Here’s how local colleges changed their applications after the SCOTUS affirmative action ruling

Schools

Now barred from asking applicants their race, colleges are still allowed to ask how race shaped students’ lives. They are modifying their applications accordingly.

Students sit on a green, tree-covered lawn flanked by red brick buildings.
Harvard Yard is pictured in 2020. Harvard is among the local colleges and universities that modified their applications for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle in response to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision. TONY LUONG

When the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in June that Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill’s race-conscious college admissions practices were unconstitutional, it effectively barred colleges and universities across the country from considering an applicant’s race during the admissions process. Critics of the decision on and off the bench reacted with alarm, arguing it would drastically reduce enrollment of Black and Hispanic students, especially at highly selective institutions. Universities were left scrambling for legal ways to continue admitting diverse, representative classes.

Crucially, the decision left the door open for an applicant to write about “how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise” in their application, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

Now, many Massachusetts colleges are modifying their applications to allow students to do just that.

Aug. 1 saw the launch of the 2023-2024 Common Application, which more than a million students use each year to apply to up to 20 colleges at a time. Many schools, including highly selective institutions with big applicant pools, ask students to write one or more supplemental, school-specific essays to accompany their Common App submissions. This year, some schools have modified their supplemental essay prompts to give students the opportunity to talk about how race has shaped their lives.

Here’s how some local schools modified their applications this season. 

Harvard

For the upcoming application season, Harvard replaced an optional, open-ended supplemental essay with five short, required questions. The first of these questions is:

  • “Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”

The other questions ask applicants to reflect on experiences that shaped them and how they would use a Harvard education. All five questions previously appeared on Harvard’s application as possible prompts for the optional essay.

Harvard’s application redesign is meant “to provide every student the opportunity to reflect on and share how their life experiences and academic and extracurricular activities shaped them, how they will engage with others at Harvard, and their aspirations for the future,” a Harvard College spokesperson told Boston.com.  

After the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action at Harvard, university officials — including outgoing president Larry Bacow and incoming president Claudine Gay — wrote a message to the community stressing Harvard’s ongoing commitment to building a diverse student body. 

“To prepare leaders for a complex world, Harvard must admit and educate a student body whose members reflect, and have lived, multiple facets of human experience,” the officials wrote. “In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst added a brand-new application question this year that university spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said was informed by this summer’s affirmative action ruling. Applicants will now answer, in 100 words or less, a question about belonging to a community:

  • “At UMass Amherst, no two students are alike. Our communities and groups often define us and shape our individual worlds. Community can refer to various aspects, including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more. Please choose one of your communities or groups and describe its significance. Explain how, as a product of this community or group, you would enrich our campus.”

“We believe the responses by students to this new prompt can certainly broaden the scope of information we have as it relates to the holistic review process that UMass Amherst has been using very effectively in admissions for about the past 10 years,” Blaguszewski told Boston.com.

Babson

Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. also added a new essay question to this year’s application:

  • “A defining element of the Babson experience is learning and thriving in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives and interests. Please share something about your background, lived experiences, or viewpoint(s) that speaks to how you will contribute to and learn from Babson’s collaborative community.”

The new question is a direct response to the Supreme Court decision, Babson spokesperson Kathyrn Bancerski explained. 

“In moving to a competency-based application review process in our individualized holistic review of applicants, we seek to identify qualities in applicants that serve the institutional mission at Babson College,” Balcerski said. “The college’s mission, vision and core values are central to the identification of core competencies that applicants should reflect in connection with our admission decisions.”

Boston College

Boston College applicants must answer one of four possible essay prompts, including this new option:

  • “In her November 2019 Ted Talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi warned viewers against assigning people a ‘single story’ through assumptions about their nationality, appearance, or background.  Discuss a time when someone defined you by a single story. What challenges did this present and how did you overcome them?”

Boston College did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the SCOTUS decision informed the addition.

Boston University

This year, Boston University is offering applicants two options to choose from for its supplemental essay, instead of just one, a BU spokesperson confirmed. The second option is very similar to last year’s essay question, and the first is new. The new supplemental essay prompt draws from the university’s founding principles, which emphasize community and diversity:

  • “Boston University is dedicated to our founding principles: ‘that higher education should be accessible to all, and that research, scholarship, artistic creation, and professional practice should be conducted in the service of the wider community — local and international. These principles endure in the University’s insistence on the value of diversity in its tradition and standards of excellence and its dynamic engagement with the City of Boston and the world.’ With this mission in mind, please respond to one of the following two questions in 300 words or less:
    1. Reflect on a social or community issue that deeply resonates with you. Why is it important to you, and how have you been involved in addressing or raising awareness about it?
    2. What about being a student at BU most excites you? How do you hope to contribute to our campus community?”

Originally posted 2023-08-16 13:09:01.


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