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Last month, the Common Application portal officially opened, inviting high school students across the globe to showcase themselves and their talents to admissions officers at top U.S. universities. With this application comes a variety of supplements: excitement about the potential outcomes of the process, apprehension about the mortifying ordeal of being known by admissions officers, and of course, the actual supplemental essays themselves.
These elements of the application process are as old as the Common App itself. But this year, with the end of race-based affirmative action in university admissions, applicants are facing an added uncertainty: the extent to which their diverse backgrounds can factor into their essays, and in turn, their admissions.
Recognizing this confusion, Harvard decided to change its supplemental essay questions from one optional open-ended essay and two optional short essays to a series of five required short essays, each with a 200-word limit.
While Harvard’s new prompts signify a notable effort to meet the moment, we have misgivings about the ability of these new questions to thoroughly capture the diverse array of student experiences.
Our foremost concern: How can students reasonably condense discussions about formative life experiences and their identities into 200 words or less?
Moreover, shortening the essays has a disparate impact that falls heaviest on those from marginalized backgrounds. Learning to package yourself within a shorter amount of space is a product of advanced education; longer essays more equitably allow applicants to discuss their experiences in full, particularly if they are from non-traditional backgrounds and require more space to elaborate on nuanced qualifications.
Another issue is the prompts themselves. Formerly, students picked one topic from a list of prompts, giving them maximum agency over the best way to share their own narratives; now, the new mandatory prompts force students to answer questions that may not even be relevant to their background at all.
Take one of the new prompts: “Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.” This question seemingly privileges applicants from well-resourced backgrounds for whom additional academic opportunities were plentiful in high school.
And while one may argue that students without equivalent resources can compensate with the other prompts, in what world is it equitable to have one out of the five required short-answer prompts seemingly cater to those from highly privileged backgrounds?
Harvard’s restructuring of its supplemental essay questions amid the post-affirmative action turmoil also gives us an opportunity to reevaluate the role of “trauma dumping” in the application process. Despite the negative connotations of this term, we feel that oversharing past hardships can be appropriate in college admissions essays considering that evaluators are seeking to understand the sum total of applicants’ experiences and how they’ve excelled despite personal circumstances.
Given polarized conversation surrounding the imprecise phrase “trauma dumping” and its place in college applications, we need to distinguish between explaining how past life experiences have shaped who you are and voluntarily offering highly volatile and sometimes triggering life experiences in social contexts. Those who have undergone traumatic experiences should not have to fear that writing about the experiences that shaped them looks like a beg for admission.
If we have faith in the college admissions system, we can trust that evaluators will not reward students who merely provide a litany of past traumas in their applications, but instead give credit to applicants who discuss how they have grown from or coped with these experiences. If Harvard is willing to entirely restructure its supplemental essays in the aftermath of affirmative action’s fall, it ought to also provide underprivileged students with resources on how they can write about trauma productively given the new prompts.
Furthermore, Harvard needs to communicate what other steps they will take to ensure the College’s student body remains diverse. How will the University conduct outreach to underprivileged communities? Organizations like QuestBridge — a service that connects low-income students with selective universities — could play a helpful role in promoting student diversity.
As the Class of 2028 gets to writing, we mourn the loss of Harvard’s old application. However, the focus on retaining a diverse student body in the questions Harvard asks its applicants is a welcome supplement.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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