage students to find colleges where they feel safe and empowered to speak their truth in their college applications. Many education professionals are concerned that, with the absence of check boxes to communicate that an applicant is part of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, the SCOTUS ruling will pressure students to disclose personal traumas and stories they might not otherwise share. Although I absolutely share some of this concern, I think it is important to keep in mind that students who navigate life obstacles have been making decisions about what to disclose in college applications well before this ruling. Many states, including California, have been practicing race-neutral admission since the 1990s, while countless successful applicants have continued writing essays about their identity. With that said, I also want to assure students that their college essay is a chance to share what is important and authentic, but there is also no pressure to share something that they are not ready to share with a committee of strangers. When making these important decisions, it can be helpful to lean on resources like school counselors and college admissions officers, and ask questions to make informed decisions for each student as they walk their unique path in life.

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