First, let’s understand the diversity question in a school application, and more significantly, what is the value when applying to leading programs and universities?
A diversity essay is an essay that inspires applicants with minority backgrounds, unique experiences, special education, or bizarre family histories to write about how these factors will contribute to the diversity of their target school’s class and community.
Several schools have a supplemental essay prompt that requires students to speculate on their experiences and show how those experiences would enable them to add to the diversity of a college community.
For example, let’s look at Duke’s optional* diversity prompt:
(Optional) Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better-perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250-word limit)
*While this prompt is optional, our team would not recommend you to treat this prompt as optional —it’s a huge opportunity to help yourself stand out from other candidates.
The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech's community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
So, the question is, why do universities ask variations of this question? At the risk of repeating the above, universities appreciate a diverse student body for several reasons.
One reason is the notion that a solid education includes encountering values, faiths, and perspectives that are different from your own (Caltech makes this fairly straightforward in its prompt mentioned above).
Many academic fields, from marketing to history to medicine, are day by day realizing how diversity empowers creativity and understanding. The diversity essay is also another opportunity to show how you and a college fit together.
One general is what exactly schools mean by “diversity.” While it can indicate things like religion, faith, ethnicity, or sexuality, those can be solid topics to write about, and diversity is limited.
Open your mind, and then think—what perspective will you bring to college, particularly one that others cannot?
If you are an immigrant to the U.S. or born to immigrants or someone whose ethnicity is a minority in the U.S., you may find your answer to this question crucial to your application effort. Why? Because you can use it to prove how your background will add to the mix of viewpoints at the program you are applying to.
Of course, if you’re not an under-represented minority and don’t fall into one of those categories, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to write about.
If you are applying to a school and have an unusual or unique experience to share, like serving in the military, becoming part of a dance troupe, or caring for a disabled relative, use your knowledge to convey how you will bring diverse school’s campus.
You could be the first member of your family to apply to college; you could have struggle your way through college, worked hard in poverty, or raised your siblings.
Diversity is not limited to one’s religion, culture, language, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It’s an element of your identity that distinguishes you from others.
Going further, let’s talk about some
- Think about how this helps the admission committee to understand more about who you are.
- Think about several ways you’re distinct from other people.
In numerous ways, you can approach diversity essays like you do “community” prompts.
To save some time and effort, consider writing a combined essay that can be used for prompts that think community and focus on diversity.
Try to think in terms of identity and perspective (which often align with communities).
- As I mentioned earlier, don’t assume that “difference” only applies to culture or social class.
There are numerous ways to define “difference.”
- At all costs, avoid privilege clichés.
A common essay on diversity is like this: The writer watches a person on a street or bus, or train. They see the person, whose skin is of a different color than theirs, wears torn clothes or worn-out shoes. The writer expresses a feeling of disgrace and gratitude for their privileged position. They either help the person somehow and feel good, but also bad, or just neglect the person and feel bad or don’t feel anything. These kinds of stories have several problems:
Help readers see how these factors of diversity have shaped your values and insights.
Let’s look at two simple approaches for how you can write your diversity essay:
Step 1: Prepare a “communities” chart by posting all communities you’re a part of. Remember that communities can be defined by ...
Step 2: Once you’ve picked a community, use the following exercise to develop your essay content.
Don’t skip that step. It’s significant: it’s easy for students to write just so-so community essays if they don’t take the time to brainstorm specific content.
Step 3: Pick a structure (Narrative or montage).
Narrative Structure works fine for students who have faced a challenge in this community. Otherwise, you can use Montage Structure.
If you choose Narrative, you have to focus on answering the following three-question Structure:
Go with the Montage Structure if you want to approach essays that don’t necessarily focus on a particular challenge.
List out diverse ways in which you identify. Again, think with an open mind. Here an open mind approach is much needed. For example, "I'm a ... writer, rock lover, Indian, dancer, feminist, etc." Try to name as many identities as you think you are.
Then, in short, describe how these identities reveal different versions of you.
Is there an identity you haven’t spoken about so far in your application that's very important to you, or maybe one you've had a hard time with? If so, what have you found stimulating about it?
Regarding perspective: Talk about some unique experiences that have shaped you. For example, have your values clash with your family’s in complicated ways? Have you been raised differently? What has molded how you see the world and your role in it? (Remember that this can lead to excellent essays, but is a little harder, as “perspective” is a more abstract thing than “identity” or “community.”)
Again, Montage or Narrative Structure can work here.
Option for both approaches: As your prompt and its word count, think about adding some “Why us?” elements to the end of your diversity essay—even if the prompt doesn’t ask you to.
How you’ll contribute to the diversity on campus? Are there groups or communities that allow you to continue what you’ve already done? Or are you planning to start an organization? Express to your reader that you have got an idea about how you want to engage with the school community.
Let’s look at an example that takes the “community” approach:
When I joined the Durham Youth Commission, a group of students chosen to represent youth interests within local government, I met Miles. Miles told me his cousin’s body had been stuffed into the trunk of a car after he was killed by a gang. After that, my notion of normal would never be the same.
A melting pot of ideologies, skins, socio-economic classes, faiths, and educations, the DYC is a unique collaborative enterprise. Each member adds to our community’s network of stories, that weave, bump, and diverge in unexpected ways. Miles talked about his cousin’s broken body, Witnessa educated us about “food deserts,” supervisor Evelyn Scott explained that girls get ten-day school suspensions for simply stepping on another student’s sneakers, and I shared how my family’s blending of Jewish tradition and Chinese culture bridges disparate worlds. As a person who was born in Tokyo, lived in London and grew up in the South, I realize difference doesn’t have to be an obstacle to understanding. My ability to listen empathetically helped us envision multifaceted solutions to issues facing 21st-century youth.
My experience in this space of affirmation and engagement has made me a more thoughtful person and listener. I want to continue this effort and be the woman who both expands perspectives and takes action after hearing people’s stories. Reconciling disparate lifestyles and backgrounds in the Commission has prepared me to become a compassionate leader, eager to both expand perspectives and take collaborative action.
We get to see how the writer has explored various perspectives, making space for others to share, and tried to establish understanding by offering her own. The insights she gives are quick but effective, and she transitions perfectly into concentrating on how diversity has shaped her, and how she wants to continue engaging and participating in the future.
This one focuses more on perspective:
Is Josh ok
My whole family sits around the living room on a lazy Sunday afternoon when we suddenly hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Everyone stops. My dad peers out the window, trying to get a glimpse of the highway. My mom gets up and goes to the phone. After a few stressful rings, the person on the other line answers. My mom bursts out, “Is Josh ok?”
Great hook! We’re engaged by the questions this essay raises. Is Josh ok? Who is this Josh? Why are there is a lot of sirens?
Josh is my fourteen-year-old cousin, and he lives less than a mile from my house. Whenever we hear sirens, my mom will give their house a call or shoot my aunt a text, just in case. Josh was born with a syndrome that affected the formation of the bones of his head and face. As a result, his hearing, vision, breathing, and some of his brain structures are compromised. He’s unable to do athletics, his tracheostomy always provides a possibility of disaster, and an unwieldy head brace used to grace his head.
Here the writer gives context by describing who Josh is. He also defines “difference” with a few particular details.
Living so close to Josh, we have had the opportunity to interact daily. We go on vacations together, I drive Josh to school twice a week, at every holiday we either go down to their house or they come up to my family’s house, we play wiffle ball in the yard behind their house. One of my favorite activities is board games with him—Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, we play it all. Last Christmas, there were endless laughs when prompted by our fathers’ nostalgia, we constructed a slot car track and raced those miniature cars around tight turns and short straightaways. This game was perfect for Josh, as he could stay in a comfortable seat and still experience the speed and excitement that he is usually barred from.
In this section, the writer shows us how close he is to Josh, and the final sentence shows his sympathy and feeling.
It goes without saying that Josh has not had an easy childhood. He has had to fight for his life in the hospital when his peers were learning how to multiply and divide in school or playing capture the flag on the beach. A large portion of his childhood has been arbitrarily taken from him. That is most obviously unfair.
At our high school, I see Josh every day walking from the second period to the third period, and every day I say hello and have a small conversation with him. One day I was walking with a few of my friends when I stopped to talk with him. During the conversation, I made a little joke at Josh’s expense. It wasn’t at all relating to his disability, but to something completely independent of that—specifically, his Instagram habits. My friends were horrified and chastised me as they saw it appropriate.
He’s setting up for the end and also raised a question: Why did he make the joke at Josh’s expense?
My friends didn’t understand. He is not some extremely delicate dandelion who falls apart at every breath that causes a slightly adverse situation. Everywhere he goes, he’s the most popular guy in the room; people flock to him, surround him, pity him, overwhelm him. All Josh wants is to be treated like any other person. He is my cousin, and he is my friend, so I treat him as such. We joke we make fun of each other, just as any other two friends do.
Insight! The writer treats Josh as he would treat any of his friends—like a normal human being.
Josh has proved to me that people with disabilities are exactly that—people. As if that needed proving. But it’s something that is too easily forgotten. It’s hard to see anything except the handicap. A person’s wheelchair or white cane inevitably trumps any other characteristic. It’s a natural human reaction, but it too often leads to the dehumanizing of disabled people. One of my favorite people on Earth has lived a life of disability. And he plays a mean game of Monopoly.
In the end, he connects the dots and provides a bit more understanding: Treating people differently because of their disability can be degrading.
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