The Rise of the Grievance Essay?

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Harvard and others turn to new essay prompts to circumvent Supreme Court ruling

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v.  President and Fellows of Harvard College, which found racial discrimination in college admissions policies to be unlawful and in violation of Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection, colleges and universities across the country have been forced to reexamine their applicant evaluation practices.

The latest public opinion research from Pew, for example, shows that 82 percent of voters agree with the Court that race or ethnicity should not be an admissions factor. Wouldn’t colleges and universities — including the highly selective ones where the admissions debate has been concentrated — be eager to uphold the text and spirit of the Court’s ruling and establish a more meritocratic application process going forward?

Well, new evidence from the upcoming application season suggests the opposite. Schools across the country have adopted new essay prompts that openly invite applicants to air identity-based grievances in hopes of aiding their admissions chances.

The die was cast immediately when many elite schools seized upon Chief Justice John Roberts’ words that “Nothing in [the] opinion… should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [in an essay] of how race affected his or her life…” as a license to continue discriminating.

In doing so, they ignored his subsequent warning that schools “may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Steven McGuire, fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has catalogued many elite colleges’ new essay prompts for a still-updating Twitter thread, suggesting that re-establishment of the regime is underway.

  • New Harvard applicants are asked to share “life experiences” that relate to a preceding clause reminding everyone of the school’s historic commitment to diversity in the student body.
  • Stanford has adopted identical language in its own new prompt, quietly removing last year’s version that asked applicants about “something meaningful to them.”
  • Dartmouth cheekily quotes Kermit the Frog — “It’s not easy being green” — before wanting to know how students have embraced “difference” as part of their “identity.”
  • New York’s Sarah Lawrence College is especially defiant of the Court, with a new essay prompt that quotes Chief Justice Roberts verbatim, and asks applicants to explain how his court’s decision impacted them.

These examples mirror those at Columbia, Emory, Brandeis, and numerous other institutions.

Students’ supplemental essays should add depth and background to their intellectual and social interests; it’s both logical and expected that race, class, environment, and geography would factor in their stories. But the colleges’ new essay prompts don’t invite a nuanced discussion of one’s intellectual and social background as it relates to the institution at hand.

When Sarah Lawrence asks how the recent SCOTUS decision has “impacted, influenced, or affected…” its applicants’ goals, the college isn’t inviting high-school seniors to visit where they can read the Court’s well-explained reasoning in the SFFA v. Harvard decision.

Instead, it is coaxing applicants of particular backgrounds to inflate, in 500 words, their own victimhood within a well-documented history of legal and economic discrimination. Applicants will be judged on their sophomoric attempts at critical theory analysis before they’ve had a chance to study the real thing in college.

Rather than call attention to failures in the K-12 education system that leave severe gaps in applicants’ college readiness or devise more innovative ways to assess fairly effort and talent, our best schools are showing they care more about protecting the discriminatory status quo. Worse yet, they seem undeterred — rather, more emboldened — by the Court’s explicit warning against reestablishing a doctrine of race discrimination.

With varying degrees of pandemic-related learning loss affecting American students of all ages, and aptitude tests like the SAT and ACT now an optional luxury to be ignored, undergraduate admissions officers have fewer tools than ever to evaluate prospective students.

Turning the supplemental essay — once a forum for applicants to share their specific attraction to the institution and how their academic interests might align with its programs — into a forum likely for the airing of grievances will do nothing to help our best schools admit the nation’s best and brightest.

Colleges and universities would be better served asking applicants to stand on their unique experiences, insight, and the measures of aptitude that led them to apply in the first place.

Essay prompts that emphasize the value of diverse experiences along with the value they bring in forging new common ground would force students to move away from grievance-based rhetorical habits that have already damaged college campus discourse.

For now, though, the Ivory Tower is holding firm.

Jude Iredell is a Roger Perry Civics Intern with the Pioneer Institute. He is a senior at Pomona College pursuing a bachelor’s in history. He can be reached via email, LinkedIn, or by letter to Pioneer’s office in Boston.