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Without affirmative action, how should students approach the college applications process?

The College App opened the application season Tuesday, the first one since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June striking down affirmative action.

By Mara Klecker | August 4, 2023, at 1:55PM

For high school seniors and their families, August marks the official beginning of college application season. The Common App opened up Tuesday, allowing applicants to apply to undergraduate programs at more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

This is the first application season since the U.S. Supreme Court in June effectively ended affirmative action policies by restricting colleges’ ability to consider race in their admissions decisions.

The Star Tribune spoke to Minnesota college officials and admissions experts to find out what has changed and how students should approach this year’s application season.

What has changed on the Common App this year?

Common App member colleges have the option to hide self-disclosed race and ethnicity data on the application. Common App will continue to use this information for statistical and research purposes, according to a company spokeswoman.

Another change this year: The addition of “X or another legal sex” as an option in addition to “female” and “male.” This change follows last year’s addition of a question giving applicants the option to share their preferred first name and pronouns.

What about the essay prompts?

The Common App’s essay prompts remain unchanged and still include an option to write about a “background, identity, interest, or talent.” Nationally, some individual colleges and universities did tweak or update their supplemental essay prompts in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Carleton College in Northfield hasn’t changed its essay questions from previous years. One of them asks applicants to describe how they would “contribute to a sense of belonging at Carleton,” and links to the college’s plan for inclusion, diversity and equity.

One of Macalester College’s two optional essay questions describes the campus as a “learning environment that affirms different identities and experiences and prepares graduates to work toward a more just and peaceful world.” The essay question prompts students to write about how their “experiences, perspectives, or hopes for your college education” connect to the college’s mission.

The application for the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus asks prospective students to answer two short answer questions that “help our admissions staff better understand a student’s experiences in context of their high school academic record.” The wording of those questions didn’t change this year, but one that was previously optional is now required for all applicants.

Should applicants discuss their race in essays?

Essays are the best way to tell admissions counselors more about an applicant’s background, ideas and qualities, experts say. And they may be more important than ever as colleges change admissions processes.

Still, the general advice for essay topics remains largely unchanged after the Supreme Court ruling, said Christopher Rim, CEO of Command Education, a college admissions consultancy: Students should choose a topic unique to them.

“If you are talking about your race or an experience, talk about how that has changed you, what you learned from it, how you grew or what inspired you,” Rim said. “This goes for any topic — don’t just talk about it for the sake of talking about it.”

Students should write about overcoming challenges, said Scott Del Rossi, college and career vice president with College Possible, a St. Paul-based nonprofit aimed at making college admission and success possible for students from low-income backgrounds.

“You can talk about challenges that may be affected by race without saying, ‘All of this is happening because of my race,’ ” said Del Rossi. He added that the organization plans to revamp its curriculum this year to better aid students in picking compelling and effective essay topics.

In a statement, the U said undergraduate students are still being encouraged to “share their life experiences and stories about how they have worked through challenges, excelled in aspects of their lives, and completed their previous course work successfully.”

What else should students be thinking about this application season?

Del Rossi said students of color shouldn’t be discouraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling or dissuaded from applying to highly-selective colleges. He wants them to know how to best tell their own story and find a college with resources to support them once they are there, and advises students to do that research before they start applying.


Originally published on StarTribune on August 4, 2023

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