Black Students Weigh Mentioning Race In College Admissions Essays After SCOTUS Affirmative Action Ruling

Pictured from left to right: Lynijah Russell, Harmony Moore, and Sean Manley. Lynijah Russell debated the opening lines of her video application to Brown University for weeks before deciding to be as candid about her identity as possible. (CNN)

By Gabe Cohen, CNN

(CNN) — Lynijah Russell debated the opening lines of her video application to Brown University for weeks before deciding to be as candid about her identity as possible.

“Hi Brown! My name is Lynijah, and I am a Black girl in STEM,” she says in the application’s opening line.

Russell said that the decision to mention her race at all felt complicated. The 17-year-old is among millions of students applying to college in the first application season since the US Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Many Black students are torn about how – and even if – they should disclose their race in their bid for college admission.

The Supreme Court decision in June left Russell, a high school senior in Maryland, nervously navigating a changing system that will soon decide where she spends her college years.

Students like her tell CNN the fallout from the high court’s decision has added a new level of anxiety to an already brutally stressful application process.

“It was a bit unfair, because my chances of getting into a college of my choice would be less than someone who applied maybe just a year before me,” she said. “It made me doubt myself. Like, ‘Are my numbers good enough?’”

As a result, Russell said she expanded her college list and removed several schools she suddenly assumed would be “impossible” to get into.

While it took Russell a while to determine if she should highlight her experience as a Black student in her applications, she told CNN when she sat down to write her college essays, she ultimately decided it was more important than ever to discuss her racial identity as part of her life story.

The ruling “made me emphasize that I was Black a bit more than I probably would have. I would include things like my hair or things that I’ve gone through as a Black person,” she said. “The thing that is important to me is my identity, who I am as a person. And race is a big part of that.”

Russell wrote her primary college essay about growing up in a rough part of Baltimore, and the hardships her family has overcome. She believes including those parts of her racial identity will increase her odds of getting into college.

“I think putting it in there just gives me a better chance,” she said. “I think [colleges] are still looking for diversity.”

Harmony Moore, a high school senior in Texas, took a starkly different approach.

Earlier this year, Moore said she wrote several college essays about her experience as a Black student navigating her predominately White high school in Houston. But after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, she decided to revise the essays.

“I completely just removed that from my essays,” Moore said. “I didn’t want to have the wrong admissions officer read it and then, all of a sudden, they don’t want to let me into their school because they feel like I’m trying to push my race on them.”

Moore’s applications still mention extracurriculars that indicate her racial identity, like her work with several Black-led organizations like the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women.

But she believes avoiding more blatant discussion of race in her essays will boost her chances of getting into a school.

“I don’t want to just have the exact same story as hundreds of other Black students,” she said. “I think I stand out on my own with my extracurriculars and with my honors that I’ve received.”

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are seeing an increase in applications and enrollment, according to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

But Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), said the high court’s ruling adds a dose of confusion to an admissions process that has always been mysterious, nuanced and ambiguous.

“To add this layer on top of it, and for [students] not to really know, ‘Do I talk about race? Do I not talk about race? If so, where do I talk about it? Is this going to be valued?’ … It’s creating this fear. And that fear for some students is actually paralyzing,” Perez said.

College advisers tell CNN the biggest misconception they’re hearing from students is that colleges are no longer prioritizing diversity and that students of color are no longer wanted at those schools.

Some advisers, like Tracy Ramos, co-founder of College Bound Parenting, are urging students of color not to shy away from race on their applications.

“Do not ignore such a crucial part of your identity,” Ramos said. “It paints a holistic picture of who you are.”

Plus, Ramos said it’s more important than ever for students of color to write about racial identity in their essays.

“A lot of elite colleges are looking for ways to identify these students,” she said. “The key piece of advice is: Make it easy for the colleges to know who you are. To know all of who you are.”

But, Perez said, providing insight into your identity does not mean students need to write about “adversity” and “trauma” to get into school.

“It’s literally mentioning it in the context of your lived experience,” Perez said. “[Students] should not feel the pressure to tell stories that they are uncomfortable about.”

Many schools have added supplemental essay questions to their applications so students can discuss their life experiences and how they would add to diversity on campus.

Sean Manley was nervous about capturing his experience as a Black student growing up in rural Maryland.

The high school senior plans to study biomedical engineering and wants to build prosthetics for those in need. He admits he felt “demoralized” after the Supreme Court decision.

“I was scared at first that they wouldn’t be able to see my race and see all the challenges that come with it, so I wanted to write about it more,” he said. “I’m very proud of who I am. And it’s a very important part of why I am here.”

Manley followed his college counselor’s advice to subtly highlight his racial identity in his essays, referencing his impressive list of extracurriculars, like his leadership roles with the Black Student Union and the National Society of Black Engineers. He said he’s glad he did so, but he’s not sure if it will benefit his chances of getting into schools.

“I don’t know if writing it in my essay is good or bad, because we’re kind of like the experiment class,” he said. “It’s kind of unfair. I don’t have any basis to go off. Everybody that’s giving me advice is just trying to guess, just like me.”

Sydney Switzer is taking a far more calculated approach to her admissions essays.

She opted to write about her racial identity on applications to certain schools, but on others, she intentionally left it out.

“I pretty much did it based on the school and whether or not I felt like that school would value having diverse perspectives in their students, and whether that was something that they would want to hear us talk about, versus other accolades and accomplishments.”

Several college advisers told CNN that a student likely would not want to attend a school with which they feel uncomfortable discussing any aspect of their identity. But Switzer’s strategy speaks to the uncertainty surrounding race on this year’s college applications and the calculations students are making as they anxiously look for the best way to get into schools.

“I think when you’re competing with so many different students, I think it comes down to what you prioritize talking about,” Switzer said.

She added, “It’s just a little bit disheartening when it comes down to having to make those choices.”

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