Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Paul Townsend

One of the hottest (and for many, one of the most terrifying) trends in college and graduate admissions is the sudden popularity of the diversity statement. Once it was a mere afterthought, of interest primarily to crunchy Berkeleyites and hippie whitebeards eager to preach what, back when they were applying, no one dreamed of practicing. Today, what could be more 2016, more solidly on trend and on fleek, than to flaunt the unique perspective of a Pacific Islander raised in a commune, or to recount the war stories of your first generation Laotian refugee parents?

Certainly, that’s how your friendly neighborhood elite university feels. Which is why you’re seeing more and more essay prompts like these –

Tell us about a time within the last two years when your background or perspective influenced your participation at work or school.

Short and to the point. Or how about this self-congratulatory tongue-twister of a prompt?

Fancypants University’s admission process is guided by the view that a student body that reflects the broad diversity of society contributes to the implementation of Fancypants’ mission, improves the learning process, and enriches the educational experience for all students. In reviewing applications, Fancypants considers, as one factor among many, how an applicant may contribute to the diversity of Fancypants based on the candidate’s experiences, achievements, background, and perspectives. This approach ensures the best and most relevant possible training and serves the profession by training to effectively serve an increasingly diverse society. You are invited to submit an essay that describes your particular life experiences with an emphasis on how the perspectives that you have acquired would contribute to the Fancypants intellectual community and enhance the diversity of the student body. Examples of topics include (but are not limited to): an experience of prejudice, bias, economic disadvantage, personal adversity, or other social hardship (perhaps stemming from one’s religious affiliation, disability, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity); experience as a first-generation college student; significant employment history (such as in business, military or law enforcement, or public service); experience as an immigrant or refugee; graduate study; or impressive leadership achievement (including college or community service).

So if you're that Laotian refugee, answering this prompt seems simple enough (although it isn't). But suppose you grew up white, straight and well-off in a middle-class suburb, where nothing of any particular consequence happened to you? You still have to write the essay. Clearly, this is a situation that calls for some high-level mental jujitsu.

Here’s the skinny. Instead of fixating on that terrifying word diversity, instead turn your head to take in its underappreciated companion, ‘perspective’. Actually, if you dig into that War and Peace of a prompt above, you’ll see that the school hands you some clues of possible topics, including military/employment history, disability or disease, and even impressive leadership achievement, although be hella careful with that last one.

Ultimately, a great diversity essay isn’t driven by some accident of birth. Don’t believe us? Try writing “Hey, I’m black” as your entire response and see how that goes for you. It’s driven by your response to the formative experiences that shaped you.

What was hard for you growing up? What took some adjustment to learn to live with? For one guy we worked with, it was being a rural kid in a big city school. For another girl, it was being an army brat, shuttling from base to base. For yet another, it was being way, way too into cooking.

Whatever the challenge was, first take some time to explore why and how it was hard. Paint a vivid verbal picture of what it was like the first time that mean old uncle of yours said ‘little boys don’t make souffles’. Show yourself struggling, being wrong, doing wrong, if that was how it went down. Adjustments take time, and they often don’t stick right away. And when (and if) you do talk about how you saved the day and fixed everything, please try to address what’s universal about your struggle. Try to relate your experience to that of others, and show the adcom how you’re prepared to use your experiences to contribute on campus, rather than siloing.

Got questions? Call. In the meantime, good luck, and happy writing!




Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Ah, the diversity essay. Prompts like “How will your academic background and experiences will help to contribute to the school’s diverse environment and program?” are an evergreen in the admissions world, and they have been popping up more and more frequently of late. Law schools, in particular, seem to love them as optional prompts, but MPH programs, architecture programs, medical school programs and a wide range of other graduate degrees ask variations of these questions.

So how do you answer it? There's no one size fits all answer, but here are a few important factors to consider.

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color. Diversity is, at its heart, refers to the experience of being different, being in a minority, because of some aspect of your life over which you have little (or no) control. Think about that definition – it’s broader than it appears at first glance. Women are a majority of human beings on Earth – but female drill sergeants are a distinct minority, and have a diversity story to tell. Contracting an unusual disease, being born with a skin condition, spending a long time living abroad, traveling frequently for work (or because of your parents’ work) … Everybody has a story about being different.

What does it mean to be different? Once you have identified what it is that’s different about you, what makes you stand out from the pack, and described the experience in detail (write more than you think you’ll need, for every essay ever – get the story clear on paper first), the next step is to think about what it meant. What specifically changed in your behavior or your thinking because you had this experience? For instance, the female drill sergeant might write that her experience taught her how to use her unique voice to assert herself and demand respect. Someone struggling with MS might write about adjusting to the experience of feeling ‘watched’ all the time, of coming to terms with being many people’s worst nightmare come to life.

How will you contribute?  One very important component of any diversity essay (and one of the most commonly overlooked) is how you plan to use your experiences to enrich your target program. Schools, like employers, care more about what you’re going to do for them than what you’ve done in the past. Help them make the connection from your past to your present by citing specific examples of how you can improve their school if you are accepted. Talk about student-led clubs you will join, volunteer opportunities you plan to take advantage of, or anything else that catches your fancy.

Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to me anytime.