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Recent posts, subscribe here, more expert advice, let's get existential: how to write a college essay about identity.
When you’re a teenager, you’re probably too busy to sit down and think about your own identity. No one exactly assigns you “introspection time” as homework (though, if you’re my student, this has very likely happened). So when you start working on your college essays, it might be the first time you truly start thinking about how you can express who you are in a way that will help a group of strangers understand something about you. Let’s be honest—it feels like a lot of pressure to sum up your identity in 250 words or less. But we’re here to help.
There are many different types of application essays you’ll need to write, as my colleague Annie so perfectly laid out here . But we’re going to talk about one type in particular: the essays about identity and diversity. These are powerful college essays that give admissions officers an opportunity to glimpse into your daily life and understand your unique experiences. For some students, though, these essays can be daunting to think about and write.
Ever wonder why colleges are asking these questions? Well, the simple answer is that they want to get to know you more. Aside from your academic interests, your activities, and your accomplishments in the classroom, there really isn’t that much space to talk about things like your ethnic background, religion, gender identity, or local community. And these are things colleges want to know about you, too!
How Do You Write a Good Identity and Diversity Essay?
Before you start writing, let’s define a few terms you might run into while drafting your college essays about identity and diversity.
Who are you? I know what you’re thinking—it’s way too early in the morning to get this existential. I hear you. But let’s break this down. Identity is made up of many qualities: personality, culture, ethnic or racial background, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability, and linguistic background, among others. Maybe you identify really strongly with the religion on Mom’s side of the family, but not Dad’s. Maybe you speak a language not typical of folks from your culture. Maybe you have recently come into your gender identity and finally feel like yourself. Why is that identity important to the way you define who you are? Think of it like this: If you’ve met someone new, and your goal is to help them get to know you in the shortest amount of time possible, how would you be able to accomplish this? What’s your tagline? That’s how you’ll want to tackle this type of college essay.
One individual person can’t be diverse. But when a college is referring to diversity, they’re usually looking to their student body and asking how you, as an individual with your own identity, can add to their diversity. What experiences have you had in your life that might help you make the student body more diverse? Have you dealt with dyslexia and come to terms with how best to learn, keeping your abilities in mind? If so, how can you contribute to other students who might learn differently? Did you grow up as the oldest of 10 siblings and have to take care of them on a daily basis? What kind of responsibilities did you have and how did that influence you? These don’t need to be visible qualities. The goal of the diversity college essay is to understand how these identifying factors can help you contribute to a school in a way they haven’t seen before.
Let’s define community. You may associate it with the city or neighborhood you live in. But a community doesn’t have to be geographical. It doesn’t even have to be formal. Community can come from that sense of connection you have with like-minded people. It can be built with people you’ve shared experiences with. So, when we think of community in this sense, we could be thinking about the community that exists within your apartment complex. We could be thinking about the youth group at your mosque. We could be thinking about your little group of artists within your science and tech magnet school. Think about what communities you are a part of, and be prepared to talk about your place within them.
You might think that these questions are only being asked by small liberal arts schools—but that’s not true. Bigger schools and colleges also want to get to know all of the thousands of students they’re bringing to campus as part of their class.
Big Name Colleges that Care About Diversity
To give you a glimpse of the variety, here are a few examples of college essays where these identity and diversity may come into play:
University of Michigan
“Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.”
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
“Expand on an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?”
“Tell us about an experience when you dealt with disagreement or conflict around different perspectives within a community.”
Sarah Lawrence College
“Sarah Lawrence College's community places strong value in inclusion and diversity. In 250-500 words, tell us about what you value in a community and how your perspective, lived experiences, or beliefs might contribute to your College community.”
Remember what these colleges are trying to understand: who you are and what has influenced you to become the person you are today (identity), where you come from (community), and how you might be able to add to the diversity of their college campus. Once you really get to the core and understand the intent of these types of college essays, you’ll absolutely be able to write in an earnest and genuine way. We say this frequently at Collegewise, but it’s worth repeating here, especially when it comes to essays about identity and diversity. Just be yourself.
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August 26, 2022
College Admissions: Mining Identity for College Essays, Personal Statements
Langston Hughes begins his poem “Theme for English B” this way:
The instructor said:
Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you- Then it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
“Tell us about yourself”
When colleges instruct you to “Tell us about yourself,” it may sound simple, but it is not. Sarah Myers McGinty, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted a study in 1998 to determine the importance of the college application essay and students’ ability to complete it successfully. She found that while admissions officials viewed the essay as “somewhat important,” students found themselves unprepared to write it. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (1/25/02), McGinty says, “I knew that students felt comfortable talking about the most significant event in the life of Jay Gatsby. But many felt ill-at-ease when asked about the most significant event in their own lives.” After all, as many students will attest, they have never done anything like this before. Students are rarely asked to write personal narratives.
So how do you tell admissions officers about yourself in a true and convincing way? First, you need to “mine” various areas of your identity to discover what makes you an individual . We’re not talking strip-mining, where you just pull up whatever’s on the surface. We’re talking about digging to see what’s below the surface. That takes time and commitment, but in the end, you may strike gold.
Writing is discovery. You cannot write an essay without first discovering what you have to say. You are setting out to discover what has made you who you are. Keep a journal as you explore your past and your present. These jottings and written wanderings are not your essay, but some will serve as the essay’s building materials. (Others might be valuable points for reflection more generally!)
9 aspects of identity
Some areas of your identity to explore include:
- Sexual Orientation
Events in a college essay
The events of your life, whether big and small, successful or failed, shape you as an individual.
In other words, your identity is, in part, formed through a series of events, which can be narrated to tell a story that gives the reader a glimpse of who you are. Telling a good story involves strong description (including the colors, sounds, and smells of your life), action (including movement, dialogue or internal monologue, etc); and reflection (including decisions you made, thoughts or feelings you had during an event, and your reflection afterwards).
Help transport your reader into your story by showing what it was like. And, tell the reader what this anecdote says about you as a person.
Which experience to pick? Looking at a few colleges’ essay questions may provide you with some ideas (emphases added):
- The Common Application asks you to: “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?’
- The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
- Dartmouth: The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.
- Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group or another community that surrounds you.
Your experience does not have to be massively life-altering (not all of us have huge turning points in our lives), but can be one of the many little events in our lives that make us see ourselves and the world a bit differently. The time your classmates offered you a stolen test and you refused it. Seeing the ocean for the first time at age 15. Learning to drive or ski or swim. Notice, too, that all of the essay questions ask you both to tell the story of an experience and also to reflect on the significance or impact of the event.
Here are some ideas for getting started on these and related prompts:
Passions in a college essay
Your passion for certain causes or issues, as well as your hobbies or interests, show who you are. How do you spend your free time? What excites you? Concerns you? Enrages you? What have you done to translate this passion into action? I know a student whose concern over the Middle East conflict led him to distribute to all of his classmates bracelets commemorating those who have died in the conflict. His essay on the topic worked because his passion led him to action, and his writing conveyed his passion. Another student explored how his childhood Lego hobby was a springboard to his building robots in national competitions. I taught a young woman whose frustration over male-female relations in her school led her to start a Gender Issues discussion group. I know people who could write fascinating essays on their obsession with beads, their rock collection, or bike riding. Perhaps you think it’s less-than-admirable to say that you spend every Saturday afternoon watching classic movies, but if you can intelligently reflect on why you love old movies and what it shows about you, it could be a worthwhile topic.
People in a college essay
Begin by listing people in your life who have nurtured your identity. In addition to your family members, you may list instructors, coaches, teachers, or neighbors. After you make a list, decide which person or people you could write about most engagingly. Some applications ask you to write about a person; some just leave the door open for you by telling you to explore a topic of choice. You might begin your exploration by reflecting on your family and how it has affected who you have become. Focus on the details of one or two members of your family-their appearance, their habits, their activities, and their interactions with you. Think of a story that encapsulates a relationship. Consider exploring your family’s cultural heritage, traditions, or foods. Bring the people you depict to life, and give them color, personality, a voice. Provide anecdotes about these family members or other important people in your life.
Places in a college essay
Perhaps a place has gotten under your skin because you’ve spent so much time there. Perhaps you’ve worked on your grandfather’s farm in Wisconsin each summer since you were ten. Perhaps you attend a school unlike most schools in the nation, one in an unusual setting or with an unusual philosophy. Perhaps you spent a semester on sabbatical with your parents in Zimbabwe, and once you came back, everything looked different. Place can be a character, and you can tell a vivid story about how it helped shape you . Conversely, you might have spent time in a place only briefly (one night on a camping trip, for example); or, the place you visited or lived in might have been lousy: decrepit, dirty, scary, upsetting. All of the above are fair game: the point is to use the experience as a vehicle for talking about who you are and how you experience the world around you.
Religion in a college essay
For some people, religion is integral to their lives and identities. Even so, you may consider religion a “touchy” subject. You may fear that the reader won’t like your religion. Don’t let that stop you if you have honest stories and reflections to relate. Consider writing a personal statement that reveals your thoughts about religion through a vivid story or series of anecdotes.
Race in a college essay
For some, their racial identity- and perhaps the persecution they’ve experienced or the minority status they have had- is an important part of who they are. Writing about moments of challenges and what you did to be a leader, to hold your ground, or to educate others, can let the reader get a glimpse of your strongest qualities. Colleges seek students from diverse backgrounds and in possession of strong characters, so don’t be afraid to let both of those qualities shine through.
Gender in a college essay
Does your gender identity feel significant to who you are– to your experiences, your community, your identity? For some, being a woman, being transgender, or being genderqueer can be essential to who they are and their experiences. You might consider writing an essay about going to an all girls’ Catholic school; being the only boy in a household of many sisters; experimenting with multiple pronouns. Just remember: this essay should be about more than a certain experience alone; it is also about what your thoughts, decisions, and actions say about who you are and what is important to you.
Disability/different abilities in a college essay
While so often viewed as a setback, your life with a disability – whether since birth or due to an illness or an event later in life– can help distinguish you or a sea of similarly-abled peers. How have you embraced, overcome, or given voice to your disability or those of others? What abilities have you cultivated or discovered because of it? How have you both coped, and strived , with your disability, and what does this say about your character and commitments?
Sexual orientation in a college essay
Perhaps your sexual identity has played a role in your life, inspiring you to form interests in certain writers or ideas; to work on an inclusive marriage campaign; to lead your school’s Gay Straight Alliance. Whether your identity or that of a loved one, be sure to keep yourself center-stage as you use the idea of sexual orientation to speak to your values, passions, and interests.
You care about your essay because it will help you get into Wonderful U. Fair enough. But you will also gain a bonus along the way: self-realization as you step across the threshold from childhood to adulthood; A sense of who you are and what made you that way; some insight into your desires for the future. Happy digging.
(Once you’ve mined for ideas, visit other sections of the Accepted website, which offers lots of essay writing tips and sample student essays to help you pull your essay together.)
If you would like the guidance and support of experienced college admissions consultants as you explore your identity and develop an application strategy, Accepted is here to help. We offer a range of services that can be tailored exactly to your needs. Our singular goal is to help you gain admittance to the college of your choice!
Accepted has helped applicants gain acceptance to top colleges and universities for 25 years. Our team of admissions consultants features former admissions committee members and highly experienced college admissions consultants who have guided our clients to admission at top programs including Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago, and Yale. Want an admissions expert to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- Different Dimensions of Diversity , a podcast episode
- The Essay Whisperer: How to Write a College Application Essay
- Common App Essay Prompts 2022-2023: Tips for Writing Essays That Impress
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.
College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.
Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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How to Write Supplemental Essays About Identity and Background
You might have already heard that on the back of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action, many colleges are implementing new methods to ensure a diverse student body. One avenue available to them is to provide students with the opportunity to talk about race—and other aspects of their identity—through supplemental essays. While numerous colleges have asked such questions in previous years, others have recently introduced prompts that allow you to elaborate on your identity further.
Here are a few questions posed by colleges about students’ identity:
- A defining element of the Babson experience is learning and thriving in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives and interests. Please share something about your background, lived experiences, or viewpoint(s) that speaks to how you will contribute to and learn from Babson’s collaborative community. (250 words – new prompt for the 2023-24 cycle)
- What about your individual background, perspective, or experience will serve as a source of strength for you or those around you at UVA ? Feel free to write about any past experience or part of your background that has shaped your perspective and will be a source of strength, including but not limited to those related to your community, upbringing, educational environment, race, gender, or other aspects of your background that are important to you. (300 words – new prompt for the 2023-24 cycle)
- We believe a wide range of personal perspectives, beliefs, and lived experiences are essential to making Duke a vibrant and meaningful living and learning community. Feel free to share with us anything in this context that might help us better understand you and what you might bring to our community. (250 words – Optional)
Most of these prompts are new for the 2023-24 admissions cycle. However, you’ll notice that not all directly address race. If race is intertwined with the challenges you have faced in high school, you can elaborate on your experience—whether you had to fight for your seat at the table or faced race-based prejudice—and talk about how you overcame this obstacle. If it’s a crucial part of your journey and personal growth, you should definitely write about it.
With terminology such as Babson’s “something about your background, lived experiences, or viewpoint(s),” colleges have made these questions open-ended. UVA has listed categories such as “community, upbringing, educational environment, race, gender,” and indicated that applicants can go beyond those categories if they choose. You can write about any aspect of your identity that is a defining part of who you are, whether that’s your race, gender, religion, sexuality, geographic location, or socioeconomic background.
Consider what you want colleges to know about you. Supplemental essays provide further context to your application. So, no matter what you write about your background, your response should help admissions officers understand where you come from, what experiences have been meaningful to you, and how you’ll contribute to the diversity of the campus community. Don’t just mention what your background is—talk about how it has shaped you and your perspective.
Remember that admissions officers read responses by students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Think about different lived experiences you’ve had and the communities you belong to—and what matters to you—and use those considerations to decide what you’ll write.
If the prompt about identity or background is optional, such as Duke’s, consider whether or not you should write it. If there are aspects of your identity (such as race, religion, or sexual orientation) that have shaped you and who you are in meaningful ways, you should definitely include the essay. However, if that part of you isn’t something that has been formative or impactful and you don’t have enough to say about it, you don’t need to write that essay. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t have written it before the Supreme Court case, you shouldn’t feel pressured to write it now.
Supplemental essays help determine your fit for a college campus, and essays on identity are no exception. If you’re writing a supplemental essay about an identity or background, discuss a part of you that hasn’t come up in detail in the rest of your application. Use the identity response to help admissions officers understand the unique perspective you can bring to their college.
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Student story: admissions essay about a past mistake, how to write a college application essay, tips for writing an effective application essay, sample college essay 1 with feedback, sample college essay 2 with feedback.
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Speak Your Truth: Sharing Your Identity in College Essays
Written by Sara Calvert-Kubrom on September 21st, 2023
- college applications ,
- race-neutral admissions ,
- writing college essays ,
- Most college essays, including the main Common Application essay and University of California Personal Insight Questions, invite broad reflection on experiences which can be linked to student identity.
- Some colleges invite students to share more through supplemental essays specific to their applications. Many colleges changed these essays this year to signal their institutional values and assess student readiness to engage with difference in college. Inside Higher Ed has a helpful article with examples of these prompts.
- Many applications have an additional information section where students can share any important context about their experiences. Although I encourage students to be concise (this isn’t an extra essay!), and to avoid being redundant with information provided elsewhere, this can be a fantastic area to utilize if a student wants to share important elements of who they are without having to use the main essay for this purpose.
- Activities lists might feature identity-based clubs, organizations, and initiatives.
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Model Essay on Identity
An Essay by Eileen for Option #1 of the Common Application
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Eileen's application essay on being a wallflower works beautifully for two of the 2020-21 Common Application essay prompts. It could clearly fit under the popular Option #7, "topic of your choice." But it also works nicely with Option #1 : "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story." Eileen's essay, as you'll see, is very much about her identity, for being a wallflower is an essential part of who she is.
Eileen applied to four New York colleges that vary widely in size, mission and personality: Alfred University, Cornell University, SUNY Geneseo and the University of Buffalo. At the end of this article, you'll find the results of her college search.
Wallflower I wasn't unfamiliar with the word. It was something I remembered hearing since I was able to grasp the fine art of polysyllabic language. Of course, in my experience, it had always been subtly laced with negativity. They told me that it wasn't something I was supposed to be. They told me to socialize more — okay, maybe they had a point there — but to open up to strangers I didn't know from Adam? Apparently, yes, that was exactly what I was to do. I had to 'put myself out there,' or something. They told me I couldn't be a wallflower. Wallflower was unnatural. Wallflower was wrong. So my impressionable younger self tried her best not to see the inherent beauty in the word. I wasn't supposed to see it; no one else did. I was terrified to recognize its rightness. And that was where Charlie came in.
Before I get any further, I feel obligated to mention that Charlie is not real. I question whether that makes a difference — it shouldn't, really. Fictional, factual, or seven-dimensional, his influence in my life is indisputable. But, to give credit where credit is overwhelmingly due, he comes from the brilliant mind of Stephen Chbosky, from the universe of his novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower . In a series of anonymous letters to an unknown friend, Charlie tells his story of life, love, and high school: of skirting the fringes of life and of learning to make the leap. And from the first sentences, I was drawn to Charlie. I understood him. I was him. He was me. I felt acutely his fears of entering high school, his just-barely-perceptible separation from the rest of the student body, because these fears were mine as well.
What I didn't have, the singular distinction between this character and myself, was his vision. Even from the very beginning, Charlie's innocence and naiveté gave him an unparalleled ability to see beauty in everything and to acknowledge it without hesitation, exactly as I'd longed to allow myself to do. I had been scared to be the only one to value being a wallflower. But with Charlie came the promise that I wasn't alone. When I saw that he could see what I wanted to see, I suddenly found that I could see it, too. He showed me that the true beauty in being a wallflower was the ability to acknowledge freely that beauty, to embrace it for everything it was while still managing to 'put myself out there' on a level I hadn't thought myself capable. Charlie taught me not conformity, but the honest, open expression of myself, free from the vise-like fear of being judged by my peers. He told me that sometimes, they were wrong. Sometimes, it was okay to be a wallflower. Wallflower was beautiful. Wallflower was right.
And for that, Charlie, I am forever in your debt.
Discussion of Eileen's Admissions Essay
The minute we read her title, we know that Eileen has chosen an unusual and perhaps risky topic. In truth, the topic is one of the reasons to love this essay. So many college applicants think their essay needs to focus on some monumental accomplishment. After all, to get admitted to a highly selective college one needs to have single-handedly rebuilt a hurricane-ravaged island or weaned a major city from fossil fuels, right?
Obviously not. Eileen tends to be quiet, thoughtful, and observant. These are not bad traits. Not all college applicants need to have the type of exuberant personality that can psych up a gymnasium full of students. Eileen knows who she is and who she is not. Her essay focuses on an important character in fiction who helped her be comfortable with her own personality and inclinations. Eileen is a wallflower, and she is proud of it.
Eileen's essay readily acknowledges the negative connotations bound up in the term "wallflower," but she uses the essay to turn those negatives into positives. By the essay's end, the reader feels that this "wallflower" could fill an important role within a campus community. A healthy campus has all types of students including those who are reserved.
Eileen may be a wallflower, but she clearly has a sprightly mind. The essay takes its subject matter seriously, but it also has no shortage of wit and humor. Eileen takes a self-deprecating jab at herself for needing to socialize more, and she plays with the idea of what is "real" in her second paragraph. Her language is often informal and conversational.
At the same time, Eileen is never flip or dismissive in her essay. She takes the essay prompt seriously, and she convincingly shows that fictional Charlie had a profound influence on her life. Eileen strikes that difficult balance between playfulness and seriousness. The result is an essay that is substantive but also a pleasure to read.
Eileen has accomplished an impressive task by covering her topic so well in under 500 words. There is no slow warm-up or broad introduction at the start of the essay. Her first sentence, in fact, relies on the essay's title to make sense. Eileen jumps into her topic immediately, and immediately the reader is drawn in with her.
The variety of the prose also helps keep the reader engaged as Eileen makes frequent shifts between complex and simple sentences. We move from a phrase like "the fine art of polysyllabic language" to a deceptively simple string of three-word sentences: "I understood him. I was him. He was me." The reader recognizes that Eileen has an excellent ear for the language, and the essay's pacing and rhetorical shifts work well.
If there is one criticism to offer, it's that the language is a little abstract at times. Eileen focuses on "beauty" in her third paragraph, but the exact nature of that beauty is not clearly defined. At other times the use of imprecise language is actually effective — the essay opens and closes with reference to a mysterious "they." The pronoun has no antecedent, but Eileen is abusing grammar deliberately here. "They" is everyone who is not her. "They" are the people who don't value a wallflower. "They" are the force against which Eileen has struggled.
While "I'm a wallflower" may be a conversation stopper at a social event, Eileen's essay is remarkably successful. By the time we finish the essay, we can't help but admire Eileen's honesty, self-awareness, sense of humor, and writing ability.
The essay has accomplished its most important task — we have a strong sense of who Eileen is, and she seems like the type of person who would be an asset to our campus community. Remember what is at stake here — the admissions officers are looking for students who will be part of their community. Do we want Eileen to be part of our community? Absolutely.
The Results of Eileen's College Search
Eileen wanted to be in Western New York State, so she applied to four colleges: Alfred University , Cornell University , SUNY Geneseo and the University of Buffalo . All schools are selective, although they vary greatly in personality. Buffalo is a large public university , SUNY Geneseo is a public liberal arts college, Cornell is a large private university and member of the Ivy League, and Alfred is a small private university.
Eileen's essay is clearly strong, as were her test scores and high school record. Because of this winning combination, Eileen's college search was highly successful. As the table below shows, she was accepted at every school to which she applied. Her final decision was not an easy one. She was tempted by the prestige that comes with attending an Ivy League institution, but she ultimately opted for Alfred University because of both the generous financial aid package and the personal attention that comes with a smaller school.
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Individuals establish their own identities throughout the life span through growth, maturity, and development in different areas. Marcia’s concepts of identity achievement, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium, and identity diffusion were created to better understand the evolution of ego identity and how individuals distinguish their shifting commitment to ideas during late adolescence (Marcia, 1966). The concepts that are associated with these parameters are important because they convey the realities of developing an identity that an adolescent will carry and build upon throughout his or her life (Marcia, 1966). For this discussion, I have selected the career and educational aspects of identity formation to understand my own trajectory and identity development which impacts my own decision-making and path through life.
Identity Achievement I was born in Poland in 1970, began Kindergarten in 1976, attended elementary school from 1977-1985, and high school from 1985-1989. During elementary school and into high school, I slowly began to realize the career path that I wanted to pursue in nursing after recognizing that other careers might not be suited for me. This was my identity achievement period and enabled me to reaffirm my decision to enter nursing school in 1989. At the time, I believed that this was the best option for me because I wanted to help other people and provide care in their time of need. In some ways, I was in a position to make a decision on my own terms and did not have any pushback or resistance from family members at this stage. Therefore, my identity achievement was real and was solidified and I was proving myself as a good student with no learning difficulties that could hold me back at this stage.
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Identity Foreclosure Between 1991 after graduation and up until 2005, I worked as a Registered Nurse in Poland and was promoted to a nursing manager for the operating room for two years. During this period, I enjoyed my role and was committed to the process; however, I also believed that there might be something more for me elsewhere (Marcia, 1966). During this period, I was content in my career but wondered if there were possibilities beyond where I was currently working and perhaps in another country that would be more satisfactory and would provide me greater contentment. This led me to a crossroads in my life that required further evaluation.
Identity Diffusion At this stage of my life, I believed that by moving to the United States, I was in a better position to succeed in the land of opportunity. In this new country, I could find myself in a role that would be more satisfactory and which could impact my life more effectively. However, I could not immediately enter the country as an RN because I lacked the credentials and licensure to perform in this role. Therefore, I sought to learn English to communicate with my children’s teachers and to prepare myself to work in the nursing profession in the United States. This was a transition period of sorts and provided me with the tools that were required to gain comfort in my new surroundings before I reentered the nursing workplace.
Identity Moratorium I experienced a moratorium of sorts when I made the decision to reenter the nursing workforce in the United States. This required much preparation on my part, including a nursing refresher course to prepare myself for the NCLEX examination. Once I passed this exam and became an RN, I was in another difficult position because I had not earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, which was desirable for many employers and would be more attractive on my resume. It was during this period that I enrolled in a BSN program, which was difficult because I was married with two children. During this period, I reentered the identity achievement stage because this was a new phase of my life that would allow me to experience new opportunities for growth and professional development.
Summary My education has been critical to my success to date and has enabled me to secure a position in a hospital as an RN. I believe that education is critical to my own identity and has enabled me to move forward in my career and has set an example for others to follow. This has been largely influential in my efforts to be a successful mother, wife, and nurse. My evolution continues as an adult and has been instrumental in my ability to be successful both in my educational and nursing career path (Fadjukoff & Kroger, 2016). At the same time, my family has been largely supportive in allowing me to develop my educational and career identity over the years and has been instrumental in my success to date (Syed & Seifge-Krenke, 2013). These issues have been important to me as I move forward with my life and have been largely influential in shaping my decision to relocate to the United States for better opportunities and greater professional growth.
Conclusion Marcia’s concepts of identity development are essential to self-discovery and growth in a variety of areas. My career and educational paths have taken many roads, including achievement, foreclosure, diffusion, and moratorium, and I have been successful in reaching many of my goals and objectives while I grow and thrive as a human being. These phases of my identity development have shaped who I am today and have provided me with the tools to achieve success and to make a difference in the lives of my patients and my family in many different ways throughout my experiences.
- Marcia, J. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 3(5), 551-558.
adulthood: linking trajectories of ego development to the family context and identity
formation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(2), 371.
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- How to Write a Diversity Essay | Tips & Examples
How to Write a Diversity Essay | Tips & Examples
Published on November 1, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.
Table of contents
What is a diversity essay, identify how you will enrich the campus community, share stories about your lived experience, explain how your background or identity has affected your life, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Diversity essays ask students to highlight an important aspect of their identity, background, culture, experience, viewpoints, beliefs, skills, passions, goals, etc.
Diversity essays can come in many forms. Some scholarships are offered specifically for students who come from an underrepresented background or identity in higher education. At highly competitive schools, supplemental diversity essays require students to address how they will enhance the student body with a unique perspective, identity, or background.
In the Common Application and applications for several other colleges, some main essay prompts ask about how your background, identity, or experience has affected you.
Why schools want a diversity essay
Many universities believe a student body representing different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.
Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community.
Through the diversity essay, admissions officers want students to articulate the following:
- What makes them different from other applicants
- Stories related to their background, identity, or experience
- How their unique lived experience has affected their outlook, activities, and goals
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
Think about what aspects of your identity or background make you unique, and choose one that has significantly impacted your life.
For some students, it may be easy to identify what sets them apart from their peers. But if you’re having trouble identifying what makes you different from other applicants, consider your life from an outsider’s perspective. Don’t presume your lived experiences are normal or boring just because you’re used to them.
Some examples of identities or experiences that you might write about include the following:
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic status
- Immigration background
- Religion/belief system
- Place of residence
- Family circumstances
- Extracurricular activities related to diversity
Include vulnerable, authentic stories about your lived experiences. Maintain focus on your experience rather than going into too much detail comparing yourself to others or describing their experiences.
Keep the focus on you
Tell a story about how your background, identity, or experience has impacted you. While you can briefly mention another person’s experience to provide context, be sure to keep the essay focused on you. Admissions officers are mostly interested in learning about your lived experience, not anyone else’s.
When I was a baby, my grandmother took me in, even though that meant postponing her retirement and continuing to work full-time at the local hairdresser. Even working every shift she could, she never missed a single school play or soccer game.
She and I had a really special bond, even creating our own special language to leave each other secret notes and messages. She always pushed me to succeed in school, and celebrated every academic achievement like it was worthy of a Nobel Prize. Every month, any leftover tip money she received at work went to a special 509 savings plan for my college education.
When I was in the 10th grade, my grandmother was diagnosed with ALS. We didn’t have health insurance, and what began with quitting soccer eventually led to dropping out of school as her condition worsened. In between her doctor’s appointments, keeping the house tidy, and keeping her comfortable, I took advantage of those few free moments to study for the GED.
In school pictures at Raleigh Elementary School, you could immediately spot me as “that Asian girl.” At lunch, I used to bring leftover fun see noodles, but after my classmates remarked how they smelled disgusting, I begged my mom to make a “regular” lunch of sliced bread, mayonnaise, and deli meat.
Although born and raised in North Carolina, I felt a cultural obligation to learn my “mother tongue” and reconnect with my “homeland.” After two years of all-day Saturday Chinese school, I finally visited Beijing for the first time, expecting I would finally belong. While my face initially assured locals of my Chinese identity, the moment I spoke, my cover was blown. My Chinese was littered with tonal errors, and I was instantly labeled as an “ABC,” American-born Chinese.
I felt culturally homeless.
Speak from your own experience
Highlight your actions, difficulties, and feelings rather than comparing yourself to others. While it may be tempting to write about how you have been more or less fortunate than those around you, keep the focus on you and your unique experiences, as shown below.
I began to despair when the FAFSA website once again filled with red error messages.
I had been at the local library for hours and hadn’t even been able to finish the form, much less the other to-do items for my application.
I am the first person in my family to even consider going to college. My parents work two jobs each, but even then, it’s sometimes very hard to make ends meet. Rather than playing soccer or competing in speech and debate, I help my family by taking care of my younger siblings after school and on the weekends.
“We only speak one language here. Speak proper English!” roared a store owner when I had attempted to buy bread and accidentally used the wrong preposition.
In middle school, I had relentlessly studied English grammar textbooks and received the highest marks.
Leaving Seoul was hard, but living in West Orange, New Jersey was much harder一especially navigating everyday communication with Americans.
After sharing relevant personal stories, make sure to provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your perspective, activities, and goals. You should also explain how your background led you to apply to this university and why you’re a good fit.
Include your outlook, actions, and goals
Conclude your essay with an insight about how your background or identity has affected your outlook, actions, and goals. You should include specific actions and activities that you have done as a result of your insight.
One night, before the midnight premiere of Avengers: Endgame , I stopped by my best friend Maria’s house. Her mother prepared tamales, churros, and Mexican hot chocolate, packing them all neatly in an Igloo lunch box. As we sat in the line snaking around the AMC theater, I thought back to when Maria and I took salsa classes together and when we belted out Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” at karaoke. In that moment, as I munched on a chicken tamale, I realized how much I admired the beauty, complexity, and joy in Maria’s culture but had suppressed and devalued my own.
The following semester, I joined Model UN. Since then, I have learned how to proudly represent other countries and have gained cultural perspectives other than my own. I now understand that all cultures, including my own, are equal. I still struggle with small triggers, like when I go through airport security and feel a suspicious glance toward me, or when I feel self-conscious for bringing kabsa to school lunch. But in the future, I hope to study and work in international relations to continue learning about other cultures and impart a positive impression of Saudi culture to the world.
The smell of the early morning dew and the welcoming whinnies of my family’s horses are some of my most treasured childhood memories. To this day, our farm remains so rural that we do not have broadband access, and we’re too far away from the closest town for the postal service to reach us.
Going to school regularly was always a struggle: between the unceasing demands of the farm and our lack of connectivity, it was hard to keep up with my studies. Despite being a voracious reader, avid amateur chemist, and active participant in the classroom, emergencies and unforeseen events at the farm meant that I had a lot of unexcused absences.
Although it had challenges, my upbringing taught me resilience, the value of hard work, and the importance of family. Staying up all night to watch a foal being born, successfully saving the animals from a minor fire, and finding ways to soothe a nervous mare afraid of thunder have led to an unbreakable family bond.
Our farm is my family’s birthright and our livelihood, and I am eager to learn how to ensure the farm’s financial and technological success for future generations. In college, I am looking forward to joining a chapter of Future Farmers of America and studying agricultural business to carry my family’s legacy forward.
Tailor your answer to the university
After explaining how your identity or background will enrich the university’s existing student body, you can mention the university organizations, groups, or courses in which you’re interested.
Maybe a larger public school setting will allow you to broaden your community, or a small liberal arts college has a specialized program that will give you space to discover your voice and identity. Perhaps this particular university has an active affinity group you’d like to join.
Demonstrating how a university’s specific programs or clubs are relevant to you can show that you’ve done your research and would be a great addition to the university.
At the University of Michigan Engineering, I want to study engineering not only to emulate my mother’s achievements and strength, but also to forge my own path as an engineer with disabilities. I appreciate the University of Michigan’s long-standing dedication to supporting students with disabilities in ways ranging from accessible housing to assistive technology. At the University of Michigan Engineering, I want to receive a top-notch education and use it to inspire others to strive for their best, regardless of their circumstances.
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
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In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .
Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.
Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .
To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.
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Common app 1: background and identity.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The valedictorian at my school can play the trombone. She's a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and she invented a new way to keep bread fresh. She's pretty amazing, but I don't think she's that unusual. In the stack of essays being considered for admission, I would guess she's the rule more than the exception.
I haven't invented anything. I can only play the kazoo, and the only belt I own came free with the suit. What I have to offer isn't as obvious as most applicants, but what I represent is important. My generation is one raised by pop culture, and while denigrating it, scions of elder generations ignore one simple fact: today's pop culture manufactures tomorrow's legends.
How can an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture contribute to a better way of life? Partly because this is the language of the future. I already speak it fluently, and any other ideas will be layered on top. The other reason is that although things like popular movies, books, and video games get dismissed, they actually have a lot to say.
While teachers might struggle to bring the story of Oedipus to modern students, I got what was going on quickly…because I watch Game of Thrones . The plotlines of incest and revenge, as well as defying the gods, are explored in great detail on the show. So when it came time to understand, I was able to map the characters onto one another, facilitating both my understanding and that of my friends, whom I could help with the reading.
Additionally, when I learned about the Wars of the Roses, it didn't take long for me to understand the importance of the Yorks and the Lancasters. I already had a window into both art and history from a television show, and my knowledge of it helped me understand both incarnations better.
It's not just facts and art that pop culture helps illuminate; most of my moral leaders have been fictional. Katniss Everdeen and Tony Stark both taught me about the importance of perseverance. Spider-Man's motto is "with great power comes great responsibility." The Terminator movies pressed the importance of preparing for the future while pointing out that the future is not set. While the teachers of these lessons might be unorthodox, they are the cornerstones of many religions and philosophies.
These stories are often rooted, consciously or not, in religion and folklore. When Captain America chooses not to fight his friend, instead literally turning the other cheek in the face of violence, not only do I understand the significance, but I am also able to point to a concrete place in space and time where this was the correct response.
Many people will agree that books, movies, and even television can contain lessons, but they still say to throw video games away. They call them a waste of time at best. This falls apart under a similar examination of the form.
The Assassin's Creed series, for example, taught me a bit about history. While I understand the Assassins and the Templar are not really secret societies fighting a millennia-old war, the people they run into are real. During the Revolution section in American History, I was the only one who knew minor players like Charles Lee and understood his significance. I also know names like Rodrigo Borgia, Robespierre, and Duleep Singh thanks to these games.
We all embrace what we love, and I have done that with the culture that has raised me. While I appreciate it on the surface level, as entertainment, I understand there is more to it. It has caused me to learn more than I would have in school. When I fight a new enemy in a historical game, I look him up.
Many of your applicants will run away from their time appreciating the mass art of their generation. Not me. I am fluent in the language of my time. I am uniquely suited to understanding and applying these concepts to higher learning. What you're getting with me is someone who will be able to bridge the gap between past and present, and apply their education to the future.
Why This Essay Works
This essay acknowledges the applicant's weaknesses from the beginning. By adopting a funny, self-deprecating attitude, the essay instantly stands out from the others around it. Although humor is there and is an integral part of the essay, it never takes over the narrative. It's used in the very beginning to separate itself from the pack, then moves into a more traditional inventory as it develops.
After humorously deconstructing the candidate's weaknesses, it moves into strengths. Many applicants don't know what their strengths are, and the purpose here is to show that even what you might regard as a weakness can be recast as a strength if you know how. Essentially, the writer declares a paradox in their thesis statement: all that time people say they wasted watching movie and playing video games is actually a strength.
The most important part is in the body, where the writer then backs up what they're saying. Making unfounded claims is good for attracting attention, but not so good for getting into college. The key is understanding what you've learned from your time enjoying culture. The writer then hits it, point by point, showing where movies, television, and video games have all made them a more ideal candidate for entry.
The conclusion dramatically restates the thesis, and includes the most stirring line at the end. This applicant is fluent in the language of today, and uses a rhythmic three-part statement on the end to drive the point home. This student knows they are not the traditional over-achiever that colleges are said to want; instead, they show that they're bold and innovative, two qualities that are irresistible.
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Nine brilliant student essays on honoring your roots.
Read winning essays from our fall 2019 student writing contest.
For the fall 2019 student writing contest, we invited students to read the YES! article “ Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself? ” by Kayla DeVault. Like the author, students reflected on their heritage and how connected they felt to different parts of their identities. Students then wrote about their heritage, family stories, how they honor their identities, and more.
From the hundreds of essays written, these nine were chosen as winners. Be sure to read the author’s response to the essay winners, literary gems and clever titles that caught our eye, and even more essays on identity in our Gallery of Voices.
Middle School Winner: Susanna Audi
High School Winner: Keon Tindle
High School Winner: Cherry Guo
University Winner: Madison Greene
Powerful Voice: Mariela Alschuler
Powerful Voice: Reese Martin
Powerful Voice: Mia De Haan
Powerful Voice: Laura Delgado
Powerful Voice: Rowan Burba
From the Author, Kayla DeVault: Response to All Student Writers and Essay Winners
Gallery of voices: more essays on identity, literary gems, titles we loved, middle school winner.
Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, N.Y.
BRAZIL: MY HEART’S HOME
Saudades. No word in the English language sums up the meaning of this Portuguese term: a deep feeling of longing that makes your heart ache and pound like a drum inside your chest. I feel saudades for Brazil, its unique culture, and my Brazilian family. When I’m in my second home, Bahia, Brazil, I’m a butterfly emerging from its cocoon—colorful, radiant, and ready to explore the world. I see coconut trees waving at the turquoise waves that are clear as glass. I smell the familiar scent of burning incense. I hear the rhythm of samba on hand-beaten drums, and I feel my grandma’s delicate fingers rub my back as I savor the mouth-watering taste of freshly made doce de leite . Although I’m here for only two precious weeks a year, I feel a magnetic connection to my father’s homeland, my heart’s home.
My grandfather or vovô , Evandro, was born in Brazil to a family who had immigrated from Lebanon and was struggling to make ends meet. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he remained at home and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. My vovô eventually started a small motorcycle parts company that grew so much that he was able to send my father to the U.S. at age sixteen. My father worked hard in school, overcoming language barriers and homesickness. Even though he has lived in America for most of his life, he has always cherished his Brazilian roots.
I’ve been raised with my father’s native language, foods, and customs. At home, I bake Brazilian snacks, such as the traditional cheese bread, pão de queijo , which is crunchy on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside. My family indulges in the same sweet treats that my father would sneak from the cupboard as a child. Two relaxing customs we share are listening to Brazilian music while we eat breakfast on weekends and having conversations in Portuguese during meals. These parts of my upbringing bring diversity and flavor to my identity.
Living in the U.S. makes me feel isolated from my Brazilian family and even more distant from Brazilian culture. It’s hard to maintain both American and Brazilian lifestyles since they are so different. In Brazil, there are no strangers; we treat everybody like family, regardless if that person works at the local shoe store or the diner. We embrace each other with loving hugs and exchange kisses on the cheeks whenever we meet. In the U.S., people prefer to shake hands. Another difference is that I never come out of Starbucks in New York with a new friend. How could I when most people sit with their eyes glued to their laptop screens? Life seems so rushed. To me, Brazilians are all about friendships, family, and enjoying life. They are much more relaxed, compared to the stressed and materialistic average American.
As Kayla DeVault says in her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself,” “It doesn’t matter how many pieces make up my whole: rather, it’s my relationship with those pieces that matters—and that I must maintain.” I often ask myself if I can be both American and Brazilian. Do I have to choose one culture over the other? I realize that I shouldn’t think of them as two different cultures; instead, I should think of them as two important, coexisting parts of my identity. Indeed, I feel very lucky for the full and flavorful life I have as a Brazilian American.
Susanna Audi is an eighth-grader who lives in the suburbs of New York. Susanna loves painting with watercolors, cooking Brazilian snacks, and playing the cello. On weekends, she enjoys babysitting and plays several sports including lacrosse, soccer, and basketball. Susanna would love to start her own creative design business someday.
High School Winner
Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
Walking Through the Forest of Culture
What are my roots? To most people, my roots only go as far as the eye can see. In a world where categorization and prejudice run rampant, the constant reminder is that I am Black. My past is a living juxtaposition: my father’s father is a descendant of the enslaved and oppressed and his wife’s forefathers held the whips and tightened the chains. Luckily for me, racial hatred turned to love. A passion that burned brighter than any cross, a love purer than any poison. This is the past I know so well. From the slave ship to the heart of Saint Louis, my roots aren’t very long, but they are deeply entrenched in Amerikkkan history.
This country was made off of the backs of my brothers and sisters, many of whom have gone unrecognized in the grand scheme of things. From a young age, White children are told stories of heroes—explorers, politicians, freedom fighters, and settlers whose sweat and determination tamed the animalistic lands of America. They’re given hope and power through their past because when they look in the mirror they see these heroes. But what about me? My stories are conveniently left out of the textbooks; I have never been the son of a king or a powerful African leader, just expensive cargo to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. It seems we, as a people, never truly left the ship.
Even now, we’re chained to the whitewashed image of Black history. I can never truly experience the Black tradition because there are multiple perspectives. The truth is clouded and lost due to the lack of documentation and pervasive amount of fabrication. How am I supposed to connect to my heritage? America tells me to celebrate the strength of my ancestors, the strength of the slaves, to praise something they helped create. The Afrocentrics tell me to become one with the motherland, celebrate the culture I was pulled away from. However, native Africans make it clear I’ll never truly belong.
Even the honorable Elijah Muhammad tells me to keep my chin pointed to the clouds, to distrust the creation of Yakub, and to take my place among the rest of Allah’s children. Most people don’t have the luxury of “identifying with all of the pieces of [themselves],” as Kayla DeVault says in the YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?”
They’re forced to do research and to formulate their own ideas of who they are rather than follow the traditions of an elder. For some, their past works as a guide. A walk through life that has been refined over generations. Others, however, are forced to struggle through the dark maze of life. Hands dragging across the walls in an attempt to not lose their way. As a result, their minds create stories and artwork from every cut and scratch of the barriers’ surface. Gaining direction from the irrelevant, finding patterns in the illogical.
So what are my roots? My roots are my branches, not where I come from but where this life will take me. The only constant is my outstretched arms pointed towards the light. A life based on the hope that my branches will sprout leaves that will fall and litter the path for the next generation.
Keon Tindle is unapologetically Black and embraces his African American background. Keon is an esports competitor, musician, and producer, and especially enjoys the craft of pairing history with hip-hop music. He is always ecstatic to dabble in new creative outlets and hopes to pursue a career in neuroscience research.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Va.
Tying the Knot
The kitchen smells like onions and raw meat, neither unpleasant nor pleasant. Nainai’s house slippers slap against our kitchen floor as she bustles around, preparing fillings for zongzi: red bean paste, cooked peanuts, and marinated pork. I clap my pudgy hands together, delighted by the festivities.
Nainai methodically folds the bamboo leaves into cones, fills them up with rice, and binds the zongzi together with string that she breaks between her teeth. I try to follow suit, but when I try to tie the zongzi together, half the rice spills out. Tired from my lack of progress, I abandon Nainai for my parents, who are setting up the mahjong table.
After raising me to the age of ten, my grandparents returned to China. They dropped back into their lives like they had never left, like they hadn’t shaped my entire upbringing. Under their influence, my first language was not English, but Chinese.
At school, my friends cajoled me into saying Chinese words for them and I did so reluctantly, the out-of-place syllables tasting strange on my palate. At home, I slowly stopped speaking Chinese, embarrassed by the way my tongue mangled English words when I spoke to classmates. One particular memory continually plagues me. “It’s Civil War, silly. Why do you pronounce “L” with an ‘R’?” Civil. Civil. Civil.
At dinner, my dad asked us to speak Chinese. I refused, defiantly asking my brother in English to pass the green beans. I began constructing false narratives around my silence. Why would I use my speech to celebrate a culture of foot binding and feudalism? In truth, I was afraid. I was afraid that when I opened my mouth to ask for the potatoes, I wouldn’t be able to conjure up the right words. I was afraid I would sound like a foreigner in my own home. If I refused to speak, I could pretend that my silence was a choice.
In Kayla DeVault’s YES! article “Native and European – How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” she insists that “Simply saying “I am this” isn’t enough. To truly honor my heritage, I found I must understand and participate in it.” And for the first time, I wonder if my silence has stolen my cultural identity.
I decide to take it back.
Unlike DeVault, I have no means of travel. Instead, my reclamation starts with collecting phrases: a string of words from my dad when he speaks to Nainai over the phone, seven characters from two Chinese classmates walking down the hall, another couple of words from my younger sister’s Chinese cartoons.
The summer before my senior year marks the eighth year of my grandparents’ return to China. Once again, I am in the kitchen, this time surrounded by my parents and siblings. The bamboo leaves and pot of rice sit in front of me. We all stand, looking at each other expectantly. No one knows how to make zongzi. We crowd around the iPad, consulting Google. Together, we learn how to shape the leaves and pack the rice down.
The gap in knowledge bothers me. Does it still count as honoring a family tradition when I follow the directions given by a nameless pair of hands on YouTube rather than hearing Nainai’s voice in my mind?
Instead of breaking the string with my teeth like Nainai had shown me, I use scissors to cut the string—like I had done with my ties to Chinese language and culture all those years ago. And now, I’m left with the severed string that I must hurriedly tie around the bamboo leaf before the rice falls out of my zongzi.
Cherry Guo is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Cherry rows for her school’s crew team and plays the viola in her school orchestra. She spends what little free time she has eating pretzel crisps and listening to podcasts about philosophy.
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Carrying the Torch
I have been called a pizza bagel–the combination of a Catholic Italian and an Ashkenazi Jew. Over time, I have discovered the difficulty of discretely identifying the ratio of pizza to bagel. It is even more arduous when the pizza and the bagel have theologies that inherently contradict each other. Therefore, in a society that emphasizes fine lines and exact distinctions, my identity itself becomes a contradiction.
In the winter, my family tops our Christmas tree with the Star of David. I’ve recited the Lord’s Prayer; I’ve prayed in Hebrew. I attended preschool at a church, and my brother was a preschooler in a synagogue. Every week at Sunday morning mass, my maternal family donates money to the collection basket during the offertory. My paternal family has donated authentic Holocaust photographs to a local Jewish heritage museum. Growing up, none of this was contradictory; in fact, it all seemed complementary. My Jewish and Catholic identities did not cancel each other out but rather merged together.
However, the compatibility of my Catholic-Jewish identities was in upheaval when I decided to become acquainted with the Jewish community on campus. While attending Hillel events, I felt insecure because I did not share many of the experiences and knowledge of other Jewish students. Despite this insecurity, I continued to participate — until a good friend of mine told me that I was not Jewish enough because of my Catholic mother. She also said that families like mine were responsible for the faltering of Jewish culture. I wanted my identity to be validated. Instead, it was rejected. I withdrew and avoided not only my Jewish identity but also my identity as a whole.
I soon realized that this friend and I look at my situation using different filters. My Catholic-Jewish identities have evolved into a codependent relationship, and I am entitled to unapologetically embrace and explore both aspects of my identity. I realized that even without my friend’s validation of my identity, I still exist just the same. Any discredit of my Catholic-Jewish identities does not eliminate my blended nature. So, after a few months of avoiding my Jewish identity, I chose to embrace my roots; I resumed participating in the Jewish community on campus, and I have not stopped since.
Kayla DeVault’s YES! article “Native and European – How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” describes the obligation to one’s ancestral chain. The best way to fulfill this duty is to fully dedicate oneself to understanding the traditions that accompany those cultural origins. In this generation, my mother’s Catholic-Italian maiden name has no men to carry it on to the next generation. It is difficult to trace my last name past the mid-1900s because my Jewish ancestors shortened our surname to make it sound less Semitic, to be less vulnerable to persecution. Given the progressive fading of my family’s surnames, how do I continue the legacies of both family lines?
On behalf of my ancestors and for the sake of the generations still to come, I feel obligated to blend and simultaneously honor my Jewish and Catholic heritage to ensure that both prevail.
Now I know that whether I am sitting next to my Jewish father at my young cousin’s baptism, or whether I am sitting at the Passover Seder table with my mother’s Catholic parents, it is up to me to keep both flames of my ancestry burning bright. The least I can do is hold each family’s candle in my hands. Imagine the tremendous blaze I could create if I brought the flames of my two families together.
Madison Greene is a Communication Studies major at Kent State University. Madison is also pursuing a minor in Digital Media Production. She is currently the president of her sorority.
Powerful Voice Winner
Behind My Skin
My roots go deeper than the ground I stand on. My family is from all over the world with extended branches that reach over whole countries and vast oceans.
Though I am from these branches, sometimes I never see them. My Dominican roots are obvious when I go to my abuela’s house for holidays. My family dances to Spanish music. I fill my plate with platanos fritos and my favorite rice and beans. I feel like a Dominican American girl. Maybe it’s the food. Maybe it’s the music. Or maybe it’s just the way that my whole family—aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins— laugh and talk and banter in my grandparents’ small, beautiful apartment.
Even though I am blood to this family, I stick out like a sore thumb. I stick out for my broken Spanish, my light skin, my soft, high-pitched voice and how I do my hair. I feel like I don’t belong to my beautiful, colorful family, a disordered array of painted jars on a shelf.
If my Dominican family is like a disorganized and vibrant shelf of colors, then my European family is a neat and sparse one with just a hint of color. For Christmas in New York, there are dozens of us crammed in the small apartment. For Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, there are rarely more than twelve people in the grandiose, pristine house that looks like something out of House Beautiful . I adore my grandparent’s house. It is expansive and neatly painted white. After growing up in a small house on a school campus and visiting my other grandparents’ small apartment in New York, I thought that their house was the greatest thing in the world. I would race up the stairs, then slide down the banister. I would sip Grandma’s “fancy” gingerbread tea, loving the feeling of sophistication. There, I could forget about the struggles of my Dominican family. I was the granddaughter of a wealthy, Jewish, Massachusetts couple rather than the granddaughter of a working-class second-generation Dominican abuela and abuelo from the Bronx.
I don’t fit in with my European family either. My dark skin and my wild hair don’t belong in this tidy family. In Massachusetts, the branches of my Dominican family, no matter how strong and extensive, are invisible. The same way my European roots are lost when I am in New York.
So what am I? For years I have asked myself this question. Wondering why I couldn’t have a simple garden of a family rather than the jungle that I easily get lost in. As Kayla DeVault says in her YES! article “Native and European—How can I honor all parts of myself?,” “Simply saying ‘I am this’ isn’t enough.” And it isn’t. My race, color, and ethnicity do not make up who I am. I am still a daughter. A sister. A cousin. A friend. My mixed identity does not make me less whole, less human. I may have lightly tanned skin and my lips may not form Spanish words neatly, but behind my skin is bright color and music. There is warm gingerbread tea and golden platanos fritos. There is Spanish singing from my abuelo’s speaker and “young people” songs that play from my headphones. There is a little, cozy apartment and a large, exquisite house. Behind my skin is more than what you can see. Behind my skin is what makes me me.
Mariela Alschuler is a seventh-grader at Ethical Culture Fieldston School and lives in the Bronx, New York. When she’s not in school, Mariela likes to read, write, do gymnastics, watch Netflix, and spend time with her friends and family. She hopes to be a doctor and writer when she grows up.
University Liggett School, Grosse Point Woods, Mich.
A True Irishman?
Similar to Kayla Devault in her YES! article “Native and European-How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself,” I hold holistic pride in my cultural identity. As a descendant of Irish immigrants, my childhood was filled with Irish folk music, laughter, and all things green. I remember being a toddler, sitting on my Popo’s lap wearing a shiny green, slightly obnoxious, beaded shamrock necklace. There, in the living room, I was surrounded by shamrocks hanging on the walls and decorations spread throughout, courtesy of my grandmother who always went overboard. My father and his siblings were Irish fanatics, as well. My aunt, whom I loved spending time with as a child, was notorious for wild face painting, ear-splitting music, and crazy outfits on St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday typically started in Detroit’s historic Corktown for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade with the promise of authentic Irish corned beef and soda bread at the Baile Corcaigh Irish Restaurant following the festivities. Charlie Taylor, a local Irish musician, belted folk songs from Baile Corcaigh’s makeshift stage. It was one of the few days a year my father and his large family came together. Although my aunt and grandparents have passed, our family’s Irish pride is eternal.
There was, however, one peculiar thing about our Irish heritage— none of my family looked classic Irish. My father and his five siblings have nearly black eyes and fairly dark skin, not the typical Irish traits of blue eyes and light skin. DeVault wrote, “When I was older, the questions came, which made me question myself.” I fell into a similar predicament, questioning my heritage. It truly came as a shock when a couple of my paternal aunts and several cousins took DNA tests through 23andMe and AncestryDNA. The results revealed the largest percentage of our ethnicity was Lebanese and Middle Eastern, not Irish.
It felt like a punch to the gut. I was clueless on how to move forward. According to the numbers, we possessed an insignificant amount of Irish blood. How was it possible to be wrong about such a huge part of my identity? Not only was I confused about my culture and history, but I also experienced a great deal of shame—not of my newfound Middle Eastern heritage, but the lack of Irish DNA, which I had previously held so close and felt so proud of. It felt as though I was betraying the memory of my late grandparents and aunt.
Even amidst my confusion, I found this new heritage intriguing; I was excited to explore all that my newly found Lebanese culture had to offer: unique foods, unfamiliar traditions, and new geography. In addition to the familiar boiled and mashed potatoes, my family now eats hummus and shawarma. I also know more about the basic facts, history, and government of Lebanon. One thing dampens my enthusiasm, however. I wonder how I can fully develop a love for my newly discovered culture without being too deliberate and appearing to be insensitive to cultural appropriation.
It is here, in the depths of uncertainty and intrigue, I relate most to DeVault’s question, “How do I honor all parts of myself?” Although my Irish ancestry may not be as authentic as I once believed, I still feel a strong connection to the Irish culture. I’ve found that to truly honor all pieces of my identity, I must be willing to accept every aspect of my ancestry. I don’t need to reject Lebanese ethnicity, nor disregard the Irish memories of my childhood. I am allowed to be everything all at once. At the end of the day, with both Irish culture and Lebanese heritage, I am still simply and perfectly me.
Reese Martin is a junior at University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. Reese plays hockey and soccer, swims competitively and is a violinist in her school orchestra. She enjoys volunteering, especially peer tutoring and reading with young children.
On the floor, a murdered woman lays bloody and dead. Two young boys stare in horror at their dead mother. At only 10 years old, my great-grandfather experienced unfathomable suffering. A generation later, my grandfather and two great-uncles grew up under an abusive roof. My great-uncle Joe, the youngest of three boys, endured the worst of the abuse. Joe’s scarred brain altered during the sexual and emotional abuse his father subjected him to. From the time he was 18 months old, trusted adults of Joe’s community violated him throughout his childhood. These traumas spiraled into a century of silence, the silence I am determined to break.
My father’s lineage is littered with trauma. Our family doesn’t openly share its past. We constantly masquerade as “normal” so we can fit in, but the alienation we experience is understandable. In Kayla DeVault’s YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” she explains her numerous identities, which include Shawnee, Anishinaabe, Eastern European, Scottish, and Irish. Although I don’t have her rich ethnic ancestry, I question my roots just as she does. I have limited photos of my deceased relatives. There are only two prominent ones: my paternal grandmother as a child with her siblings and my maternal grandmother’s obituary photo. These frosted images hide the truth of my family’s history. They’re not perfect 4″ x 6″ moments frozen in time. They’re shadowed memories of a deeply disturbed past.
For 17 years, my family was clueless about our past family trauma. Two months ago, my great-aunt explained Joe’s story to me. Joe developed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as a result of his abuse. By the age of 18, his brain contained 95 alters (fragments of his identity that broke off and developed into true individuals), causing Joe to appear as the “weird one,” the one who my family dismissed, the outcast of my dad’s childhood. My dad only learned one year ago, long after Joe died, about Joe’s DID. My family’s adamancy to hold secrets outweighed accepting and helping Joe. The shadows around these secrets quickly dispersed.
The silence and shame from a mother’s death a century ago still have a chokehold on my family today. My family appears a disaster to outsiders. My mom’s side is so religious they would never fathom a conversation about these harsh realities. In addition to Joe, my dad’s side has uncles who struggle with codependency and trauma from past abuses. Joe’s brother coped by latching onto another “normal” family, and my grandfather coped by never talking about issues. My parents married soon after my maternal grandmother and three of her four siblings died within a few weeks of each other. Despite years of therapy, my parents divorced when I was 11 years old. I grew up surrounded by dysfunction without recognizing it.
How do I honor my roots? I work to break the silence and stigmas of abuse and mental health. I’ve participated in therapy for about five years and have been on medicine for about two. I must reprogram my brain’s attachment to codependent tendencies and eliminate the silence within me. I’m working through my intrusive thoughts and diving into my family’s past and disrupting harmful old patterns. I’m stepping away from the shadows of my ancestors and into the light, ensuring that future generations grow up with knowledge of our past history of abuse and mental illness. Knowledge that allows us to explore the shadows without living in them. Knowledge that there’s more in life outside of the frames.
Rowan Burba, a junior at Kirkwood High School in Missouri, loves to participate as a witness in Mock Trial competitions, build and paint sets for the KHS theatre department, play viola in her school orchestra, and do crafts with kids. She is involved in politics and wants to help change the world for the better.
Mia De Haan
Estrella Mountain Community College, Avondale, Ariz.
What Being a Part of the LGBTQ+ Community Means to Me
Being queer is that one thing about me I am most proud of, yet also most scared of. Knowing that I am putting my life at risk for the simplest thing, like being gay, is horrifying.
Let’s talk about my first crush. Her name was Laurel, and she was always in front of me when we lined up after recess in first grade. I remember wishing that girls could marry girls because she had the prettiest long, blonde hair. I left these thoughts in the back of my head until middle school. I couldn’t stop staring at a certain girl all day long. That one girl who I would have sleepovers with every weekend and slow dance with at school dances—but only as friends. She changed my life. She was the first person to tell me that I was accepted and had no reason to be afraid.
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t all rainbows and Pride parades. It is watching your family turn away from you in disgust but never show it on their faces. It’s opening Twitter and learning that it’s still illegal to be gay in 71+ countries. It’s astonishing that we had to wait until 2015 for the U.S. Supreme Court to make it legal to marry in all 50 states.
My identity is happiness yet pain, so much pain. I hated myself for years, shoved myself back into a closet and dated my best friend for two years because maybe if I brought a boy home my family would wish me “Happy Birthday” again or send me Christmas presents like they do for my brother and sister.
When I began to explore my identity again, I asked myself, “Am I safe?” “Will I still be loved?” I was horrified. I am horrified. Legally, I am safe, but I am not safe physically. I can still be beaten up on the streets for holding a girl’s hand. Protesters at Pride festivals are still allowed to shout profanities at us and tell us that we are going to burn in hell—and the cops protect them. I am not safe mentally because I still allow the words of people and homophobes in the media and on my street get inside of my head and convince me that I am a criminal.
When I read Kayla DeVault’s YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” I could feel how proud DeVault is to be Shawnee and Irish. While we do not share the same identity, I could tell that we are the same because we both would do anything for our cultures and want to show our pride to the rest of the world.
I honor my LGBTQ+ identity by going to Pride festivals and events. I also participate in an LGBTQ+ church and club, where, for years, was the only place I could be myself without the fear of being outed or harmed. Whenever I hear people being ignorant towards my community, I try to stay calm and have a conversation about why our community is great and valid and that we are not doing anything wrong.
I don’t know if the world will ever change, but I do know that I will never change my identity just because the world is uncomfortable with who I am. I have never been one to take risks; the idea of making a fool of myself scares me. But I took one because I thought someone might listen to my gay sob story. I never expected it to be heard. If you have your own gay sob story, I will listen, and so will many others, even if you don’t realize it yet.
Amelia (Mia) De Haan was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Mia has devoted her entire life to art, specifically theatre and dance. While she has struggled to figure out what she wants to do for the rest of her life, she does know that she wants to inspire people and be a voice for the people of the LGBTQ+ community who still feel that no one is listening. Mia dreams of moving to New York with her cat Loki and continuing to find a way to inspire people.
Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.
I moved to the United States when I was eight years old because my father knew Venezuela was becoming more corrupt. He wanted to give his family a better life. My sense of self and belonging was wiped clean when I moved to the United States, a country that identified me and continues to label me as an “alien.” On U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) documents, I am Alien Number xxx-xxx-xxx. I will not let that alien number define who I am: a proud Venezuelan and American woman.
In her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” author Kayla DeVault says that “to truly honor [her] heritage, [she] found [she] must understand and participate in it.” This is why during Christmas I help my mom make hallacas (a traditional Venezuelan dish made out of cornmeal, stuffed with beef, pork, chicken, raisins, capers, and olives, wrapped in a banana leaf that is boiled to perfection), pan de jamón (a Christmas bread filled with ham, cheese, raisins, and olives—the perfect sweet and salty combination, if you ask me), and ensalada de gallina (a chicken, potatoes, and green apple salad seasoned with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper). While the gaitas (traditional Venezuelan folk music) is playing, we set up the Christmas tree and, under it, the nativity scene. The smell of Venezuelan food engulfs our small apartment. Every time I leave the house, the smell of food sticks to me like glue, and I love it.
We go to our fellow Venezuelan friend’s house to dance, eat, and laugh like we were back in Venezuela. We play bingo and gamble quarters as we talk over each other. My favorite thing is how we poke fun at each other, our way of showing our love. There is nothing better than being surrounded by my Venezuelan family and friends and feeling like I belong.
My ancestors are Spanish settlers, West African slaves, and Indigenous Venezuelans. To my peers, I am a Latina woman who can speak Spanish and comes from a country they have never heard of. To my family, I am a strong and smart Venezuelan woman who is succeeding in this country she calls home.
I was immediately an outcast as a young newcomer to this country. I was the new, exotic girl in class who did not speak a word of English; all of that led to bullying. Growing up in a country that did not want me was—and still is—hard. People often ask me why I would ever want to identify as American. My answer to their question is simple: This is my home. I knew that the chances of us going back to Venezuela were slim to none so I decided to make this country my home. At first, I fought it. My whole life was back in Venezuela. Eventually, I made lifelong friends, had my first kiss and my first heartbreak. I went to all of the homecoming and prom dances and made memories with my best friends to last me a lifetime. Yes, I was born in Venezuela and the pride of being a Venezuelan woman will never be replaced, but my whole life is in the United States and I would never trade that for the world.
I am Venezuelan and I am American. I am an immigrant and I am Latina. The United States government will always know me as Alien Number xxx-xxx-xxx, but they will not know that my heritage is rich and beautiful and that I am a proud Venezuelan and a proud American woman.
Laura Delgado is a Junior at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, majoring in Graphic Design and minoring in Hispanic Studies. Laura and her family migrated to the United States from Venezuela in 2007 to escape the Chavez regime. She is a DACA recipient and a first-generation college student who has a passion for graphic design and hopes to one day open her own interior design company.
Dear every human who wrote in this contest or thought about writing,
I want to start by addressing all of you.
I think stepping out of your comfort zone and writing your truth—even if you think you aren’t a writer— is a brave thing to do.
I want you to understand that not being selected does not mean your story isn’t valid or that your identity wasn’t “enough.” Remember, you’re always enough. You’re enough to God, to Allah, to your Higher Power, to the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the sky, to your parents, and to your ancestors who endured long enough for you to come into existence.
As I read through the various essays, I saw a common thread of food . Whether it’s the pierogi sales at churches in Pittsburgh, the neverias around Phoenix, or the soul food joints in Birmingham, the history of our ancestors’ movements have left their impressions in our cuisine.
Another theme I found in several essays was a “uniformed diaspora.” Some of you talked about not being able to fully trace your lineage, having your history stolen by some method of political racism, and even grappling with finding that your genetics are not all you thought they were. As a Native person, I know all too well that we had much taken from us. I know that the conquerors wrote our history, so ours is recorded with bias, racism, and flippancy.
And now to the essay winners:
To Susanna: Obrigada for your story. I encourage you to keep exploring your identity and how it informs your existence today on Lenape, Rockaway, and Canarsie traditional lands (New York City). Your imagery reflects saudades well. I think there is an intriguing and untapped story embedded in your father’s experience from Lebanon, and I encourage you to explore how that merges with your Brazilian identity.
When I read that passage about Starbucks, I thought about how the average young American seems to be private in public, but public in private—meaning this culture and its technology isolates us (private) when we are around other people (public), yet so many of us share most about ourselves on social media (public) where we can pick and choose if we want to engage with someone (private). By the way, I, too, played lacrosse… Did you know it has Indigenous roots?
To Cherry: 非常感谢你! Don’t listen to the American stereotypes of who you are, as hard as that can be. You sadly may always hear them, but hearing is not the same as listening. People undermine the things they don’t understand because the things they don’t understand scare them. While it is not your job to feel you have to educate them, you do have the freedom to choose how you navigate those spaces.
I understand how it may feel inauthentic to learn how to make traditional foods like zongzi from a YouTube video. For me, I have had to learn beading and other crafts because I was too ashamed to learn them when I had the elders still in my life. I tell young folk to know their elders now while they can. Furthermore, please speak every language no matter how imperfect because it’s a gift. Also, I’ll eat your zongzi any day, even if all the rice falls out!
To Keon: The imagery and symbols of slavery you use, powerfully describe a revisionist history that further blocks access to what would be a culturally-rich ancestry.
I remember standing on the shores of Ouidah, Benin, from where the majority of slaves left, looking through La Porte du Non Retour (The Door of No Return) memorial, and hearing a local say, “Our relatives, they left these shores for the ships and then… we never heard from them again.” And so we come to realize our stories are known only so far as they have been carried.
I see hope in the way you have embraced your roots as your branches to move forward. I believe that, in looking towards your branches, you have actually found your roots. You are a product of all the stories, told and untold, remembered and forgotten. I encourage you to keep writing and exploring how your seemingly contradicting and somewhat unknown roots shaped your ancestors and shape their product: you. Don’t hold back.
To Madison: Grazie and תודה. First of all, pizza bagels are delicious… just saying… talk about the best of both worlds! You write about the challenge of fitting into your communities, and I can certainly see how religious differences can become contentious.
I am sorry that you had a negative Hillel experience. In the end, we can’t let the persecutors steal our ancestral identities from us because that allows them to win. Cultures are fluid, not rigid and defined as peers might bully us into thinking. It’s rotten when people label us with things like “pizza bagel,” but if you boldly embrace it, you can turn it on its head. So I encourage you to be the smartest, wittiest, and most deliciously confident pizza bagel out there, writing your experience for all to read!
To Laura: Gracias , you write with a motif of sorts, one that conflates your identity to a number and the label of “alien.” For people in the United States to be dismissive of immigrants and judgmental of their cultures and languages is for the same people to forget their own origins, their own stories, and their own roles (as benefactors or as victims) in this age-old system of oppression for gain. It is also rather ironic that we call people “aliens;” unless they are from an Indigenous nation. Are not nearly all Americans “aliens” to some degree?
You write about being bullied as the new, exotic girl in school and I have also experienced that as my family moved around a bit growing up; however, I have also had the privilege to speak English.
It’s sad that these experiences are still so proliferate, and so I think it is vital that people like you share their experiences. Perhaps your background can inform how you think about spaces as an interior designer.
To Mariela: Gracias and תודה for the story you shared. You write about a complex existence that is a mix of poor and wealthy, white and brown, warm and cool. Learning to navigate these contrasting sides of your family will help you work with different kinds of people in your future.
I can understand your point about feeling out of place by your skin color. Lighter skin is largely considered a privilege in society, yet for those of us with non-white heritages, it can make us feel like we don’t belong amongst our own family. We have to walk a fine line where we acknowledge we may be treated better than our relatives in some circumstances but we have to sit with the feeling of not being “brown enough” other times. I encourage you to keep exploring your branches and sharing your feelings with your relatives about these topics. Perhaps one day you can use your deep understanding of human relations to inform your bedside manner as a doctor!
To Mia: Thank you for your brave piece, despite your fears. Your emotional recollection about the first girl you loved is very touching and powerful.
I am sorry that you don’t feel as though you are treated the same by your family on account of your identity and that you have to take extra steps to be accepted, but I believe your continuing to be your authentic self is the only way to prove you mean what you mean.
I hope the utmost safety and acceptance for you. I also thank you for seeing and relating to my pride that I have for myself, and I encourage you to consider creative outlets— maybe even podcast hosting—to uplift your story and the stories of others, spread awareness, and facilitate change.
To Reese: Go raibh maith agat . That’s how you thank a singular person in Irish, if you didn’t know already. I enjoyed your piece because, of course, we have an Irish connection that I understand.
I find it pretty interesting that you came back with a lot of Lebanese results in your family tests. Understand those tests only represent the inherited genes, so if both of your parents were a quarter Irish but three-quarters Lebanese, for example, you would get half of each of their genes. You might get half Lebanese from both and you would appear full Lebanese—or any other variation. My point is those tests aren’t exact reports.
I am excited you have found new aspects of your heritage and I hope you will continue to explore—as best you can—what your ancestral history is. And, by the way, I, too, play hockey and the violin—fine choices!
To Rowan: Many families put up a facade, and it’s only the brave ones, like you, addressing the trauma head-on who will be able to break the cycle that causes intergenerational trauma.
When we explore the parts of our identity, many of us may find how much trauma —including historic policy, racism, and displacement—has impacted our ancestors, perhaps centuries upon centuries ago. Learning about my family history and about religious factors has revealed stories of abuse and secrets that have been hushed wildly, even within my immediate family. Photos can be sad when we know the stories behind them and even when we never knew the person; they’re still a part of us and we can honor them by remembering them. I think you choosing to write about your Uncle Joe and the effects of trauma in your family— especially as you process and heal yourself—will be a tremendous resource both internally and for others. Thank you for sharing and I hope you find happiness in those frames.
Again, thank you all for your essays. It is exciting to see the youth writing. I am grateful for my piece to have been chosen for this contest and, I hope I’ve encouraged readers to consider every part that makes up their whole and how it has informed their life experiences.
“ In seventh grade, I went to an affinity group meeting. And all I remember was being called a bad Asian again and again. I was called a bad Asian because I couldn’t use chopsticks. I was called a bad Asian because I didn’t know what bubble tea or K-pop was. Time and again, I was called a bad Asian because I didn’t know the things I was expected to know, and I didn’t do the things that I was expected to do. That meeting made me truly question my identity. “ . —Sebastian Cynn, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y. Click here to read the entire essay.
“It’s difficult being Dominican but born and raised in New York. I’m supposed to speak fluent Spanish. I’m supposed to listen to their music 24/7, and I’m supposed to follow their traditions. I’m supposed to eat their main foods. I’m unique and it’s not only me. Yes, I may not speak Spanish. Yes, I may not listen to their kind of music, but I don’t think that defines who I am as a Dominican. I don’t think I should be discriminated for not being the same as most Dominicans. Nobody should be discriminated against for being different from the rest because sometimes different is good. “ —Mia Guerrero, KIPP Washington Heights Middle School, New York, N.Y. Click here to read the entire essay.
When I hang out with some of my older friend groups, which are mainly white, straight kids, I don’t mention that I’m Asian or Gay, but as soon as I’m with my friends, I talk about my identifiers a lot. A lot of them are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and 11 out of 14 of them are a person of color. With my grandparents, I am quieter, a good Asian grandchild who is smart, gets good grades, is respectful. And I don’t act “Gay.” … Why do I have to act differently with different people? Why do I only feel comfortable with all of my identities at school?
—Gillian Okimoto, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y. Click here to read the entire essay .
“ Torah, Shema, yarmulke, all important elements of Jewish identity—except for mine. All these symbols assume the existence of a single God, but that doesn’t resonate with me. Religion is a meaningful part of my family’s identity. After all, wanting to freely practice their religion was what brought my great-grandparents to America from Eastern Europe. Being very interested in science, I could never wrap my head around the concept of God. Can I be Jewish while not believing in God? “ —Joey Ravikoff, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ Yes, I am transgender, but I am also a son, a friend, an aspiring writer, and a dog trainer. I love riding horses. I’ve had the same volunteer job since sixth grade. I love music and trips to the art museum. I know who I am and whether other people choose to see me for those things is out of my control. Holidays with my family feels like I’m suffocating in a costume. I’ve come out twice in my life. First, as a lesbian in middle school. Second, as a transgender man freshman year. I’ve gotten good at the classic sit-down. With hands folded neatly in front of me, composure quiet and well-kept, although I’m always terrified. “ —Sebastian Davies-Sigmund, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ No longer do I wish to be stared at when civil rights and slavery are discussed. In every Socratic seminar, I shudder as expectant white faces turn to mine. My brown skin does not make me the ambassador for Black people everywhere. Please do not expect me to be the racism police anymore. Do not base the African American experience upon my few words. Do not try to be relatable when mentioning Hannukah is in a few days. Telling me you tell your White friends not to say the N-word doesn’t do anything for me. “ —Genevieve Francois, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ I often walk into the kitchen greeted by my mother sitting on her usual stool and the rich smells of culture—the spicy smell of India, the hearty smell of cooked beans, or the sizzling of burgers on the grill. Despite these great smells, I find myself often yearning for something like my friends have; one distinct culture with its food, people, music, and traditions. I don’t have a one-click culture. That can be freeing, but also intimidating . People who know me see me as a fraction: ¼ black, ¾ white, but I am not a fraction. I am human, just human. “ —Amaela Bruce, New Tech Academy at Wayne High School, Fort Wayne, Ind. Click here to read the entire essay.
“‘We just don’t want you to go to hell. ‘ I am not an atheist. I am not agnostic. I have no religion nor do I stand strong in any one belief. My answer to the mystery of life is simple: I don’t know. But I live in a world full of people who think they do. There will be a day when that capital G does not control my conversations. There will be a day when I can speak of my beliefs, or lack thereof, without judgment, without the odd stare, and without contempt. The day will come when a life without religion is just another life. That is the day I wait for. That day will be Good. “ —Amara Lueker, New Tech Academy at Wayne High School, Fort Wayne, Ind. Click here to read the entire essay.
“¡Correle!” yell the people around him. He runs to the grass, ducks down and starts to wait. He’s nervous. You can smell the saltiness of sweat. He looks up and hears the chopping of helicopter blades. You can see the beam of light falling and weaving through the grass field … out of a group of thirteen, only four were left hidden. He and the others crossed and met up with people they knew to take them from their own land down south to the opportunity within grasp up north. That was my father many years ago. I’ve only asked for that story once, and now it’s committed to memory. “ —Luz Zamora, Woodburn Academy of Art Science & Technology, Woodburn, Ore. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ How do I identify myself? What do I connect to? What’s important to you? Here’s the answer: I don’t. Don’t have a strong connection. Don’t know the traditions. Don’t even know the languages. I eat some of the food and kinda sorta hafta** the major holidays but thinking about it I don’t know anything important. I think that the strongest connection to my family is my name, Mei Li (Chinese for “beautiful” Ana (a variation on my mother’s very American middle name: Anne) Babuca (my father’s Mexican last name). “ —Mei Li Ana Babuca, Chief Sealth International High School, Seattle, Wash. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ My whole life I have felt like I don’t belong in the Mexican category. I mean yeah, I’m fully Mexican but, I’ve always felt like I wasn’t. Why is that you ask? Well, I feel that way because I don’t know Spanish. Yes, that’s the reason. It may not sound like a big deal, but, for me, I’ve always felt disconnected from my race. I felt shameful. I felt like it was an obligation to know what is supposed to be my mother tongue. My whole family doesn’t really know fluent Spanish and that has always bothered me growing up. “ —Yazmin Perez, Wichita North High School, Wichita, Kan Click here to read the entire essay.
“ I believe differently from DeVault, who believes it’s important to connect and participate with your heritage. I believe that our personal pasts have more to do with who we are as people than any national identity ever could. Sure, our heritage is important, but it doesn’t do nearly as much to shape our character and perspective as our struggles and burdens do. Out of all my past experiences, illness—and especially mental illness—has shaped me. “ —Chase Deleon, Central York High School, York, Penn. Click here to read the entire essay.
“ … I can now run that whole grape leaf assembly line, along with other traditional plates, by myself. I have begun speaking out on current topics, such as Middle-Eastern representation in acting. I have become so much closer with my relatives and I don’t mind busting a move with them on the dance floor. Although a trip to Syria is not in my near future, DeVault made me realize that a connection to your geographical cultural roots is important. According to my aunt, I have become a carefree, happy, and more passionate person. I no longer feel stuck in the middle of ethnicity and society. Becoming one with and embracing my identity truly is ‘A Whole New World.’” —Christina Jarad, University Ligget School, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. Click here to read the entire essay.
“While my bow is not made of wood and my arrows lack a traditional stone tip, the connections are always present, whether I am stalking bull elk in the foothills of the Rockies or fly fishing in the mystical White River. The methods and the technologies may be different, but the motivations are the same. It is a need to be connected to where my food originates. It is a desire to live in harmony with untouched lands. It is a longing to live wild, in a time where the wild is disappearing before our eyes. “ —Anderson Burdette, Northern Oklahoma University, Stillwater, Okla. Click here to read the entire essay.
“Black people always say that White people don’t use seasoning. This saying is one of those sayings that I always heard, but never understood. I am Black, but I was adopted into a White household … Even though I identify as a Black woman, all my life I have struggled with breaking into the Black culture because other people around me consciously or unconsciously prevent me from doing so. “ —Brittany Hartung, Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala. Click here to read the entire essay.
We received many outstanding essays for the Fall 2019 Student Writing Competition. Though not every participant can win the contest, we’d like to share some excerpts that caught our eye:
How can other people say that I only have one identity before I can even do that for myself? —Arya Gupta, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y.
‘Middle Child’ by J. Cole blasts through the party. Everyone spits the words like they’re on stage with him. J. Cole says the N-Word, and I watch my Caucasian peers proudly sing along. Mixed Girl is perplexed. Black Girl is crestfallen that people she calls friends would say such a word. Each letter a gory battlefield; White Girls insists they mean no harm; it’s how the song’s written. Black Girl cries. —Liz Terry, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
To me, valuing my ancestors is a way for me to repay them for their sacrifices. —Jefferson Adams Lopez, Garrison Middle School, Walla Walla, Wash.
A one-hour drive with light traffic. That’s the distance between me and my cousins. Short compared to a 17-hour flight to the Philippines, yet 33 miles proved to create a distance just as extreme. Thirty-three miles separated our completely different cultures. —Grace Timan, Mount Madonna High School, Gilroy, Calif.
What does it mean to feel Korean? Does it mean I have to live as if I live in Korea? Does it mean I have to follow all the traditions that my grandparents followed? Or does it mean that I can make a decision about what I love? —Max Frei, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y.
Not knowing feels like a safe that you can’t open (speaking about her ancestry) . —Madison Nieves-Ryan, Rachel Carson High School, New York, N.Y.
As I walked down the halls from classroom to classroom in high school, I would see smiling faces that looked just like mine. At every school dance, in every school picture, and on every sports team, I was surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted similar to me. My identity was never a subject that crossed my mind. When you aren’t exposed to diversity on a daily basis, you aren’t mindful of the things that make you who you are. —Jenna Robinson, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
When my Great-Great-Grandfather Bill was 12, he ran away to work with his uncles. And then when he was older and married, he called up his wife and said, “Honey, I’m heading off to college for a few years. Buh-Bye!” Because of his adventurous spirit, Bill Shea was the first Shea to go to college. Ever since my mom told me this story, I’ve always thought that we could all use a little Bill attitude in our lives. —Jordan Fox, Pioneer Middle School, Walla Walla, Wash.
I defy most of the stereotypes of the Indian community. I’m a gender-fluid, American, Belizean kid who isn’t very studious. I want to be a writer, not a doctor, and I would hang out with friends rather than prepare for the spelling bee. —Yadna Prasad, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y.
While my last name may be common, the history behind my family is not. A line of warriors, blacksmiths, intellectuals, and many more. I’m someone who is a story in progress. —Ha Tuan Nguyen, Chief Sealth International High School, Seattle, Wash.
My family is all heterosexual. I did not learn about my identity from them. LGBTQ+ identity is not from any part of the world. I cannot travel to where LGBTQ+people originate. It does not exist. That is the struggle when connecting with our identities. It is not passed on to us. We have to find it for ourselves. —Jacob Dudley, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
My race is DeVault’s childhood kitchen, so warm and embracing. Familiar. My sexuality is DeVault’s kitchen through adulthood: disconnected. —Maddie Friar, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
At school, I was Dar-SHAW-na and at home DAR-sha-na. There were two distinct versions, both were me, but neither were complete. \ —Darshana Subramaniam, University Liggett School, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
I do not think that heritage and ethnic roots are always about genetics. It is about the stories that come with it, and those stories are what shapes who you are. —Lily Cordon-Siskind, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y.
In my sixteen-year-old mind, the two ethnicities conflicted. I felt like I couldn’t be both. I couldn’t be in touch with Southern roots and Cuban ones at the same time. How could I, they contradict each other? The Cuban part of me ate all my food, was loud and blunt, an underdog and the Southerner was reserved, gentle, and polite. —Grace Crapps, Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.
I thought I was simply an American. However, I learned that I am not a jumbled mix of an untraceable past, but am an expertly woven brocade of stories, cultures, and hardships. My ancestors’ decisions crafted me…I am a story, and I am a mystery. —Hannah Goin, Pioneer Middle School, Walla Walla, Wash.
We received many outstanding essays for the Fall 2019 Student Writing Competition, and several students got clever and creative with their titles. Here are some titles that grabbed our attention:
“A Mixed Child in a Mixed-Up Family” Caitlin Neidow, Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School, Bronx, N.Y.
“Diggin’ in the DNA” Honnor Lawton, Chestnut Hill Middle School, Liverpool, N.Y.
“Hey! I’m Mexican (But I’ve Never Been There)” Alexis Gutierrez-Cornelio, Wellness, Business & Sports School, Woodburn, Ore.
“What It Takes to Be a Sinner” Amelia Hurley, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
“Mirish” Alyssa Rubi, Chief Sealth International High School, Seattle, Wash.
“Nunca Olvides de Donde Vienes ” ( Never forget where you came from ) Araceli Franco, Basis Goodyear High School, Goodyear, Ariz.
“American Tacos” Kenni Rayo-Catalan, Estrella Mountain Community College, Avondale, Ariz.
“Corn-Filled Mornings and Spicy Afternoons” Yasmin Medina, Tarrant County Community College, Fort Worth, Tex.
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6 Diversity College Essay Examples
What’s covered:, how to write the diversity essay after the end of affirmative action, essay #1: jewish identity, essay #2: being bangladeshi-american, essay #3: marvel vs dc, essay #4: leadership as a first-gen american, essay #5: protecting the earth, essay #6: music and accents, where to get your diversity essays edited, what is the diversity essay.
While working on your college applications, you may come across essays that focus on diversity , culture, or values. The purpose of these essays is to highlight any diverse views or opinions that you may bring to campus. Colleges want a diverse student body that’s made up of different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and interests. These essay prompts are a way for them to see what students can bring to their school.
In this post, we will share six essays written by real students that cover the topic of culture and diversity. We’ll also include what each essay did well and where there is room for improvement. Hopefully, this will be a useful resource to inspire your own diversity essay.
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. That said, you should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and they will not have a favorable view of students who have plagiarized.
In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of race in college admissions was unconstitutional. In other words, they struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions . This will affect college-bound students of color in a number of ways, including lowering their chances of acceptance and reducing the amount of direct outreach they’ll receive from colleges. Another change to consider is the ways in which students should tackle their diversity essays.
Although colleges can no longer directly factor race into admissions, students aren’t prohibited from discussing their racial backgrounds in supplemental application essays. If your racial background is important to you, seriously consider writing about it in your diversity essays. If you don’t, admissions officers are extremely limited in their ability to consider your race when making an admission decision.
As in the essays listed below, discussing your race is an excellent tool for showing admissions officers the person behind the grades and test scores. Beyond that, it provides admissions officers with an opportunity to put themselves in your shoes—showing them how your background has presented challenges to overcome, helped build important life skills, and taught you valuable lessons.
Diversity Essay Examples
I was thirsty. In my wallet was a lone $10 bill, ultimately useless at my school’s vending machine. Tasked with scrounging together the $1 cost of a water bottle, I fished out and arranged the spare change that normally hid in the bottom of my backpack in neat piles of nickels and dimes on my desk. I swept them into a spare Ziploc and began to leave when a classmate snatched the bag and held it above my head.
“Want your money back, Jew?” she chanted, waving the coins around. I had forgotten the Star-of-David around my neck, but quickly realized she must have seen it and connected it to the stacks of coins. I am no stranger to experiencing and confronting antisemitism, but I had never been targeted in my school before. I grabbed my bag and sternly told her to leave. Although she sauntered away, the impact remained.
This incident serves as an example of the adversity I have and will continue to face from those who only see me as a stereotype. Ironically, however, these experiences of discrimination have only increased my pride as a member of the Jewish Community. Continuing to wear the Star-of-David connects me to my history and my family. I find meaning and direction in my community’s values, such as pride, education, and giving—and I am eager to transfer these values to my new community: the Duke community.
What the Essay Did Well
Writing about discrimination can be difficult, but if you are comfortable doing it, it can make for a powerful story. Although this essay is short and focused on one small interaction, it represents a much larger struggle for this student, and for that reason it makes the essay very impactful.
The author takes her time at the beginning of the essay to build the scene for the audience, which allows us to feel like we are there with her, making the hateful comments even more jarring later on. If she had just told us her classmate teased her with harmful stereotypes, we wouldn’t feel the same sense of anger as we do knowing that she was just trying to get a drink and ended up being harassed.
This essay does another important thing—it includes self-reflection on the experience and on the student’s identity. Without elaborating on the emotional impact of a situation, an essay about discrimination would make admission officers feel bad for the student, but they wouldn’t be compelled to admit the student. By describing how experiences like these drive her and make her more determined to embody positive values, this student reveals her character to the readers.
What Could Be Improved
While including emotional reflection in the latter half of the essay is important, the actual sentences could be tightened up a bit to leave a stronger impression. The student does a nice job of showing us her experience with antisemitism, but she just tells us about the impact it has on her. If she instead showed us what the impact looked like, the essay would be even better.
For example, rather than telling us “Continuing to wear the Star-of-David connects me to my history and my family,” she could have shown that connection: “My Star-of-David necklace thumps against my heart with every step I take, reminding me of my great-grandparents who had to hide their stars, my grandma’s spindly fingers lighting the menorah each Hanukkah, and my uncle’s homemade challah bread.” This new sentence reveals so much more than the existing sentence about the student and the deep connection she feels with her family and religion.
Life before was good: verdant forests, sumptuous curries, and a devoted family.
Then, my family abandoned our comfortable life in Bangladesh for a chance at the American dream in Los Angeles. Within our first year, my father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He lost his battle three weeks before my sixth birthday. Facing a new country without the steady presence of my father, we were vulnerable—prisoners of hardship in the land of the free.
We resettled in the Bronx, in my uncle’s renovated basement. It was meant to be our refuge, but I felt more displaced than ever. Gone were the high-rise condos of West L.A.; instead, government projects towered over the neighborhood. Pedestrians no longer smiled and greeted me; the atmosphere was hostile, even toxic. Schoolkids were quick to pick on those they saw as weak or foreign, hurling harsh words I’d never heard before.
Meanwhile, my family began integrating into the local Bangladeshi community. I struggled to understand those who shared my heritage. Bangladeshi mothers stayed home while fathers drove cabs and sold fruit by the roadside—painful societal positions. Riding on crosstown buses or walking home from school, I began to internalize these disparities.
During my fleeting encounters with affluent Upper East Siders, I saw kids my age with nannies, parents who wore suits to work, and luxurious apartments with spectacular views. Most took cabs to their destinations: cabs that Bangladeshis drove. I watched the mundane moments of their lives with longing, aching to plant myself in their shoes. Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.
As I grappled with my relationship with the Bangladeshi community, I turned my attention to helping my Bronx community by pursuing an internship with Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda. I handled desk work and took calls, spending the bulk of my time actively listening to the hardships constituents faced—everything from a veteran stripped of his benefits to a grandmother unable to support her bedridden grandchild.
I’d never exposed myself to stories like these, and now I was the first to hear them. As an intern, I could only assist in what felt like the small ways—pointing out local job offerings, printing information on free ESL classes, reaching out to non-profits. But to a community facing an onslaught of intense struggles, I realized that something as small as these actions could have vast impacts.
Seeing the immediate consequences of my actions inspired me. Throughout that summer, I internalized my community’s daily challenges in a new light. I began to see the prevalent underemployment and cramped living quarters less as sources of shame. Instead, I saw them as realities that had to be acknowledged, but that could ultimately be remedied.
I also realized the benefits of the Bangladeshi culture I had been so ashamed of. My Bangla language skills were an asset to the office, and my understanding of Bangladeshi etiquette allowed for smooth communication between office staff and the office’s constituents. As I helped my neighbors navigate city services, I saw my heritage with pride—a perspective I never expected to have.
I can now appreciate the value of my unique culture and background, and the value of living with less. This perspective offers room for progress, community integration, and a future worth fighting for. My time with Assemblyman Sepulveda’s office taught me that I can be an agent of change who can enable this progression. Far from being ashamed of my community, I want to someday return to local politics in the Bronx to continue helping others access the American Dream. I hope to help my community appreciate the opportunity to make progress together. By embracing reality, I learned to live it. Along the way, I discovered one thing: life is good, but we can make it better.
This student’s passion for social justice and civic duty shines through in this essay because of how honest it is. Sharing their personal experience with immigrating, moving around, being an outsider, and finding a community allows us to see the hardships this student has faced and builds empathy towards their situation.
However, what really makes it strong is that the student goes beyond describing the difficulties they faced and explains the mental impact it had on them as a child: “Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.” The rejection of their culture presented at the beginning of the essay creates a nice juxtaposition with the student’s view in the latter half of the essay, and helps demonstrate how they have matured.
They then use their experience interning as a way to delve into a change in their thought process about their culture. This experience also serves as a way to show how their passion for social justice began. Using this experience as a mechanism to explore their thoughts and feelings is an excellent example of how items that are included elsewhere on your application should be incorporated into your essay.
This essay prioritizes emotions and personal views over specific anecdotes. Although there are details and certain moments incorporated throughout to emphasize the author’s points, the main focus remains on the student and how they grapple with their culture and identity.
One area for improvement is the conclusion. Although the forward-looking approach is a nice way to end an essay focused on social justice, it would be nice to include more details and imagery in the conclusion. How does the student want to help their community? What government position do they see themselves holding one day?
A more impactful ending might describe the student walking into their office at the New York City Housing Authority in 15 years. This future student might be looking at the plans to build a new development in the Bronx just blocks away from where they grew up that would provide quality housing to people in their Bangladeshi community. They would smile while thinking about how far they have come from that young kid who used to be ashamed of their culture.
Superhero cinema is an oligopoly consisting of two prominent, towering brands: Marvel and DC. I’m a religious supporter of Marvel, but last year, I discovered that my friend, Tom, was a DC fan. After a vociferous 20-minute quarrel about which was better, we decided to allocate one day to have a professional debate, using carefully assembled and coherent arguments.
One week later, we both brought pages of notes and evidence cards (I also had my Iron-Man bobblehead for moral support). Our impartial moderator—a Disney fan—sat in the middle with a stopwatch, open-policy style. I began the debate by discussing how Marvel accentuated the humanity of the storyline—such as in Tony Stark’s transformation from an egotistical billionaire to a compassionate father—which drew in a broader audience, because more people resonated with certain aspects of the characters. Tom rebutted this by capitalizing on how Deadpool was a duplicate of Deathstroke, how Vision copied Red Tornado, and how DC sold more comics than Marvel.
40 minutes later, we reached an impasse. We were out of cards, and we both made excellent points, so our moderator was unable to declare a winner. Difficult conversations aren’t necessarily always the ones that make political headlines. Instead, a difficult discussion involves any topic with which people share an emotional connection.
Over the years, I became so emotionally invested in Marvel that my mind erected an impenetrable shield, blocking out all other possibilities. Even today, we haven’t decided which franchise was better, but I realized that I was undermining DC for no reason other than my own ignorance.
The inevitability of diversity suggests that it is our responsibility to understand the other person and what they believe in. We may not always experience a change in opinion, but we can grant ourselves the opportunity to expand our global perspective. I strive to continue this adventure to increase my awareness as a superhero aficionado, activist, and student, by engaging in conversations that require me to think beyond what I believe and to view the world from others’ perspectives.
And yes, Tom is still my friend.
Diversity doesn’t always have to be about culture or heritage; diversity exists all around us, even in our comic book preferences. The cleverness of this essay lies in the way the student flipped the traditional diversity prompt on its head and instead discussed his diverse perspective on a topic he is passionate about. If you don’t have a cultural connection you are compelled to write about, this is a nifty approach to a diversity prompt—if it’s handled appropriately.
While this student has a non-traditional topic, he still presents it in a way that pays respect to the key aspects of a diversity essay: depicting his perspective and recognizing the importance of diverse views. Just as someone who is writing about a culture that is possibly unfamiliar to the reader, the student describes what makes Marvel and DC unique and important to him and his friend, respectively. He also expands on how a lack of diversity in superhero consumption led to his feeling of ignorance, and how it now makes him appreciate the need for diversity in all aspects of his life.
This student is unapologetically himself in this essay, which is ultimately why this unorthodox topic is able to work. He committed to his passion for Marvel by sharing analytical takes on characters and demonstrating how the franchise was so important to his identity that it momentarily threatened a friendship. The inclusion of humor through his personal voice—e.g., referring to the argument as a professional debate and telling us that the friendship lived on—contributes to the essay feeling deeply personal.
Choosing an unconventional topic for a diversity essay requires extra care and attention to ensure that you are still addressing the core of the prompt. That being said, if you accomplish it successfully, it makes for an incredibly memorable essay that could easily set you apart!
While this is a great essay as is, the idea of diversity could have been addressed a little bit earlier in the piece to make it absolutely clear the student is writing about his diverse perspective. He positions Marvel and DC as two behemoths in the superhero movie industry, but in the event that his reader is unfamiliar with these two brands, there is little context about the cultural impact each has on its fans.
To this student, Marvel is more than just a movie franchise; it’s a crucial part of his identity, just as someone’s race or religion might be. In order for the reader to fully understand the weight of his perspective, there should be further elaboration—towards the beginning—on how important Marvel is to this student.
Leadership was thrust upon me at a young age. When I was six years old, my abusive father abandoned my family, leaving me to step up as the “man” of the house. From having to watch over my little sister to cooking dinner three nights a week, I never lived an ideal suburban life. I didn’t enjoy the luxuries of joining after-school activities, getting driven to school or friends’ houses, or taking weekend trips to the movies or bowling alley. Instead, I spent my childhood navigating legal hurdles, shouldering family responsibilities, and begrudgingly attending court-mandated therapy sessions.
At the same time, I tried to get decent grades and maintain my Colombian roots and Spanish fluency enough to at least partially communicate with my grandparents, both of whom speak little English. Although my childhood had its bright and joyful moments, much of it was weighty and would have been exhausting for any child to bear. In short, I grew up fast. However, the responsibilities I took on at home prepared me to be a leader and to work diligently, setting me up to use these skills later in life.
I didn’t have much time to explore my interests until high school, where I developed my knack for government and for serving others. Being cast in a lead role in my school’s fall production as a freshman was the first thing to give me the confidence I needed to pursue other activities: namely, student government. Shortly after being cast, I was elected Freshman Vice-President, a role that put me in charge of promoting events, delegating daily office tasks, collaborating with the administration on new school initiatives, and planning trips and fundraisers.
While my new position demanded a significant amount of responsibility, my childhood of helping my mom manage our household prepared me to be successful in the role. When I saw the happy faces of my classmates after a big event, I felt proud to know that I had made even a small difference to them. Seeing projects through to a successful outcome was thrilling. I enjoyed my time and responsibilities so much that I served all four years of high school, going on to become Executive Vice-President.
As I found success in high school, my mother and grandparents began speaking more about the life they faced prior to emigrating from Colombia. To better connect with them, I took a series of Spanish language classes to regain my fluency. After a practice run through my presentation on Bendíceme, Ultima ( Bless me, Ultima ) by Rudolofo Anaya, with my grandmother, she squeezed my hand and told me the story of how my family was forced from their home in order to live free of religious persecution. Though my grandparents have often expressed how much better their lives and their children’s lives have been in America, I have often struggled with my identity. I felt that much of it was erased with my loss of our native language.
In elementary school, I learned English best because in class I was surrounded by it. Spanish was more difficult to grasp without a formal education, and my family urged me to become fluent in English so I could be of better help to them in places as disparate as government agencies and grocery stores. When I was old enough to recognize the large part of my identity still rooted in being Colombian, it was challenging to connect these two sides of who I was.
Over time I have been able to reconcile the two in the context of my aspirations. I found purpose and fulfillment through student council, and I knew that I could help other families like my own if I worked in local government. By working through city offices that address housing, education, and support for survivors of childhood abuse, I could give others the same liberties and opportunities my family has enjoyed in this country. Doing so would also help me honor my roots as a first-generation American.
I have been a leader my entire life. Both at Harvard and after graduation, I want to continue that trend. I hope to volunteer with organizations that share my goals. I want to advise policy-making politicians on ways to make children and new immigrants safer and more secure. When my family was at their worst, my community gave back. I hope to give that gift to future generations. A career in local, city-based public service is not a rashly made decision; it is a reflection of where I’ve already been in life, and where I want to be in the future.
Although this essay begins on a somber note, it goes on to show this student’s determination and the joy he found. Importantly, it also ends with a positive, forward-looking perspective. This is a great example of how including your hardship can bolster an essay as long as it is not the essay’s main focus.
Explaining the challenges this student faced from a young age—becoming the man of the house, dealing with legal matters, maintaining good grades, etc.—builds sympathy for his situation. However, the first paragraph is even more impactful because he explains the emotional toll these actions had on him. We understand how he lost the innocence of his childhood and how he struggled to remain connected to his Colombian heritage with all his other responsibilities. Including these details truly allows the reader to see this student’s struggle, making us all the more joyful when he comes out stronger in the end.
Pivoting to discuss positive experiences with student government and Spanish classes for the rest of the essay demonstrates that this student has a positive approach to life and is willing to push through challenges. The tone of the essay shifts from heavy to uplifting. He explains the joy he got out of helping his classmates and connecting with his grandparents, once again providing emotional reflection to make the reader care more.
Overall, this essay does a nice job of demonstrating how this student approaches challenges and negative experiences. Admitting that the responsibilities of his childhood had a silver lining shows his maturity and how he will be able to succeed in government one day. The essay strikes a healthy balance between challenge and hope, leaving us with a positive view of a student with such emotional maturity.
Although the content of this essay is very strong, it struggles with redundancy and disorganized information. He mentions his passion for government at the beginning of the student government paragraph, then again addresses government in the paragraph focused on his Colombian heritage, and concludes by talking about how he wants to get into government once more. Similarly, in the first paragraph, he discusses the struggle of maintaining his Colombian identity and then fully delves into that topic in the third paragraph.
The repetition of ideas and lack of a streamlined organization of this student’s thoughts diminishes some of the emotional impact of the story. The reader is left trying to piece together a swirling mass of information on their own, rather than having a focused, sequential order to follow.
This could be fixed if the student rearranged details to make each paragraph focused on a singular idea. For example, the first paragraph could be about his childhood. The second could be about how student government sparked his interest in government and what he hopes to do one day. The third could be about how he reconnected with his Colombian roots through his Spanish classes, after years of struggling with his identity. And the final paragraph could tie everything together by explaining how everything led to him wanting to pursue a future serving others, particularly immigrants like his family.
Alternatively, the essay could follow a sequential order that would start with his childhood, then explain his struggle with his identity, then show how student government and Spanish classes helped him find himself, and finally, conclude with what he hopes to accomplish by pursuing government.
I never understood the power of community until I left home to join seven strangers in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Although we flew in from distant corners of the U.S., we shared a common purpose: immersing ourselves in our passion for protecting the natural world.
Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns. My classmates debated the feasibility of Trump’s wall, not the deteriorating state of our planet. Contrastingly, these seven strangers delighted in bird-watching, brightened at the mention of medicinal tree sap, and understood why I once ran across a four-lane highway to retrieve discarded beer cans.
Their histories barely resembled mine, yet our values aligned intimately. We did not hesitate to joke about bullet ants, gush about the versatility of tree bark, or discuss the destructive consequences of materialism. Together, we let our inner tree-huggers run free.
In the short life of our little community, we did what we thought was impossible. By feeding on each other’s infectious tenacity, we cultivated an atmosphere that deepened our commitment to our values and empowered us to speak out on behalf of the environment. After a week of stimulating conversations and introspective revelations about engaging people from our hometowns in environmental advocacy, we developed a shared determination to devote our lives to this cause.
As we shared a goodbye hug, my new friend whispered, “The world needs saving. Someone’s gotta do it.” For the first time, I believed that that someone could be me.
This student is expressing their diversity through their involvement in a particular community—another nice approach if you don’t want to write about culture or ethnicity. We all have unique things that we geek out over. This student expresses the joy that they derived from finding a community where they could express their love for the environment. Passion is fundamental to university life and generally finds its way into any successful application.
The essay finds strength in the fact that readers feel for the student. We get a little bit of backstory about where they come from and how they felt silenced— “Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns” —so it’s easy to feel joy for them when they get set free and finally find their community.
This student displays clear values: community, ecoconsciousness, dedication, and compassion. An admissions officer who reads a diversity essay is looking for students with strong values who will enrich the university community with their unique perspective—that sounds just like this student!
One area of weakness in this essay is the introduction. The opening line— “I never understood the power of community until I left home to join seven strangers in the Ecuadorian rainforest” —is a bit clichéd. Introductions should be captivating and build excitement and suspense for what is to come. Simply telling the reader about how your experience made you understand the power of community reveals the main takeaway of your essay without the reader needing to go any further.
Instead of starting this essay with a summary of what the essay is about, the student should have made their hook part of the story. Whether that looks like them being exasperated with comments their classmates made about politics, or them looking around apprehensively at the seven strangers in their program as they all boarded their flight, the student should start off in the action.
India holds a permanent place in my heart and ears. Whenever I returned on a trip or vacation, I would show my grandmother how to play Monopoly and she would let me tie her sari. I would teach my grandfather English idioms—which he would repeat to random people and fishmongers on the streets—and he would teach me Telugu phrases.
It was a curious exchange of worlds that I am reminded of every time I listen to Indian music. It was these tunes that helped me reconnect with my heritage and ground my meandering identity. Indian music, unlike the stereotype I’d long been imbued with, was not just a one-and-done Bollywood dance number! Each region and language was like an island with its own unique sonic identity. I’m grateful for my discovery of Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil tunes, for these discoveries have opened me up to the incredible smorgasbord of diversity, depth, and complexity within the subcontinent I was born in.
Here’s an entirely-different sonic identity for you: Texan slang. “Couldya pass the Mango seltzer, please, hon?” asked my Houstonian neighbor, Rae Ann—her syllables melding together like the sticky cake batter we were making.
Rae Ann and her twang were real curiosities to me. Once, she invited my family to a traditional Texan barbecue with the rest of our neighbors. As Hindus, we didn’t eat beef, so we showed up with chicken kebabs, instead. Rather than looking at us bizarrely, she gladly accepted the dish, lining it up beside grilled loins and hamburger patties.
Her gesture was a small but very well-accepted one and I quickly became convinced she was the human manifestation of “Southern hospitality”—something reflected in each of her viscous, honey-dripping phrases. “Watch out for the skeeters!” was an excellent example. It was always funny at first, but conveyed a simple message: We’ve got each other’s backs and together, we can overcome the blood-sucking mosquitoes of the Houstonian summer! I began to see how her words built bridges, not boundaries.
I believe that sounds—whether it’s music or accents—can make a difference in the ways we perceive and accept individuals from other backgrounds. But sound is about listening too. In Rice’s residential college, I would be the type of person to strike up a conversation with an international student and ask for one of their Airpods (you’d be surprised how many different genres and languages of music I’ve picked up in this way!).
As both an international student and Houstonian at heart, I hope to bridge the gap between Rice’s domestic and international populations. Whether it’s organizing cultural events or simply taking the time to get to know a student whose first language isn’t English, I look forward to listening to the stories that only a fellow wanderer can tell.
This essay does an excellent job of addressing two aspects of this student’s identity. Looking at diversity through sound is a very creative way to descriptively depict their Indian and Texan cultures. Essays are always more successful when they stimulate the senses, so framing the entire response around sound automatically opens the door for vivid imagery.
The quotes from this student’s quirky neighbor bring a sense of realism to the essay. We can feel ourselves at the barbecue and hear her thick Texan accent coming through. The way people communicate is a huge part of their culture and identity, so the way that this student perfectly captures the essence of their Texan identity with accented phrases is skillfully done.
This essay does such a great job of making the sounds of Texas jump off the page, so it is a bit disappointing that it wasn’t able to accomplish the same for India. The student describes the different Indian languages and music styles, but doesn’t bring them to life with quotes or onomatopoeia in the manner that they did for the sounds of Texas.
They could have described the buzz of the sitar or the lyrical pattern of the Telugu phrases their grandfather taught them. Telling us about the diversity of sounds in Indian music is fine, but if the reader can’t appreciate what those sounds resemble, it makes it harder to understand the Indian half of the author’s identity. Especially since this student emulated the sounds and essence of Texas so well, it’s important that India is given the same treatment so we can fully appreciate both sides of this essay.
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Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’
With affirmative action banned, application essays ask about “life experience,” the one place in admissions where discussing race is still explicitly legal.
By Anemona Hartocollis and Colbi Edmonds
“Tell us about an aspect of your identity or a life experience that has shaped you.”
— Johns Hopkins University
For college applicants, this is the year of the identity-driven essay, the one part of the admissions process in which it is still explicitly legal to discuss race after the Supreme Court banned affirmative action in June.
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A review of the essay prompts used this year by more than two dozen highly selective colleges reveals that schools are using words and phrases like “identity” and “life experience,” and are probing aspects of a student’s upbringing and background that have, in the words of a Harvard prompt, “shaped who you are.”
That’s a big change from last year, when the questions were a little dutiful, a little humdrum — asking about books read, summers spent, volunteering done.
But even if candidates can — or feel compelled to — open up, colleges face potential legal challenges. The Supreme Court warned that a candidate’s race may be invoked only in the context of the applicant’s life story, and colleges have consulted with lawyers to determine the line between an acceptable essay prompt and an unconstitutional one.
“Obviously, this is a pretty subjective standard,” said Ishan K. Bhabha, a lawyer who is advising many colleges and universities. “Different schools are going to have different levels of risk tolerance.”
Students for Fair Admissions, the group that defeated race-based admissions in the Supreme Court, is ready to challenge any essay topic that “is nothing more than a back-channel subterfuge for divulging a student’s race or ethnicity,” Edward Blum, the group’s founder, said.
“Feel free to tell us any ways in which you’re different and how that has affected you.”
— Duke University
Harvard, which was at the center of the lawsuit, has replaced last year’s single optional essay with five short essays, designed to allow the admissions committee to see each applicant as a “whole person.” The essays, up to 200 words each, are all required so that the admissions office can collect the same information from every applicant, according to Harvard.
The first essay question closely tracks with what the Supreme Court’s opinion said was permissible: “How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”
Johns Hopkins carefully explains what is allowed in its essay, which asks students to write about an aspect of their identity or life experience that has shaped them. “Any part of your background, including but not limited to your race, may be discussed in your response to this essay if you so choose,” Johns Hopkins notes on its website . But it adds a caveat: the information “will be considered by the university based solely on how it has affected your life and your experiences as an individual.”
Sarah Lawrence College, outside New York City, saucily incorporates a quote from the official summary of Chief Justice John G. Roberts’s majority decision in its prompt: “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life.”
Then the school asks applicants to “describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced or affected by the court’s decision.”
These college-specific questions are supplements to the main essay in the Common App, the online application used by more than a million students each year.
The Common App said it was keeping last year’s seven essay choices . One mentions identity, another obstacles overcome. But in a nod to the new imperatives, the Common App said that it would monitor the choices of different “student populations.”
“Let your life speak. Describe the environment in which you were raised and the impact it has had.”
— Dartmouth College
Some students are seizing on the opportunity to write about race. Janyra Allen, 17, who attends Bard High School Early College in Baltimore, has started applying to colleges, with her top choice being Notre Dame of Maryland University. Janyra, who is Black, wants to be a nurse, and in her essays she has written about the lack of Black nurses and doctors in hospitals.
Janyra tries to include both her race and her accomplishments in her application answers, she said, because she wants universities to know “Black students can do amazing things, too.”
Amari Shepherd, 16, said she hoped colleges and universities would evaluate students based on merit, regardless of race. She is still thinking about what she wants to write in her essays, and although being Black is a large part of who she is, she isn’t sure if she will mention it extensively.
“I’m very proud of my race, but also I’ve worked very hard in my high school career,” said Amari, a senior at Frederick A. Douglass High School in New Orleans.
The essay may prove liberating for Asian American students, many of whom have been wary of how they present themselves. The lawsuit accused Harvard of racially stereotyping Asian Americans as high-achieving but bland and interchangeable — feeding the sense that applicants needed to appear “less Asian” by not majoring in science, for instance, or playing the cello.
Allison Zhang, a senior at a public high school in Maryland, said that she hoped to attend Georgetown or the University of Pennsylvania to study economics and political science. In her applications, “I’ve definitely been talking about my racial identity and also my gender because as an Asian American woman, that shaped a lot of how I view the world and the struggles that I’ve faced,” Allison, 17, said.
“Tell us about when, where or with whom you feel your most authentic, powerful self.”
— Barnard College
Some public universities are treading more carefully. The University of Virginia, for example, must navigate the tension between its stated commitment to diversity and conservative alumni , as well as the Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, elected in 2021 largely on a pledge to overhaul education.
James E. Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, sent a letter to the school community on Aug. 1, the unofficial beginning of application season, nodding to both alumni and the enslaved people who built the university and worked on the grounds.
He said that the university’s application now encompassed an essay prompt inviting applicants to talk about their connection to the university as children of graduates, or as “descendants of ancestors who labored at the university, as well as those with other relationships.”
John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who opposes race-conscious admissions, said that the new essay prompts seemed consistent with the court’s ruling.
What matters is not so much the wording as the way universities use the information, said Mr. Yoo, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is on the board of Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“Suppose Harvard asked these questions and, magically, the racial composition of the freshman class is within three to four points of what it was before these essay questions,” he said. “I don’t think the courts are going to be fooled by innocuous-seeming essay questions which are used as a pretext by the colleges.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond .
Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” More about Anemona Hartocollis
Colbi Edmonds is a reporter for the National desk and a member of the 2023-24 New York Times Fellowship class . More about Colbi Edmonds
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Do you feel the need to examine some previously written College Essays on Identity before you begin writing an own piece? In this open-access directory of Identity College Essay examples, you are given a thrilling opportunity to examine meaningful topics, content structuring techniques, text flow, formatting styles, and other academically acclaimed writing practices. Implementing them while crafting your own Identity College Essay will definitely allow you to complete the piece faster.
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Sample Essay On Family Furnishings
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It is hard enough being I is an essay by Anna Lisa Raya where she explains to the reader how it is hard for her being a Latino in a place that is populated by white Americans. The author is the daughter of a second- generation Mexican American and a Puerto Rican mother. She wrote this essay when she was an undergraduate student in the University of Columbia, where she faced challenges on her identity. The main response to the essay is the issue of culture shock and discrimination faced by minorities in a society that is populated by white people.
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Identity refers to the state of maintaining one’s character under different conditions. Identity therefore relates to social situations such as gender, color, class, and community. In African American literature, identity can be experienced in social circumstances that are largely discriminatory. Discriminatory aspects that affect the blacks largely relate to oppression. This aspect molds the manner in which African Americans are confronted with dilemmas regarding their place within the white-dominated society. Ideally, the reality of the blacks cannot be separated in the American society because color provides an inherent phenomenon of identity that manifest in different races.
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