The year after I graduated from college, I worked as an admissions officer at a highly selective private university, where about 12 percent of students who apply get in. My colleagues and I evaluated and scrutinized thousands of applications. I searched for the highest-achieving students and the most thoughtful stories to satisfy the universitys goal of creating an academically competitive, personally compelling, and racially diverse class.
Before long, I realized that this job had constraints. I got the clear message that I should reward high-achieving students from historically marginalized backgrounds who also described struggle and adversity in their admissions essays. That these students should have to prove their worthiness by putting their trauma on display seemed obviously unfair. A few years later, I pursued a Ph.D. in sociology to study the admissions process. My research showed me that the valorization of trauma narratives is widespread in selective colleges admissions departmentsand that students from marginalized communities are well aware that their applications have a higher chance of success when they describe the difficulties theyve faced.
This problem could worsen if the Supreme Court disbands affirmative action in its decisions for the cases
Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College
Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina
. Schools will still want racially diverse classes. Twenty-five Harvard student and alumni groups filed an amicus brief detailing the importance of diversity at the school. Stanford University, MIT,
Amherst College, and dozens of other selective schools
signed briefs expressing commitments to diversity and holistic admissions practices. So if schools are forbidden from formally asking for students racial identities, the college essay could become even more important as a way for students to signal their race.
Race currently shapes students essays and how admissions officers read them. The 20 admissions officers I interviewed at competitive private universities for my dissertation (to be completed in 2024) bear this out. They revealed that wealthier and white students tend to write about sports injuries, mission trips to the global South, and the plight of other marginalized groups they served in their various community-service activities. Students from lower-income backgrounds, especially those mentored by college-preparatory nonprofits, write about their trauma. These students typically tell stories about food insecurity, assuming the role of a parent in their households, working at local grocery stores to buy and prepare food for younger siblings, the threat of gun violence on their route to school, and perpetual homelessness. These findings are consonant with research from Stanford about the interrelatedness of college-essay content and household income.
College-admissions officers, 65 percent of whom are white, express deep ambivalence about trauma-focused essays. They told me that they do not encourage applicants to write about trauma, but they admit that these narratives provide helpful context when so many students are applying with so few opportunities to distinguish themselves, and when schools want to ensure adequate racial diversity in their classes.
Read: The absurdity of college admissions
Essays about struggle helped John, a white admissions officer at a small private liberal-arts college in New England, acknowledge the challenges that students endured. (I have changed the names of the people I interviewed to protect participants privacy under ethical-research guidelines.) Although he criticized the trauma porn he regularly encountered in college-admissions essays, he insisted that some more information about student backgrounds was necessary. When Im reading those essays about certain traumas, John told me, [Im] really appreciative of the additional perspectives. Context about a students difficult background or upbringing, John said, better positioned him to advocate for them. With limited spots, even students who have near-perfect academic records needed a little extra something to help them stand out. For racially marginalized students, a trauma narrative could fill that gap. Sarah, a white admissions officer at a highly selective southern university, said she found stories of trauma distressing but found the additional context about the students lives helpful and important to consider.
But what about the students who chose not to disclose their trauma or struggle in their college essay? John said he doesnt want to penalize students who maybe dont have an essay that shows grit and resilience. He was not alone in this belief. Other officers emphasized that Black and low-income students who chose more lighthearted topics would not be disadvantaged in the admissions process.
Still, according to Sarah, John, and others I interviewed, some admissions officers perceive stories that highlight a students ability to overcome a struggle as an indication of their ability to endure challenges once in college. Awareness of a students resilience allowed officers to say, Look at what this student has overcome, and they managed to maintain a nearly perfect GPA; they deserve a shot.
Still, the officers knew that this expectation for marginalized students to explain themselves to colleges is not entirely fair. Brenda, a white admissions officer for a Texas-based university, told me that reading trauma essays sometimes moves her to tears. There are essays that made me cry. There have been days when I have sat for 30 minutes under my desk, just bawling, because of that essay that I read and the experience that the student had. There are days when I have to take a break, and I have to shut down my computer and say, I cant deal with this anymore. And there are also days when sometimes I get really angry, right? Like, why do young people have to experience such hard things in their lives? And why do they have to overcome this stuff?
Similarly, John admitted, I dont want any of the students to feel as though they have to divulge their personal challenges in a really raw and kind of painful way just to get into college. Theres something that feels very perverse about that.
Despite this perversity, students know the power that a trauma-focused essay has in the admissions process. The 37 Black undergraduate students I interviewed for my dissertation and the nearly 100 students I have encountered at college workshops say they believe that a story of struggle is necessary to show that they are diverse. Black students believe that college counselors and admissions officers link their racial identities to trauma.
If these types of essays are already so important, imagine how much bigger a role they could play if they become the only way for students to let colleges know about their racial identities. How much more perverse could the process become?
In oral arguments for the
A Big Problem With College Admissions Could Be About to Get Worse