In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark college affirmative action decision, our head of admissions, Eren Harris, sat down to chat with two of the members of our Admissions Advisory Panel: Dr. K.E. Carver, a metaphysics researcher and former admissions officer at Harvard, and Brandon Mack, an experienced college counselor and former admissions officer at Rice University. Their wide-ranging conversation covers how this decision changes admissions, what diversity really means to colleges, and what students need to do going forward.
Despite this landmark Supreme Court decision, colleges aren’t going to suddenly give up on recruiting and admitting a diverse class of students, right? What are some of the ways they are going to try to meet these goals? The part of the ruling about essays was rather ambiguous, for instance.
Dr. K. E. Carver: Based on my experience, for the schools that were dedicated to diversity before, this will not have any practical effect on them. They’re going to stay dedicated to diversity. Harvard has always been a holistic institution. They’ve been dedicated to that. Is it manufactured diversity that was assisted by affirmative action? Yes. But they were always holistic, and they always really cared more about the essay than almost any other part.
At least in my experience working there, the only thing that the demographic markers really did was take anywhere between 40-70,000 applications and make it more manageable. It was a tool of necessity rather than preference. The racial or the sexuality box would 100% help us narrow down these huge numbers, and then it was considered very individually. I think what this decision is going to do is going to make the schools feel like they’re emboldened to keep doing it. And they have a remit to keep doing it and continue to be this kind of school.
I use the Harvard example not just because that’s where I’m coming from, but also because they were the people who were sued. What you need to do is look at the makeup of the school you’re looking at. Is it diverse now? If it is, it’s probably not going to change. There’s a good chance they’re going to try very hard to maintain that diversity, and they’re going to find ways.
Brandon Mack: I agree that schools are going to now be trying their hardest to demonstrate that they are committed to diversity. The essays are about to become very interesting. That’s why I’ve told every single student this cycle, do not go based off of what previous years’ supplements have been, because I’m pretty sure right now institutions are thinking about how to restructure their supplements so that they can get at the heart of the diversity question.
But also, that Additional Information section of the Common App is about to be used in very interesting ways. I’m imagining students just being very blunt about their identities, as in saying “I am this and this,” because once again, that is a place where they can describe authentically what experience they’re coming from.
With the checkbox, they didn’t have to think about it. They didn’t necessarily have to make their identity central or prove anything. But the fact that this ruling has been done this way means there are still going to be other ways for students to include their identities and things of that nature. And I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re now going to be instructed to do — either make that a central part of your essay, or, if you’re not making it a part of your essay, you’re putting it into that Additional Information section so that it is there.
Another avenue is transcripts, which for many high schools do include the student’s race. So that could be another way that private high schools particularly could become really savvy, and it could become what the institutions are now going to look for. There are a lot of different ways in which people are going to skirt around this ruling, and there is still going to be a way for institutions to consider race.
Carver: For me, in terms of how I advise students, I was never a stickler about what you should do with your activities in high school. You need to grow in high school and experience high school, not choose activities for the purposes of college admission.
But after this, I do think now I will be more inclined to say, if you are a particular identity, whether it be race or LGBTQ or what have you, is there a club you can join at your school? In your community? Even if you go once a week, or once a month—be a part of it in some way so that you can list it on your application, if that identity is something that is important for you to get across, and you do not want to write a whole essay on it.
Of course, if you do want your identity to be the topic of your essay, then joining the club can really go either way—you might not really like your school’s club, and that’s fair. But if you don’t want to write an essay about identity, you do need to find another way to introduce it. Because in terms of demographic markers, even if they’re not on the transcript, most admissions officers have a sense of what a particular district looks like and can make an educated guess. That’s not the greatest thing to do, but now with the markers gone, they will do this more. It’s about being more savvy, as Brandon said. It’s strategic, but that’s what admissions has become.
Mack: Because of the way the decision was written, you can still have race come in—they haven’t restricted all the different ways in which it can come in. And so there’s going to be some pressure put on our counseling colleagues who are working directly with students. So I can see counselors now trying to put in experiences related to someone’s experience into their letters of recommendation just so that they could be able to do that. I can see, even for some of our majority students they might start pressuring their recommenders to try to do that in a similar way. Also, I do agree that the ways in which some of our more identity based clubs are going to start seeing increases and you’re going to see more of those being created. So that way students can get involved in demonstrating that they are a part of that. But also I think that colleges and universities are now going to start having that question of What when we talk about diversity and the ways in which we look at – it that whole quantifying it — is where I’m thinking, things are also going to get very very dangerous.
Mack: I distinctly had a boss who literally in committee sometimes would say, “Exactly how Mexican are they?” And I’m like, you can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that. And they would also do it based on language—I think there’s going to be an increase in people indicating that they speak Spanish or a certain other language at home, as a way to include diversity. And so yeah, it’s going to be interesting what people choose to do.
The lawsuit prompting the ruling alleged that Asian applicants were being discriminated against. Do you think that this ruling is going to benefit Asian American students in the admissions process? Traditionally we’ve coached students from overrepresented groups to aim for a college’s 75th percentile SAT score – does this still hold?
Mack: They are going to have to aim for that 75th percentile even more so. That’s been one of the biggest things I have been trying to emphasize to people. This ruling has not actually made it easier for ethnically overrepresented groups, because schools in my opinion are going to now double down on being test optional. Because they want the access to be there.
Also, demonstrating that you’re going to do something more than just academics is probably going to increase in importance, because of this shift in how decisions are made and diversity is maintained. So it’s no longer about being a really smart student, it’s about being a smart student and what else?
So as a second generation Asian student, for instance, you’re going to have to know more than just the subject matter you’re going to be studying. They’ll want to see evidence of your personality, and where you’re going to really fit into this institution from a culture standpoint, not just from an academic standpoint. Are you engaging in things that show that you’re collaborative? Are you engaging in things that show that you will play well with others, that you are going to receive other people’s opinions that are in some way different from yours? Especially for all the computer science applicants, since that major is still on the rise irrespective of this decision— I’m betting you, they’ll start looking for CS applicants that are doing other things, even outside of computer science. Because they’re thinking, we need you to be a human.
Mack: Oh yeah, I agree with you that some are maybe going to be much more explicit in terms of talking about that. I’ve had students ask me when questions of diversity would come up, am I at a disadvantage because I’m white, or because I’m Asian. But you have to remember when they say diversity, they mean diversity in its fullest sense. No matter who you are, you have a perspective! The question is, what is that perspective? What are you bringing to our campus that is unique?
We’ve worked with so many white and Asian students who have incredible stories and who have gotten into top schools because they wrote about things that they were deeply committed to and excited about. And so the people who are really at the disadvantage are, as you said, the applicants who fail to demonstrate their personality. And so it’s incumbent upon a good counselor to help the student get to the heart of their story.
Carver: Students are really not taught to write about themselves, particularly not at that age. And so if you’re thinking about why a student needs an admissions consultant outside of their school guidance counselor or their English or speech class… I mean, I’ve got students in my classes where I’ve had to tell them you’re allowed to start an essay where you’re giving your opinion, because you’re told not to for 12 years.
This is the essay where it’s all about “I.” And without having any experience in articulating your own view or your own perspective, why would it be well done by default? You’ve never done it before, so the first time you do it, particularly without any kind of teaching or coaching, should not be what you send to your colleges. It should be something that you have worked through and a skill that you have developed, whether with a coach or not, and that takes time. And I think some parents in particular will ask “Why are you going through these many drafts? We really liked the first one. They have A’s in English, they’re a fantastic writer.” Sure. But do they know how to write this? Probably not.
Not only do we have to teach them how to write about themselves, but we also have to teach them how to write for this very specific and almost unique way of writing. You don’t write admissions applications for anything but your admissions application. That essay is not something you’re going to reuse in another context. Particularly if this is a whole-year engagement, you need to write some bad drafts and get those out of the way so you can see what needs to change.
But again, that takes time, and conveying that to a parent who’s saying for services is sometimes the difficult part. But the truth is that you have to invest in the process. You have to understand and commit to it, and if you don’t, then I cannot say that I am fully confident and where we’re going to end up. It’s kind of like, if you’re going to take the Driver’s Ed exam and lie and say they drove for 400 hours, and they get a notary who’s their uncle to sign off on it—they’re probably going to fail their practical exam. So if you don’t do that, don’t cut corners on this essay process.
California banned affirmative action over 25 years ago, which led to a significant drop in enrollment numbers for Latino and African American students. But then, once the UCs were forced to go test-blind, we saw a resurgence of admitted students from those populations. Dropping the SAT requirement has been a huge boon for students who are first generation and/or low income. Is California going to be kind of like the case study that other schools look at?
Mack: It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with the UC system because of the previous cases. People are really hyper focusing on the UCs now, being like, you all got rid of this, the numbers went down in terms of being diverse. What are y’all going to do now that this case has happened? And I’m pretty sure we’ll start seeing UCs also doing a lot of that overt demonstration of a commitment to diversity.
Do you think we’re going to see further litigation around diversity in college admissions?
Mack: They’re gonna come for the gender box, they’re gonna come for the sexual orientation descriptors, anything to get identity out of this process is what people are going to come for. It will get to the point where it’s impossible to enforce, but the groups who are invested in this cause will come for all they can.
Do you think this is going to change anything about the types of schools students from underrepresented backgrounds seek to apply to?
Mack: I’ve seen a lot of people posting that this is going to give rise to Hispanic serving institutions and HBCUs. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen, because unfortunately the ways in which institutions are perceived in the marketplace have not changed.
We as a society still unfortunately don’t value HBCUs in the same way that we value historically white institutions and especially the Ivy Leagues and things of that nature. And as long as people keep thinking that these certain schools are going to be your gateways to higher paying jobs and things of that nature, I’m not going to necessarily see people who are going to pivot in that direction. They’re still going to go for these brand name institutions because they’re considered to be the gateway to privilege.
Carver: And unfortunately, I can talk till I’m blue in the face and tell people that if you’re not coming from privilege into the Ivy League, you cannot guarantee that you will leave with privilege. You once had a better chance that you do not have anymore.
Carver: It’s not so much about where you went or whether you were successful. So much comes down to the particular connections you’ve made. There are so many factors that you cannot account for.
And you cannot lean back and sit on the laurels of your school’s name. That’s not going to do any favors. Some people might be able to sit on the laurels of their family’s names, but that was something they could have done without the degree.
Exactly. You don’t need to get into Harvard to be successful, and getting into Harvard won’t automatically make you successful.
Carver Or, you may not want to get into Harvard.
Mack: That part.
Carver: I went to the college I went to because I never wanted then or now to be a Harvard undergrad. I don’t want to have a House. I’m not that person. I don’t want to go to Hogwarts in Cambridge Massachusetts.
Brandon: Colleges are going to double down and be scrutinizing their numbers even more than they were before. So because it was already bad enough that the African American percentages at the most selective schools were rarely in the double digits, and that even when they finally were getting into double digits, that 11% was considered really, really great… now it’s going to be like, okay, what exactly are you doing to not only ensure diversity, but to support diversity.
And so that’s the thing that I think that we need to be instructing students to think about when considering schools: okay, see where the school is at now with diversity, but then also see what commitments the institution is putting behind that. Are they still making sure that they have identity-based groups, that they still have the support systems for first generation and all these other populations for which higher ed was not originally intended? If you’ve seen that commitment is there, then that’s probably still a school that’s going to support you, but if you see that they’re backtracking, then maybe you’d want to reconsider if that environment is going to be the one for you. And it is going to be incumbent upon the school to really demonstrate that – and don’t be afraid to ask those questions of admissions officers! Make them work for it!
Are there any things you want to add in terms of advice for students starting the college admissions process in light of this court ruling?
Carver: As an applicant, it can feel like you have very little agency. But in some ways, the ball is in your court and the power is in your hands to do the due diligence, to push the school and to also be critical of the school. It should encourage students to be more reflective and more intentional about not just their college list but also the decisions they make when they’ve got a list of acceptances. Maybe you did get into that school, but don’t say yes immediately – take the time to do your homework, if you haven’t done it already, and if you did do it in October, do it again! See what the school has done in that time. If they told you they were going to do it, did they do it? Because it should have some indication like indication of progress by that point.
So unfortunately, that’s where the onus of responsibility falls to the students, but you can take that as a plus. If you are at least in control of where you’re putting your name in, where you’re putting your application in, and to where you commit to, that at least gives you something to hold on to. You need to commit to owning this, because it’s the only part of it you can own.
Mack: I agree with the idea that this process was always intended to be in the student’s control. And now you just have to own it even more. Because certain things that you were resting on, you can’t rest on anymore. So now, if this aspect is truly important to you, you have got to put it in there even more. But also, you have got to investigate even more about what is your reasoning for wanting to apply to the school or go to the school. Because it can’t just be this notion of prestige. It can’t just be the notion of, this is my ticket to a better life…
Mack: Because it’s definitely not a guarantee. So that’s my hope. What this decision is opening people up to is, what is your aim for going for a higher education? Because you can get and achieve a lot of these other aims without having to go to these institutions. And also, start thinking about other institutions, because once again this primarily impacts highly selectives. There are still several other institutions that are open access, that do things very very differently. Think about those institutions, as well.
Carver: I would agree with that a hundred percent, and I think it’s going to come down to an expansion of our role as college admission consultants. This field needs to grow in terms of how we coach students on really digging into that self reflection element. You can ask them, if getting a better life is what you want out of your college education, what does that mean to you? Does it mean money? Does it mean a job? That’s not enough. Does it mean I want to put a picture of Harvard Square on my wall with a little piece of paper that says Universitas Harvardiana? Do you speak Latin? What is a better life? If it’s the ability to take advantage of certain opportunity, what are those opportunities? A student can say, I want to improve my life because of these things, and tell me what they are. Root them in the place, root them in what they have done.
I mean, what did I get out of being at Harvard? Probably one of my favorite things was free admission to the art museum and the theater. I love the American Repertory Theater. Or maybe a student would really like to go see the Glass Flowers at the Harvard Natural History Museum—those are fascinating! There’s a glass bug in one of them. I still can’t get over someone making that in the 1800s. Of course, don’t put that kind of thing if you’re fascinated with something different; just get a sense of what you want to take away from that college that’s not a piece of paper.
This is your life! It is school, but it’s not just school. In most cases, college is the first time that you have had any real decision over what your lifestyle looks like. Start thinking about what you want that life to be, not what you want it to be after those four years. Because frankly, the job market, the economy, everything will almost certainly have changed entirely by that point. So if someone says you’re definitely going to get a job in this field, and it’s 2024, by 2027 things could be completely different, and it’s too late to change your major. So banking on that is not your ticket, particularly with how fast things are moving.
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Brandon Mack has worked in the field of college admissions for the past 13 years. His most recent position was as Interim Director of Operations at the International Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization dedicated to providing professional development opportunities for individuals who work with international students. Prior to his current position, Mack was an Associate Director of Admission & Coordinator of Transfer Admission at Rice University. Mack worked specifically on international recruitment in Africa, domestic recruitment strategies, and building counselor relationships. He has also worked on minority recruitment initiatives, community based organization partnerships, and community outreach efforts to educate students on highly selective college admissions. He also oversaw and managed the transfer admission process and was the liaison to the Rice School of Architecture. Mack has also served on the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Anti-Racist Institute Faculty and is currently in his 4th year a faculty member for the Guiding the Way to Inclusion Conference for NACAC. He is a member of PrepScholar’s Admissions Advisory Panel.
Dr. K. E. Carver is a researcher, university instructor, editor, and admissions professional who earned her PhD focusing in interdisciplinary metaphysics. She has over 15 years of experience in various areas of university administration, including working in the admissions offices at both Harvard University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She speaks regularly at conferences both in her academic fields of expertise and regarding admissions concerns, and contributes to publications in both areas internationally. She is a member of PrepScholar’s Admissions Advisory Panel.
Eren Harris is Head of Admissions at PrepScholar. Previously, Eren spent 10 years working as an independent educational consultant guiding students through the college admissions process after earning degrees from Yale and Harvard.