Since June 2023 when the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher ed, students lost the option of ticking a box to communicate to their race. Consequently, admissions teams across the country have been wrestling with how to provide students an outlet for expressing this information within their application. The result has been the “lived experience” (Princeton, Babson, UVA, Duke, among others) or the background/identity supplemental essay prompt that most of my students encountered this past admissions cycle. Is this a result of the ruling? Yes. Is it here to stay? I’d say, most likely.
For students wondering how to tackle this prompt, here are a few tips:
What if I’m not Black or Brown?
Answer the essay in a way that reveals who you are, not who you aren’t. One of my seniors said: “I’m white. They don’t want me to answer this question.” I said, “Yes, they do.” Colleges want to know the applicant on an intimate level. One admissions officer told me that he’s seeking a 3D portrait of a student, not just who they are academically, athletically, creatively. Essentially, if a student’s race is an important aspect of how they self-identify, they should use this prompt to show why. Similarly, how gender, religion, family construct, mental health, addiction issues or socioeconomics have impacted a student’s life are equally important topics to explore.
What If I’m Privileged?
Regardless of wealth or social standing, students belong to a community, whether it be their school, family, sports team, the arts, online gaming, job or house of worship. Students are a unique and essential part of a whole in some area of their lives. That experience of contribution and commitment to an entity larger than themselves is of value. For many students, being the light technician for their school performances is their identity; for other students babysitting their siblings has enriched them. Writing about the significance of a student’s sense of belonging within their chosen communities perfectly addresses the ‘lived experience’ prompt.
How Much “Lived Experience” is TMI?
One of my students has bipolar disorder. She wondered if she should discuss this in her diversity prompt. I asked her if having this mental health diagnosis is important to her, especially in terms of how she identifies. She self-defines as a writer, but she’s missed weeks of school on account of her illness and wondered how she could express this without it being “too much information.” I advised that she might use the Additional Information section to explain her absenteeism and use the ‘lived experience’ essay to discuss being an artist with a mental health diagnosis. This may seem like nuance, but to the student, this shift in where to put certain narratives within her application as a whole helped her aptly communicate how she sees herself.
In summation, leave no essay prompt unanswered! There’s no limit to the ways students can add dimension to their application.