Affirmative Action and Common App Essays

Affirmative action has been a controversial topic in college admissions for decades. Its aim is to increase the representation of historically marginalized groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, and individuals from low-income backgrounds, in educational institutions.

Proponents argue that it helps rectify historical inequalities and fosters diversity on campus, enriching the learning experience for all students. However, opponents contend that affirmative action may lead to reverse discrimination and undermine the principles of meritocracy.

In recent years, affirmative action policies faced legal challenges in various states, questioning their constitutionality and efficacy. Lawsuits challenging affirmative action practices in college admissions have led to intense debates and created uncertainty around their future. These challenges prompted college admissions offices to reconsider their selection criteria and the role of the Common App essay prompts. 

The Common App’s Response

In August 2023, the Common App announced significant changes to its essay prompts in response to the evolving landscape of college admissions, including the challenges posed by affirmative action cases. The goal was to create a more inclusive and equitable application process that values students’ diverse experiences, backgrounds, and achievements.

Fostering Inclusivity and Representation: One of the primary changes to the Common App essay prompts was a deliberate effort to encourage students to share their unique experiences and perspectives. By offering prompts that invite personal narratives about challenges, growth, and identity, the Common App sought to foster a more inclusive representation of students’ backgrounds and struggles.

De-emphasizing Standardized Test Scores: In response to the affirmative action challenges, the Common App also moved away from heavily relying on standardized test scores as a primary factor in the application process. Instead, the revised essay prompts provided applicants with the opportunity to showcase their strengths, achievements, and potential beyond their test scores. This shift aimed to level the playing field and reduce potential bias in the selection process.

Emphasizing Community and Impact: Another major change in the Common App essay prompts was the inclusion of questions that encouraged students to reflect on their roles within their communities and the positive impact they have made. This change was intended to value a student’s engagement in social issues, volunteer work, and community building, emphasizing qualities beyond academics and standardized test scores.

Acknowledging Personal Growth and Resilience: The revised essay prompts also recognized the importance of resilience and personal growth. Students were given opportunities to discuss challenges they faced and how they overcame them, focusing on character development and self-awareness. This change aimed to highlight qualities that may not be evident in traditional academic achievements.

In response to the challenges posed by affirmative action cases, the Common App underwent significant changes to its essay prompts in 2023. By fostering inclusivity, de-emphasizing standardized test scores, emphasizing community impact, and acknowledging personal growth, the Common App aimed to create a more equitable and holistic application process.

These changes reflect the evolving landscape of college admissions and the ongoing efforts to ensure that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have a fair chance to showcase their potential and find the right academic home. As colleges and universities continue to navigate the complexities of affirmative action and diversity in admissions, the Common App’s efforts mark an important step towards a more just and comprehensive application process.

By Cat Hollands, Capture Client Trainer, Capture Higher Ed