How we’re adapting to the new college admissions landscape

Aug 25 2023

How we’re adapting to the new college admissions landscape

“Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.”
-Harvard supplemental essay question 2023-2024

For several years now, people predicted that the United States Supreme Court would overturn past decisions on affirmative action in college admissions. So when the Students for Fair Admissions versus Harvard/ Students for Fair Admission versus North Carolina decision came down on June 29, some people were disappointed and some were relieved, but very few, if any, people were surprised.

As someone who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s when affirmative action started, is the son of an attorney who argued cases, albeit on other topics, in front of the Supreme Court, and has worked with college-bound students in diverse independent schools for over thirty years, I was both personally and professionally interested in these cases.

Fortunately for Keystone students, College Counselor Sara Christiansen had closely watched the news over the past few years and had prepared for this eventuality. More than that, though, she had been strategizing on ways to support our Cobras in this new reality.

She said: “As a college counselor, I am committed to sharing the most current information on college admission practices with our Keystone families. Like many in our field, I anticipated this decision, and started having conversations over a year ago with admissions colleagues on how this will change the admissions process as we know it.”

Interestingly, the decision was not as sweeping as people assumed it would be. For example, the decision does not apply to the military academies.

In addition, in his written opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise … A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination … Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

As you may imagine, some colleges have already begun to alter their supplemental essay prompts in light of this legal opinion. For example, you can read Harvard’s new optional question above. Similarly, Wesleyan University in Middleton, CT, offers these questions for students to answer.

Option 1

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Option 2

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Duke University asks students to “Feel free to tell us any ways in which you’re different and how that has affected you,” while Dartmouth College encourages applicants to “Let your life speak. Describe the environment in which you were raised and the impact it has had.”

As you can see, colleges have devised questions that allow applicants to share their identity while seemingly following the dictates of the decision. However, the Supreme Court did provide the following caveat to colleges and universities.

“Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Regardless of how people may feel about the decision, it seems to allow students to discuss their ethnic or racial identity if they wish but it must be contextualized.

At Keystone, students write a first draft of their college essay during the summer between junior and senior year. Once they return to school in August, seniors work with their English teachers and Ms. Christiansen to revise their essays so they reflect each student’s personality and abilities. Students rewrite and rewrite until they feel good about the essay. Having had the chance to read some Keystone student college essays in the past, I can attest to their beauty, fluency, and honesty.
Some students may choose to share components of their identity and others may opt not to do so. Ultimately, it is their essay, so they decide what to discuss.

It should come as no surprise that their essays are so well-written. We hear from alumni again and again how Keystone’s English and writing programs teach students to express themselves in writing starting at an early age and continuing through middle and high school.

As Ms. Christiansen explained, “ Last week, I gathered with the senior class for our annual application kick-off where we talked about the SCOTUS decision and what changes students will see as they submit applications this fall. Over the next few weeks, I will meet with each senior to discuss their college list, essays, and an application plan. In these meetings, I help students understand what information they are allowed to include about their personal story and encourage them to be good storytellers.”

While we may not know exactly how the Supreme Court decision will affect our Cobras, we can rest assured that they will receive excellent college counseling from Ms. Christiansen and they will produce outstanding essays that tell their story and inform college admissions officers about their strengths, accomplishments and amazing potential to do even more.

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