Since The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in June 2023 that colleges can no longer admit students on the on the basis of race, a number of selective colleges have added new essay prompts to their 2023-2024 first-year applications to inspire applicants to write about how their backgrounds – inclusive of race – have and/or will continue to inform their behaviors, perspectives, and priorities.
What is not yet clear is how such essays will be assessed by colleges’ application review committees.
If keeping within the letter and spirit of The Supreme Court majority opinion, application review committees will not give applicants’ essays a higher or lower number of points based on the background or backgrounds applicants choose to write about in their essays.
Yet, if an essay demonstrates certain personal attributes such as grit, perseverance, fortitude, superficiality, immaturity, or poor writing skills – all of which can be demonstrated by applicants of all backgrounds – such attributes can be cause to give applicants’ essays a higher or lower number of points.
The key, of course, will be for review committees not to assign certain attributes on the basis of race, but on the basis of reality, as in what the details included in the application demonstrate about the real character and disposition of an individual applicant. Any such attribute considered can’t simply be a proxy for race.
Enter Wake Forest University, which introduced test-optional admissions into its application process fifteen years ago. At the time, Martha Allman, then director of admissions at Wake Forest, said, “By making the SAT and ACT optional, we hope to broaden the applicant pool and increase access at Wake Forest for groups of students who are currently underrepresented at selective universities.”
On June 29, 2023 the day when The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that race can’t be a factor in admissions decisions, Wake Forest University’s President Susan R. Wente wrote, “We write to affirm that Wake Forest University will not waver in its commitment to creating and sustaining inclusive, diverse learning communities; our mission and values have not and will not change. We will continue to recruit and enroll academically qualified students of diverse backgrounds who seek an intellectual home at Wake Forest where they belong and thrive, and in compliance with the Court’s ruling.”
Just a couple weeks later, Wake revealed its 2023-2024 supplemental short response/essay prompts for first-year applicants, which includes a brand new prompt that guest stars famed American poet Maya Angelou:
Of particular note is the new essay prompt built around a Maya Angelou quote that invites students to explain how their identity or lived experience will help them contribute to the Wake Forest community.
A relatively straight-forward approach many students may take when responding to this prompt will be for them to point to how their expression of their race, religion, or some other identity, experience, or value system will add new dimension or vitality to Wake’s campus; yet, by doing so, this has the potential (in cases where race is the focus of students’ responses) to come perilously close to students making an argument for Wake to do something Wake as an institution can no longer legally do – namely to admit someone on the basis of race.
In response to this prompt, I would encourage students write about attributes they’ve demonstrated that are not race-based, such as persistence, patience, and positivity so that they can be judged on these non-race dependent metrics. This doesn’t mean they can’t focus on these metrics or attributes in the context of discussing their race; race simply shouldn’t be the attribute at the center of students’ responses.
I wish Wake Forest admissions officers good luck with adhering to the law and internal directives when assessing these essay responses as part of their holistic review process, and I hope Wake reveals to the public how responses to this essay prompt will be assessed.
In related news, last week the university has announced a new exclusive Early Action admissions option “specifically for first-generation students to provide an additional pathway of opportunity.” To learn more click here.