Addressing Diversity in Common Application Personal Essays

5 Tips for an Admissions Essay Addressing Diversity

​The Common Application includes five options for essay questions. Before 2013, Question 5 dealt with diversity. The questions were revised in 2013 and there is no longer one with a specific focus on diversity, although elements of it are applicable to themes in the current Common Application essay questions.

The following tips can be useful when addressing diversity in any personal essay question. There are pitfalls that you want to avoid. The question asked was:

"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."

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Diversity Isn't Just About Race

Santa Clara University - Students at a Game
Santa Clara University - Students at a Game. Photo Credit: Santa Clara University

The prompt for this question explicitly states that you should define diversity in broad terms. It isn't just about skin color. Colleges want to enroll students who have a diverse range of interests, beliefs, and experiences. Many college applicants quickly shy away from this option because they don't think they bring diversity to a campus. Not true. Even a white male from the suburbs has values and life experiences that are uniquely his own.

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Understand Why Colleges Want "Diversity"

This is an opportunity to explain what interesting qualities you'll bring to the campus community. There are check boxes on the application that address your race, so that isn't the point here. Most colleges believe that the best learning environment includes students who bring new ideas, new perspectives, new passions and new talents to the school. A bunch of like-minded clones has very little to teach each other, and they will grow little from their interactions. As you think about this question, ask yourself, "What will I add to the campus? Why will the college be a better place when I'm in attendance?"

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Be Careful Describing Third-World Encounters

College admissions counselors sometimes call it "that Haiti essay"—an essay about a visit to a third-world country. Invariably, the writer discusses shocking encounters with poverty, a new awareness of the privileges he or she has, and greater sensitivity to the inequality and diversity of the planet. This type of essay can too easily become generic and predictable. This doesn't mean you can't write about a Habitat for Humanity trip to a third-world country, but you want to be careful to avoid clichés. Also, make sure your statements reflect well upon you. A claim like "I never knew so many people lived with so little" can make you sound naive.

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Be Careful Describing Racial Encounters

Racial difference is actually an excellent topic for an admissions essay, but you need to handle the topic carefully. As you describe that Japanese, Native American, African American, or Caucasian friend or acquaintance, you want to make sure your language doesn't inadvertently create racial stereotypes. Avoid writing an essay in which you simultaneously praise a friend's different perspective while using stereotyping or even racist language.

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Keep Much of the Focus on You

As with all the personal essay options, this is asking about you. What diversity you will bring to campus, or what ideas about diversity you will bring? Always keep in mind the primary purpose of the essay. Colleges want to get to know the students who will become part of the campus community. If your entire essay describes life in Indonesia, you've failed to do this. If your essay is all about your favorite friend from Korea, you have also failed. Whether you describe your own contribution to campus diversity, or if you talk about an encounter with diversity, the essay needs to reveal your character, values, and personality. The college is enrolling you, not the diverse people you've encountered.