If high school seniors weren’t stressed enough about the college application process, for many, the Supreme Court made worries worse this summer.
In June, the Supreme Court effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education, finding Harvard’s race-conscious admissions practices unconstitutional — and consequently, adding complexity to the task of applying to college for the next class of high school seniors.
But the decision didn’t ban the consideration of race in university admissions altogether — as long as the applicant discusses how race impacted their life, admissions officers may take their identity into account.
In the Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts ’76 wrote that an applicant’s discussion of how “race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise” can be considered as long as “that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”
The specific exception for “an applicant’s discussion” of their racial identity leaves high school students currently applying to college with an added challenge — to craft an application that meets both the standards of colleges and the Court.
For applicants, the decision presents additional challenges for how to approach college admissions — and could require them to create a new roadmap for the application process.
Arik U. Karim, a senior at A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, who is applying to Harvard, pointed to the uncertainty applicants may experience when weighing the merits of discussing their race in their application.
“The recent decision is probably a bad thing in terms of jeopardizing how many minorities feel going into the college application process, and it’s certainly a stress that no one should ever have to bear,” he added.
Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today, or ACCEPT — a nonprofit focused on racial equity within college admissions — said she has already begun fielding broad-ranging concerns from her students about what the ruling means for their applications.
“What this decision did is it made an opaque process even more nonsensical,” she said.
Karim — like millions of high school seniors across the world — is beginning the college application process amid a sea change in university admissions sparked by the nation’s highest court. But he said that hasn’t stopped him from sharing how race has impacted his life.
Less than two months after the Supreme Court’s decision, Karim noticed a change to Harvard’s application essays: Instead of a longer optional supplemental essay allowing students to write about any topic, the application now requires five short essays, the first of which asks students to describe how their “life experiences” will add to a “diverse student body” at the College.
Karim said he believes the change is “in direct response” to the Court’s ruling on affirmative action, a way to offer students more opportunities to discuss the aspects of their identity that have most influenced their lives.
“This replacement is a good thing, because I think it does a good job in terms of ensuring that the University is in the clear and there’s no ambiguity with whether or not Harvard is following his decision, but it also gives students ample room with 200 words each to talk about their experiences,” he said.
Still, Karim said the extra supplemental essays won’t change the topic of his personal essay — the cover essay that can be sent to every school he applies to through the Common Application.
“I know that my essay is going to be about my own experiences as it relates to my identity and my race,” he said. “It’s very important for me personally to talk about my identity, in spite of the recent decision.”
As an Asian applicant, Karim said he is keenly aware of the debates surrounding whether his race will put him at a disadvantage in the college admissions cycle — but he believes “race is central to who we are.”
“Race doesn’t determine whether or not we get accepted or rejected from college point blank, but it does play a part in explaining the conditions we face — along with our essays,” Karim said. “That’s important.”
“It is part of who I am, and regardless of any consequences — beneficial or negative — to me, that’s certainly a consequence I’m willing to bear,” he added.
But even when applying to colleges that did not adjust their applications, students said existing questions around identity have taken on a new importance.
The University of Texas at Austin, for example, asks students to reflect on the “unique opportunities or challenges” that have influenced their lives.
Eva N. Anderson, a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas, Texas, said she has paid closer attention to that essay prompt and others that ask about her identity in the wake of the decision.
“I think I need to really focus on those essays because I can’t show it in this one area, so I have to highlight things in another way that’s still allowed even with the change in laws,” Anderson said.
Though Anderson doesn’t plan to apply to Harvard, she said she has paid attention to which colleges do not include questions about identity within their application.
“I do think for the ones who don’t have those questions, it’s harder to know what angle to apply from,” Anderson said.
“I am a great student. I am a great leader. But I am also a Black student most importantly, no matter where I go,” she added.
Anderson also said that being part of the first class of college applicants post-affirmative action adds an additional layer of uncertainty.
“I can’t ask anyone else who’s graduated, ‘Hey, what would you do in this circumstance?’” Anderson said. “So it feels like I have to do more and work harder to stand out in my application.”
It’s not just students who are feeling new pressures this application cycle.
Admissions counselors — who have been thrust into a national spotlight following the ruling — have also been forced to confront a rising number of concerns about the new landscape of college applications.
Several said the decision’s greatest impact on applicants will lie not in its actual requirements, but its interpretation by students and schools.
“I worry that [for] students, counselors, colleges that the message will get muddled and become ‘Tell us about your identity and how it’s harmed you,’” Bigham said.
“It’s definitely raised questions for them about the practical thing: ‘Can I say this? Should I say these things? Will it hurt me if I say things? Will it hurt me if I don’t?’’’ she said.
“But then the deeper questions of ‘What do these things signal about the community I might be in?’ — I’ve definitely heard that a lot,” she added.
Emmi Harward, the executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, said she believes any added pressure to discuss race will disproportionately affect applicants of color.
“Do I need to talk about what it’s like to be a young Black man in America? Or can I talk about why I’m interested in studying chemistry? That’s not a burden that white students really have ever had,” Harward said.
Harward added that while activities outside the classroom might relate to an applicant’s racial identity, “a student’s lived experience doesn’t necessarily translate to their extracurricular experiences.”
“A student who has work or family commitments may not have time to be the president of the Black Student Alliance. A student who is a national-level athlete may not be able to be involved in an extracurricular activity that would center racial identity in that way,” she said.
Still, high school guidance counselors are far from reaching a consensus on the impact of this burden and the extent to which the fall of affirmative action has added to it.
Ashley L. Bennett, who serves as director of community culture at ACCEPT and director of college counseling at the Emma Willard School in New York, said applicants were already inclined to explain how their racial identity shaped their life.
“I wouldn’t consider a student discussing their identity their burden to bear,” Bennett said. “For many students, they lead with that because it’s such an essential part of who they are.”
Bennett pointed to the first personal essay option in the Common Application, which asks applicants to write about their background, identity, interests, or talents.
“For me, if I’m being asked to discuss that, my Blackness, my womanliness, my being a Southerner — all of those things that are so central to my identity, they’ll probably come up first,” Bennett added. “That’s not me feeling like I have to do this in order to be competitive, but you asked me about me and those things are really important to me.”
According to admissions expert Akil Bello, the Supreme Court decision has just reframed how students and counselors view the application process.
“I think what it changes is the feeling of certainty that counselors, consultants, families had in the past, which was never actually valid or true or certain in any real way,” Bello said.
Bello said many now feel as if “there’s more ambiguity in the process now, because you thought XYZ was going to give you an advantage — now you’re not sure.”
Despite this perception, Bennett said her approach to advising has not changed in light of the decision.
“For the students that are upset by the decision, I’ll be having separate conversations with them and making sure we work through it together,” she added. “I want to present students with facts and data and anecdotes that affirm they will be okay and they are going to college and they will have access to the life they want.”
Even before the Court handed down its decision, universities had begun the internal work of reviewing and revising their own admissions practices.
For Harvard, that means more than simply following the letter of the law. It also means finding a way to protect the diversity of its student body — a longstanding point of pride for the University.
Bello said he believes Harvard is now facing a “no-win situation” entering the upcoming admissions cycle.
“To demonstrate with data that you’ve followed the rule here, you have to be racist,” Bello said.
“To avoid an expensive and costly and time-consuming litigation — a very likely expensive, time-consuming, continued litigation — they would have to do the very thing they were accused of, but in reverse and in a worse way,” he added. “They would have to give advantage to white students.”
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article.
Despite the challenges presented by the Court’s restrictions on affirmative action, Bennett said there are still ways to ensure diversity in universities’ incoming classes.
The responsibility, she said, falls on the schools themselves.
“The colleges that are serious about diversifying their college campus — and they’re serious about the spirit of inclusivity and excellence — they will find ways to maintain a robust and diverse student body,” Bennett said. “The colleges that don’t prioritize that as much, it’s now easier for them to overlook diversity being an essential part of the programming they offer.”
Regardless of which direction colleges choose to take their admissions policies, though, Bennett said the effects won’t be immediate.
“We have to live through a couple of admissions cycles to see statistically, how it looks,” she said.
At trial, experts for SFFA and Harvard projected Harvard would admit significantly less diverse classes absent the consideration of race without changing any other aspect of the admissions process.
To Bello, though, concerns about what schools will do next are all underpinned by one fundamental misunderstanding: that race previously played a definitive factor in admissions.
“I think the people who are most concerned right now are people who believe race-conscious admissions was a shoo-in,” he said. “And they were wrong.”
In fact, Bello said, “there’s no one factor that got someone into school.”
“A lot of the language used around this case frames it as if if you were Black, you’re good for Harvard,” Bello said. “That was never true.”
Any changes to the application review process, then, Bello said, will only follow an existing trend.
“Are there places that might give additional weight to some mention of life experiences in the essay? Probably,” he said. “But they were probably doing so anyway.”
But according to Harward, the question isn’t whether colleges will be able to admit a diverse class of students — but whether they will be able to attract a diverse pool of applicants to begin with.
“That’s the place within the admissions funnel that I think is going to become more challenging and competitive for colleges over the next few years,” Harward said.
“It isn’t as much a matter of will talented students of color be admitted to these institutions, but will they even apply?” she said. “Or will these decisions send a message to students that you don’t matter?”
“I don’t think a student should have to prove their racial identity,” she said.
—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.