Writing a “diversity essay” can be challenging, so let’s start with a few definitions.
“Diversity” refers to a group that possesses a wide range of traits and characteristics. Diversity can be defined along lines of culture, race, class, ethnic background, religion, age, marital status, ability, citizenship, sex, gender, or sexual orientation (and really, the infinite number of ways we are different). In essence, “diversity” is about representation. Colgate wants its student body to be representative of all people.
“Inclusion” is defined as the social norms, customs, and behaviors that welcome people from many walks of life. Think about the clothes people wear and the way they talk. Think about the types of food people eat, what music they listen to, and what holidays they celebrate. Looking deeper, inclusion refers to the way institutions permit or punish certain groups for certain behaviors.
In this way, inclusion takes things one step further than diversity. Colgate is saying that it’s not enough to just have students from varying backgrounds on campus; it wants to make sure the culture of the campus actually works for everyone, and its admission officials want to know how you’ll be a part of it.
Let’s face it—in the United States, most of our communities haven’t been inclusive. Considering how you participate in or fight against oppressive systems is a lifelong process. Here are a few more tips along these lines:
Don’t assume that “difference” only refers to race or social class.
There are so many ways to define “difference.” Consider all the communities you’re a part of and all the ways they are different before picking a topic. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about race or class—and if either speaks to you, you should—but you may want to explore other aspects of difference before immediately writing about those. This is especially true if your writing about race or class would fall into any of the clichés described below.
Consider how your school or community has (or hasn’t) encouraged diversity and inclusion.
Does the population of your school match the population of your town or city? What kinds of music are played at community events? In school? What types of food are available? Does your community celebrate holidays for many religions and cultures? Does your community celebrate PRIDE? What holidays get time off from work or school? Does your community have a “poor” or “bad” part of town? How are the people living there different? Are they treated differently?
Not all black people act one way. Not all gay people look or act like the folks on Queer Eye. Not all older people are “angry boomers,” and not all people with disabilities think or feel the same way about their disability. Be considerate in the way you describe individuals within these groups, especially if you’re a person of privilege. Address any and all nuance to a person or group’s experience.
Avoid privilege clichés.
A common essay on diversity/privilege goes something like this: The author passes someone on the street. They notice the person, whose skin is darker than theirs, wears worn-out shoes (or no shoes at all). The author describes a mix of shame and gratitude for their privileged position. They either give the person food or money (which feels good, but also bad because they want to do more) or neglect to give the person food or money (and they just feel bad). These kinds of stories have several problems:
Because the interaction has been so minimal, compelling insights are unlikely to occur. As a result, these essays often end up expressing a common theme along the lines of “I realized I have so much to be grateful for.”
Realizing privilege in an essay runs the risk of showcasing unflattering or downright negative qualities like naïveté and ignorance.
This applies to the typical “mission trip” essay, where someone from privilege travels to a country and meets folks who come from relatively less privilege, and they build a house/share a meal/are welcomed into their homes and, lo and behold, their lives change. If you’re a white person, be aware of posing yourself as the “white savior.” While these essays, in many cases, describe awesome moments in your growth as a person, they have become extremely common in the college admission world. We’d recommend avoiding them unless you can identify an insight that is uncommon.
Instead, consider writing about a person or group you have spent time with and know relatively well.
Here’s a great example that does this. Note that your essay will be shorter than the one listed here.
When I joined the Durham Youth Commission, a group of students chosen to represent youth interests within local government, I met Miles. Miles told me his cousin’s body had been stuffed into the trunk of a car after he was killed by a gang. After that, my notion of normal would never be the same.
A melting pot of ideologies, skins, socio-economic classes, faiths, and educations, the DYC is a unique collaborative enterprise. Each member adds to our community’s network of stories, that weave, bump, and diverge in unexpected ways. Miles talked about his cousin’s broken body, Witnessa educated us about “food deserts,” supervisor Evelyn Scott explained that girls get ten-day school suspensions for simply stepping on another student’s sneakers, and I shared how my family’s blending of Jewish tradition and Chinese culture bridges disparate worlds. As a person who was born in Tokyo, lived in London, and grew up in the South, I realize difference doesn’t have to be an obstacle to understanding. My ability to listen empathetically helped us envision multifaceted solutions to issues facing 21st-century youth.
My experience in this space of affirmation and engagement has made me a more thoughtful person and listener. I want to continue this effort and be the woman who both expands perspectives and takes action after hearing people’s stories. Reconciling disparate lifestyles and backgrounds in the Commission has prepared me to become a compassionate leader, eager to both expand perspectives and take collaborative action.
— — —
Tips + Analysis
Show collaborative work done across differences rather than simply describing a single act to help a single person. This author didn’t just meet a person different from her and then do a single thing. She’s part of a group of diverse young people working together to “envision multifaceted solutions to issues facing 21st century youth.” This helps us see that she’s acting from a place of empathy and collaboration, not sympathy and guilt.
Focus less on the interaction with someone who is different and more on what was done to spark change. Note that this essay isn’t about the conversation with Miles; it’s about the interactions among group members that led to this conversation and the work they’re doing together.
Provide specific take-aways. This author mentions empathic listening, envisioning solutions—skills that will serve her well at Colgate and as a representative of Colgate after she graduates.
Show what those take-aways look like in action at Colgate. This student wants to be a “compassionate leader” who converts stories and perspectives into “collaborative action.” Weaving values of leadership, empathy, and activism into her diversity essay projects her as a valuable member of the Colgate community.
Here’s an example essay in which the author defines “diversity” in a different way.
Colgate Essay Example: Is Josh okay?
My whole family is sitting around the living room on a lazy Sunday afternoon when we suddenly hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Everyone stops. My dad peers out the window, trying to get a glimpse of the highway. My mom gets up and goes to the phone. After a few stressful rings, the person on the other line answers. My mom bursts out, “Is Josh ok?”
Josh is my fourteen year old cousin, and he lives less than a mile from my house. Whenever we hear sirens, my mom will give their house a call or shoot my aunt a text, just in case. Josh was born with a syndrome which affected the formation of the bones of his head and face. As a result, his hearing, vision, breathing and some of his brain structures are compromised. He’s unable to do athletics, his tracheostomy always provides a possibility of disaster, and an unwieldy head brace used to grace his head.
Living so close to Josh, we have had the opportunity to interact daily. We go on vacations together, I drive Josh to school twice a week, at every holiday we either go down to their house or they come up to my family’s house, we play wiffle ball in the yard behind their house, and one of my favorite activities is board games with him—Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, we play it all. Last Christmas, there were endless laughs when, prompted by our fathers’ nostalgia, we constructed a slot car track and raced those miniature cars around tight turns and short straightaways. This game was perfect for Josh, as he could stay in a comfortable seat and still experience speed and excitement that he is usually barred from.
It goes without saying that Josh has not had an easy childhood. He has had to fight for his life in the hospital when his peers were learning how to multiply and divide in school or playing capture the flag on the beach. A large portion of his childhood has been arbitrarily taken from him. That is most obviously unfair.
At our high school, I see Josh every day walking from second period to third period, and every day I say hello and have a small conversation with him. One day I was walking with a few of my friends when I stopped to talk with him. During the conversation, I made a little joke at Josh’s expense. It wasn’t at all relating to his disability, but to something completely independent of that—specifically, his Instagram habits. My friends were horrified, and chastised me as they saw appropriate.
My friends didn’t understand. He is not some extremely delicate dandelion who falls apart at every breath that causes a slightly adverse situation. Everywhere he goes, he’s the most popular guy in the room; people flock to him, surround him, pity him, overwhelm him. All Josh wants is to be treated like any other person. He is my cousin, and he is my friend, so I treat him as such. We joke, we make fun of each other, just as any other two friends do.
Josh has proved to me that people with disabilities are exactly that—people. As if that needed proving. But it’s something that is too easily forgotten. It’s hard to see anything except the handicap. A person’s wheelchair or white cane inevitably trumps any other characteristic. It’s a natural human reaction, but it too often leads to the dehumanizing of disabled people. One of my favorite people on Earth has lived a life of disability. And he plays a mean game of Monopoly.
— — —
Tips + Analysis
If possible, describe someone you know relatively well. This can help you avoid some of the clichés mentioned above. And while this may not be possible for everyone, here’s something anyone can do …
Include at least one insight that is somewhat uncommon. Re-read the second to last paragraph to see how the author shared an uncommon insight. How can you do this? Keep asking yourself “so what?” until you arrive at something surprising.
Some Tips for Brainstorming the “Diversity” Essay
1. Can you think of a situation or activity where you collaborated with people who are different from you? If so, what did you do together? What kinds of problems did you solve? Here’s a brainstorm chart: