Let’s Get Existential: Identity in the College Essay

By Noor Haddad


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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 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.  

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! Before you start writing, let’s define a few terms you might run into while drafting your essays.

Identity

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 essay.

Diversity 

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 essay is to understand how these identifying factors can help you contribute to a school in a way they haven’t seen before. 

Community

Let’s define community. You may associate it with the city or neighborhood you live in. But 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 also want to get to know all of the thousands of students they’re bringing to campus as part of their class. To give you a glimpse of the variety, here are a few examples of essays where these terms 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?”

Pomona College

“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 campus. Once you really get to the core and understand the intent of these 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. Just be yourself.

 

With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self – whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.