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Harvard student newspaper calls new 200-word limit on admissions essays racist

Questions ‘seemingly cater to those from highly privileged backgrounds,’ students say

Harvard University’s new application essay requirements, including a 200-word limit, put racial minorities at a disadvantage, the editors of its student newspaper wrote this week.

In an editorial Tuesday, The Harvard Crimson student editorial board said the new short-essay questions “seemingly cater to those from highly privileged backgrounds.”

“Our foremost concern: How can students reasonably condense discussions about formative life experiences and their identities into 200 words or less?” the student editors wrote.

Harvard revamped its admissions process after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that its race-based admission practices were unconstitutional.

Among the changes were its essay requirements. The Ivy League school used to allow student applicants to choose from a series of questions and write one long, open-ended essay and two shorter optional essays, according to The Crimson.

Now, the application requires students to write five short essays within a 200-word limit in response to “new mandatory prompts,” the student editors wrote.

These requirements hurt “marginalized” students, forcing them to answer questions that may “not be relevant to their background,” they continued.

“Learning to package yourself within a shorter amount of space is a product of advanced education; longer essays more equitably allow applicants to discuss their experiences in full, particularly if they are from non-traditional backgrounds and require more space to elaborate on nuanced qualifications,” the editorial board wrote.

As an example, they quoted one essay prompt: “Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.”

The Crimson student journalists said the question provides an unfair advantage to students who had better academic opportunities in high school because of their “well-resourced backgrounds.”

However, some scholars have expressed the opposite concern, saying Harvard admissions staff may use the essays to skirt the Supreme Court ruling.

They pointed to a June 29 memo from Harvard President Lawrence Bacow that quotes a line in the ruling saying colleges and universities may consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”

But the Crimson student editors said the new essay questions are unfair and could result in less diversity on campus.

“While Harvard’s new prompts signify a notable effort to meet the moment, we have misgivings about the ability of these new questions to thoroughly capture the diverse array of student experiences,” they wrote.

The editorial urged Harvard to take steps to ensure the “student body remains diverse” and underprivileged students have the opportunity to attend.

“As the Class of 2028 gets to writing, we mourn the loss of Harvard’s old application. However, the focus on retaining a diverse student body in the questions Harvard asks its applicants is a welcome supplement,” they wrote.

          MORE: Harvard loses $15 million in affirmative action legal fees in appeal

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About the Author
Micaiah Bilger is an assistant editor at The College Fix.