Politics & Policy

Imaginary Friends

How to write a diversity essay.

At the end of August the University of Michigan announced how it would comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gratz v. Bollinger, the ruling in June that outlawed UM’s undergraduate racial quotas for failing to meet the test of being “narrowly tailored.” UM’s response, unveiled on August 28, has three parts. Applicants will now have to divulge information about the educational backgrounds of family members; their high-school counselors or principals will have to respond to a form that asks whether they know of “any socio-economic, personal, or educational circumstance that may have affected this student’s academic achievement, either positively or negatively;” and applicants will have to write a 250-word “diversity” essay.

The diversity essay is a coy device that I believe was first introduced by law schools as an indirect way of asking students about their racial and ethnic identities. The Boston University School of Law, for example, invites applicants to submit an optional essay “to provide information on your ethnic, cultural, or family background that is relevant to your development.” But diversity essays have since caught on in a big way among liberal-arts colleges, and it was widely expected that the University of Michigan would follow suit.

The UM application for the fall of 2004 will give students two options for the diversity essay. They can choose to respond to this:

At the University of Michigan, we are committed to building an academically superb and widely diverse educational community. What would you as an individual bring to our campus community?

Or, if the prospective student doesn’t see himself as bearing diversity gifts, he can respond to this:

Describe an experience you’ve had where cultural diversity–or a lack thereof–has made a difference to you.”

Applicants will also have to write two other essays, a traditional one about “a memorable book, an inspiring person,” etc. and another 500-word account of some “setback, failure, or ethical dilemma” or “an issue of local, national, or international concern.”

Asking prospective students to write a diversity essay looks to many college administrators as the easiest way to maintain racial preferences within the new limits enunciated by the Court. The Los Angeles Times reported UM’s Provost Paul N. Courant, declaring that, “We will be seeking a critical mass” of minority students through the new procedures–just in case anybody thought that the new system might not have a guaranteed racial and ethnic outcome.

“Diversity essays” do, however, have a theoretical rationale. Colleges can claim that by relying on such essays they are considering candidates as “whole persons” whose life experience, not just skin color or identity group, is weighed in the balance. UM’s general counsel, Marvin Krislov, was quoted in USA Today, hitting the right note: “We’re looking at [race] as one element of the whole person.” Of course, this is mostly hooey. The University of Michigan, like the myriad of other colleges that have adopted diversity essays, is primarily concerned with getting the numbers of minority students it has decided it wants.

But the “diversity essay” isn’t merely a smokescreen. It is also a device to ensure that candidates commit themselves, at least rhetorically, to the campus ideology of diversity. I suspect most high-school students are plenty capable of figuring out what kind of essay they need to submit to earn the “diversity bonus” that will vault them ahead of academically better qualified candidates. But The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that leaders of some campus groups expressed fear that “young applicants might have difficulty writing essays that adequately reflected the impact of their race or ethnicity on their lives.” A UM senior, Ricardo Valle, declared that, prior to coming to college, “I did not know what diversity was or how to interpret my experiences as a Latino youth.”

Mr. Valle had to go to college to learn how to give up his individuality and conform to the categories of Leftist identity politics, but help is on the way. Students who need assistance concocting testimonials to the prejudices they have endured and the hardships they have overcome already have a choice of websites and consultants who will help. But in a spirit of public service, I am willing to lend a hand too. Herewith some advice for the high-school student aspiring to attend a college that requires a diversity essay.

The key to a good college-application diversity essay is drama. One of the best approaches is to compose a story that captures the moment at which one of the deep truths of “diversity” crystallized for you. There are three such diversity deep truths (DDTs), and you can choose the one best suits your taste: (DDT 1) the reality of prejudice in American life, (DDT 2) the sheer thrill of encountering cultural difference, and (DDT 3) pride in one’s own diversity. In each case, to bring the dramatic element into focus, you will need to introduce characters other than yourself. This will show that you realize that “diversity” is about the broader community and not just adolescent self. The story, however, will vary a bit depending on which DDT you chose as your theme.

The reality of prejudice in American life. If you choose DDT 1, your story will focus on an incident in which you, having naively assumed that people are people, are brought face to face with an expression of bias. This will work best if you are positioned as a witness, rather than a victim. The first-person victim tale runs the danger of sounding self-pitying rather than mature. So even if you have a first-person story, you should consider recasting yourself as the companion, and put your imaginary friend forward as the target of the unkind words or hurtful actions. Start the essay with a sentence that defines the relationship between you and your imaginary friend:

“I don’t look like my friend Mohammed…”

“When I was six, I wanted more than anything to have braids like my friend Shareen.”

“One summer evening, when Jose and I were palling around outside the bodega…”

“Jimmy Thundecloud and I were shooting hoops one day after school when…”

Don’t overdo it. Mohammed, Shareen, Jose, or Jimmy will need to encounter a definite act of discrimination, but your essay will work best if it is a small act, not a gross indecency. Among other things, your elevation of the small ethnic slight to an epiphany in your own life will demonstrate your fine-tuned diversiphile sensitivity.

The sheer thrill of encountering cultural difference. DDT 2 requires that you tell a story in which you play a part in bringing people together across a social divide. Avoid gushing about your own moment of discovery in which you learned to like the blues, or Korean food, or the Grand Old Opry. That will come across as merely desperate. The cool essay will depict you as a mediator who has friends in every camp. This also requires more characters and a more complicated set-up than DDT 1. Start the essay with a tense situation:

“I didn’t know what would happen the night before the big game when my friend Mike decided to tell the other guys on the football team that she was transgendered…”

“Sissy, who was Korean but raised by white parents, refused to hang out with my friends Jiyan and Jae, who lived with their Korean parents.”

“I was the only one at school who knew that my friend Phyllis was homeless. She lived with her mother at the Motel Six, but when we started work on the senior class play…”

Remember, your job is to tell the story of a small breakthrough, not a social revolution. You have to leave something to accomplish as a college sophomore.

Pride in one’s own diversity. DDT 3 may sound easy and, if you happen to fit into a preferred category, it is indeed not too difficult. If you come from a prosperous black family, for example, just be sure to show your solidarity with the less fortunate:

“My family’s prize possession is a broken tea cup. Great Aunt Carrie carried it with her all the way from Ohio…”

“I met Orlando when I was tutoring kids in math at Mandela School…”

Even if you are not a member of an approved minority, however, you can, with the help of your new imaginary friends, work out of a pretty good story. The dramatic moment you will need to work for is the shining realization that we are all diverse. Your story should show you learning this from someone else.

“I never thought that it would be Daryll, who has Down’s Syndrome, who would teach me the most important lesson in life.”

“I thought I was just like everyone else until one day when my friend Shirley asked why I had so many freckles.”

“Last summer, I visited my friend Charles in Georgia. We had been best friends in what I guess was a mostly white suburb, but his family moved to an all-black neighborhood in Atlanta, and it was the first time I found myself as the only white kid…”

Be careful not to suggest that your honorary “diversity” is as authentic or as educationally enriching as the diversity that comes from belonging to an oppressed minority group. This is a DDT that requires an especially light touch.

Of course, you may choose not to play the game at all, regardless of whether family history gives you an opening. Perhaps you sense that there is something slightly phony about a college asking you to make a big deal out of race, ethnicity, and group identity. If so, your misgiving is well founded. The philosopher Immanuel Kant once urged that we should act to treat humanity–both our individual selves and everyone else, “in every case as an end, and never merely as a means.” But the diversity movement reverses that. The “diversity essay” itself is a little lesson in how to shoplift from your store of memories. It asks you to snag bits of personal experience and fit them to into a politically correct diversity narrative, and it asks you as well to treat your friends and family as resources to be exploited in the way to raising your own personal diversity quotient. Conformity with diversity’s sly standards might help you get into college. But refusing to submit a diversity essay could be the worthier path.

I do not, however, recommend that you forego a college education out of unwillingness to dance to the tune of the diversiphiles who hold the power to block your admission, regardless of how well you have performed in high school and on standardized tests. Your first challenge is to slip past these gentlemen at the gates. I wish you well, and I will take pride if Mohammed, Shareen, Jose, Jimmy, Mike, Sissy, Phyllis, Orlando, or their counterparts help you on your way.

Peter Wood is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept and professor of anthropology at Boston University.

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