Sept. 26, 2019
I am writing my supplemental essays and I have three different schools asking me to talk about how I'll contribute diversity to the campus. I am a white male with a very average background. How am I expected to answer this?
"Diversity," in the college admissions universe, seems to have emerged as a stand-in for "non-white." Essay topics like this one appear to be saying, "We're trying to figure out if we can count you as a student of color." And if an applicant is indeed non-white, it's pretty easy to comply. Gay, transgender, and non-binary teenagers these days can usually tackle that "diversity" essay topic without much of challenge, too, as well as those who grew up outside the US, even if Caucasian. It's mostly the folks like you, who view themselves as white and unexceptional, who wrestle with this prompt.
Yet, when "The Dean" worked at Smith College, I constantly insisted that I could interview five blonde girls from Connecticut named Emma, all on the same day, and no two were remotely alike. One would be an avid pro-life champion while the other was stumping for pro-choice. One was an artist who sculpted endangered animals out of hairpins while another was researching the effects of tire pressure on atrial fibrillation. "Isn't that diversity?" I would ask. "Does it always have to be about skin color or sexual orientation?"
So ask yourself what you do that's different. Do you have any interests or hobbies that set you apart from your peers? Do you play underwater football (yes, that's really a thing) or the didgeridoo? Check out this old College Confidential thread on "Hidden Extracurriculars" for inspiration.
How about your family? I read a poll once that claimed that a large percentage of teens believe that their family isn't "normal." A parent may be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse; a sibling has special needs; Aunt Esther lives upstairs. Sometimes, too, families are atypical in less noticeable ways ... perhaps you go on annual camping trips with 23 first cousins or celebrate every Flag Day at a beach clean-up. Dig deep and consider what separates you from your friends. (Really, is there any adolescent alive who never once thinks, "I'm weird"?) And this could provide your essay topic.
But once you've detailed the differences in your own life in your essay, it's fine to use a paragraph at the end to point out that one reason you're applying to ___________ college is that you want to expand your horizons. You can explain — if it's true — that your community and school are mostly white and US-born; perhaps the LBGTQIA students in your high school aren't often comfortable coming out. So you're now eager to study in an environment that is more representative of the world at large. Although admission committees may be disappointed when they learn that they can't add you to their multicultural rosters, at least they'll be reassured that you will be comfortable when you encounter others from unfamiliar backgrounds on campus and that you will embrace the mosaic that your classmates create, even if you're only a blip on its border. ;-)
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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