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Harvard Overhauls College Application in Wake of Affirmative Action Decision

The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located in Radcliffe Yard.
The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located in Radcliffe Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Rahem D. Hamid, Crimson Staff Writers

When the Common Application portal opened at midnight Tuesday, thousands of high schoolers found the Harvard College application had significantly changed.

After the Supreme Court radically curtailed the use of race in higher education admissions, the College overhauled the free-response questions on its application, eliminating the Harvard supplement optional essay — the longer-form response that allowed applicants to write on virtually any topic of their choosing — and replacing it with required short answer questions.

Harvard’s application now contains five short-answer questions, all of which are required and have a 200-word limit.

The questions ask about applicants’ life experience, intellectual interests, extracurricular activities, how they hope to use their Harvard education in the future, and the top three things that they want their roommate to know about them. The new short essays draw directly from prompts in the old College application.

“As part of the undergraduate admissions process, an optional essay is being replaced by five required short essays 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,” College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an email Tuesday.

Previously, the College’s application had three optional writing components: a 150-word extracurricular response, a 150-word piece to describe “additional intellectual experiences,” and the Harvard supplement.

“The changes Harvard made to its application are clearly designed to help admissions do what the Supreme Court said is okay — namely, to consider race as part of an applicant’s ‘experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,’” Joshua S. Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute, wrote in an email.

The Supreme Court’s decision restricting race-based affirmative action reads that “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.”

Still, the Court held that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Brennan Barnard, the director of College Counseling and Outreach at Khan Lab School, an offshoot of the online Khan Academy, said he believes it is possible “to look at somebody’s background as a person and how that identity has informed their day to day life without making it just about race.”

“And in reality, college admission officers have been doing this for decades,” Barnard added.

Oregon State University Vice Provost of Enrollment Management Jon J. Boeckenstedt wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that the Supreme Court “made it clear that colleges could still ask, and students could still write, about life experiences” and the impact they had on students.

“But some students seem confused about what they can include (I’ve even heard that some students believe that saying anything about race or ethnicity will get them denied),” Boeckenstedt wrote.

Boeckenstedt added that he is “pleased” that institutions are actively affirming their commitment to enrolling a diverse student body, “as the SCOTUS decision indicated they could.”

But while changing the essay prompts is “easy,” “the big challenges will arise when Harvard tries to apply that standard,” Wyner wrote.

“Practically, what does it mean for admissions to consider race as part of someone’s experience but then not make a decision ‘on the basis of race?’” Wyner wrote.

“That ambiguity will not be resolved with this new application but when Harvard is dragged back into court to explain how it has applied this very opaque standard,” he added.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at

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