If you’re applying for specific scholarships, once you get past the first round of college essays — the common app, perhaps a school-specific supplement or two — you’re likely to run into some additional essays. A common theme in these prompts is overcoming discrimination, which provides an excellent opportunity to talk about life experiences or social justice work — as well as the chance to embarrass yourself by revealing you clearly don’t understand what discrimination is.
The ever-helpful Google defines discrimination as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” (Prejudice, it specifies, is a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.”)
For people who haven’t encountered a lot of discrimination in their lives, it can be easy to think of discrimination as simply being treated unfairly. When it comes to application essays, this way of thinking (in addition to being plain wrong) can lead you to write some embarrassingly irrelevant essays. I’ve heard of a few unfortunate examples, including one applicant who thought being teased for wearing new clothes counted as discrimination.
What the authors of these essays fail to realize is that discrimination is not just being treated unfairly; it’s being treated unfairly because of who or what you are. And if you are white, or male, or upper-class (or in the majority group of a whole host of other intersecting identity factors), it’s possible that you’ve never really experienced discrimination. And in terms of writing an effective essay, that’s absolutely fine — as long as you keep in mind what discrimination actually is.
Understanding the -isms
In many cases, acts of discrimination can be examples of larger systems of oppression (aka the -isms, like racism or sexism). Racial profiling, for example, is both discriminatory and racist. But just as not all rectangles are squares, not all acts of discrimination are examples of -isms.
The secret to understanding this difference is the idea of power. Anyone can be discriminated against, but only target groups can be victims of an -ism. For example, it’s possible (and discriminatory) that a minority-owned business could choose not to hire white workers, but it wouldn’t be racist (reverse or otherwise) for them to do so. Given that this business would be an isolated example of discrimination, there would be no evidence of the systemic oppression necessary to qualify it as racism. (Although, to be clear, it would still be morally wrong.)
In other words, it’s entirely possible to be discriminated against but not be the victim of an -ism. Depending on the circumstances, such an experience could be an excellent topic for an essay — but it could also come across as oblivious or petty. It all depends on the situation and how you tell your story.
Telling your story
Even if you have no personal experiences with discrimination, you can still write an insightful, compelling essay on the topic. A specific response will depend on of the prompt, but there are generally a few approaches you can take.
First, if you truly feel as though you haven’t experienced discrimination, then one option is to use your response to explore why that is and how you feel about it. It’s also possible that you’ve been present to discrimination without realizing it — reading about privilege could help you realize that perhaps you were not treated fairly, but perhaps given preferential treatment.
Even if you haven’t experienced discrimination firsthand, another approach is to share a time when you witnessed discrimination. What did you do about it? These don’t have to be specific instances, either — they can be tied to your other experiences. If you’ve spent time volunteering as a tutor, for example, you might be able to talk about how students with learning disabilities are discriminated against in the classroom. (Other potential reasons for discrimination you could discuss include socioeconomic status, denial of personhood, or a criminal record.)
Regardless of your approach, however, all good essays have one thing in common: they make a point. Essays about overcoming discrimination shouldn’t aim to make admissions counselors feel sorry for you or portray you as some sort of hero. (To quote novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”) Rather, a successful essay should demonstrate your understanding of justice and how you react in situations that challenge it.
Even with the best of intentions, discrimination is not always easy to talk about. But with the proper understanding and a thoughtful approach, you can craft an essay about discrimination, even if you don’t think you have ever experienced it — and ideally, then use this understanding to work for change in the future.
University of Delaware Common App Essays
Writing Questions are Optional: Provide a short response, 200 words or fewer, to each of these prompts.
Q1. Anticipate what it will be like for you as a student at the University of Delaware. Both in and out of the classroom, where do you expect to feel most comfortable and where will you need to stretch?
When I was a freshman in high school I was not comfortable since there were sophomores and upperclassmen in my classes and clubs. In addition, I had my own schedule of classes and clubs that were much different than my friends. I felt out of place. Yet, I got more comfortable since people had the same interests as me. In engineering class, I loved when I got to talk about creating different designs and learn how to use Autocad Inventor with classmates and friends. Also, I enjoyed when I got to learn different games every year and how to design a robot with members of the Roxbury Robotics Club for competition. I not only made friends but prioritized myself so I would not get off track from academics and made sure I would be active in clubs and sports I liked. If I was a student at the University of Delaware I would be comfortable in my classes clubs where people have the same interest with me. Also, I would have to stretch when I have my own personal schedule and prioritize myself throughout college. I at first it would be hard but in time I would be more comfortable where I am.
Q2. Relate a personal experience in which you were denied an opportunity or treated unfairly. How did you resolve the situation? If that were to happen during your college experience, what would you do?
It was not a great feeling when I was not playing Friday night under the lights. I could not do anything but cheer. I was ready but not for varsity. That was my junior year of football. That coming offseason, I worked long hours in the weight room on bench and squat to show my strength. I also worked on my catching ability since I did not have the best hands on the team. That coming season I was one of the strongest backs in the lineup and showed my coaches that I was able to play varsity. During the 2016 season, I had a position where I started every game. I got to start on kickoff and play special teams on punt. I was also second string running back for the team. If I was denied an opportunity during my college experience, I would approach it the same way I did in football. I would work hard until I get the opportunity again or get what I want to accomplish. And if I fail, I would continue my hard work.
Q3. Describe an accomplishment that took a great deal of time and/or effort on your part. What motivated you to persevere when it got challenging? Who or what did you turn to for support, and how was that helpful?
All boy scouts who continue till they are eighteen have a commitment. My commitment to remain a boy scout is that I wanted to be an Eagle Scout because I wanted to show how loved scouts. To become an Eagle Scout I had to work on a service project. My service project was to restore a food pantry for Trinity Lutheran Church. The pantry had to be restored since the church needed to collect more food for the homeless. This project took two years in which I planned, executed and reported the project. The hardest part was getting the project approved since all the paperwork took a long time. The Boy Scout council would return my paperwork to me because more details would need to be added to planning. This meant I had to take inventory of all the equipment I would use, safety guidelines for everyone who I would work with, and steps if the project got delayed. With the help of my troop members, friends and family got to finish this project within a week. I could not do it without them since they helped me be a leader and supported me the whole way with my commitment.
Self-Appraisal of your academic performance: Your academic performance. With Delaware's increasing selectivity, grades of "B" or above are expected. The Admissions Committee expects that you will take advantage of this question to explain any grade on your transcript that is unusually low or varies significantly from your usual performance in the section below.
Chemistry was my most important class junior year because it was my hardest class. My goal was to get an 85. Yet, I ended the year with a 78 average. I was not pleased. It did not reflect who I was and how I earned that grade. Yet, put the work in for Chemistry just like football. I tried my best every class. I asked for problems every day from my teacher, spent every night on Khan Academy and made detailed study guides for every chapter. Even though I did the work, I could not accomplish the right grade because I could not understand some concepts of chemistry. It was just hard for me, unlike other classes. Chemistry was tough but I have learned to not give up even though I did not get the grade I wanted. I had to accept a below par grade which was better than failing.
Nick, are you familiar with the University of Delaware? I am sure that you have some sort of backgrounder on the extra curricular and academic offerings of the university since you had to complete an ample amount of research before you decided to apply for admission there. So you pretty much have an idea as to what kind of academic and extra curricular activities the university offers its students. It is based upon that information that you should write your essay. When you are asked where you think you will feel most comfortable in the university, the response could be anything from "In my dorm room" to "The school cafeteria". The reasons can be as varied as you want it to be, you could say something about a habit of eating while studying or just wanting to hang out with friends in the common areas of the dorm.
With regards to where you will need to stretch, this has more to do with the kind of extra curricular activities that you have in mind. Stretching in this instance has to do with your character development and community service or civic mindedness. How do you plan to become a better participant in the community? What interests do you have that you can stretch into a way that you can be of a positive influence on others? Think along those lines.
As Chizram pointed out, the problem with your essay is that you misunderstood the prompt. The response no longer has to do with your high school experience. It has everything to do with your forthcoming experience in college. There is no need to identify whether you have visited the campus already or not. In this case, such information is irrelevant. Your familiarity with the university can have come from anywhere and the reviewer won't care. What will matter to him, is that you actually know how you can enjoy your off academic hours at the university.