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“How Do I Bring Diversity?” Race and Class in the College Admissions Essay


  • The authors wish to thank the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan, the Office of General Counsel, the College Board, ACT Inc., the National Science Foundation (Grant#SES-0753164), the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program for their considerable cooperation in assembling the data for this project and for providing funding. We received very helpful feedback along the way from audiences at the University of Michigan Law School, the Michigan Center for Political Studies Workshop on Democratic Politics, and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and especially from Ellen Berrey, Anthony Chen, Daniel Lipson, and three anonymous reviewers. Jessica Kosteva provided valuable research assistance. Please direct correspondence to Anna Kirkland, 204 South State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1290; e-mail:


In the first systematic study of what college applicants invoke when required to submit a diversity essay, we revisit many settled assumptions on both the left and the right about how such an essay would operate after Grutter and Gratz as well as after the passage of anti–affirmative action ballot initiatives. Our data are a sample of 176 diversity essays submitted to the University of Michigan in the immediate aftermath of the University's Supreme Court win, analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively with special attention to the differences that the essay writer's race and class position make. We find that in many respects the essays are similar when written by applicants from similar backgrounds but different races, and that conservative critics were wrong to assume the essay would function simply as a way of announcing oneself as an under-the-table affirmative action candidate. Rather than suggesting a straightforward lineup of advantage and disadvantage, we suggest rather that the essay is a vehicle for the youngest generation of citizens to both receive and send back a new conception of difference that has some essentializing elements but overall is turning in a postracial, cosmopolitan direction.