What is the diversity question in a school application, and why does it matter when applying to leading programs and universities? Most importantly, how should you respond?
Diversity is of supreme value in higher education, and schools want to know how every student will contribute to it in their community. A diversity essay is an essay that encourages applicants with disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds, an unusual education, a distinctive experience, or a unique family history to write about how these elements of their background have prepared them to play a useful role in increasing and encouraging diversity among their target program’s student body and broader community.
In this post, we’ll cover the following topics:
- How to show you can add to diversity
- Why diversity matters at school
- Seven examples that reveal diversity
- How to write about your diversity
- Diversity essay example
Want to ensure your application demonstrates the diversity that your dream school is seeking?
How to show you can add to diversity
If you are an immigrant to the United States, the child of immigrants, or someone whose ethnicity is underrepresented in the States, your response to “How will you add to the diversity of our class/community?” and similar questions might help your application efforts. Why? Because you can use it to show how your background will add a distinctive perspective to the program you are applying to.
Of course, if you’re not from a group that is underrepresented in your field or a disadvantaged group, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to write about in a diversity essay.
For example, you might have an unusual or special experience to share, such as serving in the military, being a member of a dance troupe, or caring for a disabled relative. These and other distinctive experiences can convey how you will contribute to the diversity of the school’s campus.
You could be the first member of your family to apply to college or the first to learn English in your household. Perhaps you have worked your way through college or helped raise your siblings.
You might also have been an ally to those who are underrepresented, disadvantaged, or marginalized in your community, at your previous school, or in an earlier work experience.
As you can see, diversity is not limited to one’s religion, ethnicity, culture, language, or sexual orientation. It refers to whatever element of your identity distinguishes you from others and shows that you, too, value diversity.
Why diversity matters at school
Admissions officers believe diversity in the classroom improves the educational experience of all the students involved. They also believe that having a diverse workforce better serves society as a whole.
The more diverse perspectives found in the classroom, throughout the dorms, in the dining halls, and mixed into study groups, the richer the discussions will be.
Plus, learning and growing in this kind of multicultural environment will prepare students for working in our increasingly multicultural and global world.
In medicine, for example, a heterogeneous workforce benefits people from previously underrepresented cultures. Businesses realize they will market more effectively if they can speak to different audiences and markets, which is possible when members of their workforce come from different backgrounds and cultures. Schools simply want to prepare graduates for the 21st century job market.
Seven examples that reveal diversity
Adcoms want to know about your personal diversity elements and the way they have helped you develop particular character and personality traits, as well as the unusual experiences that have shaped you.
Here are seven examples an applicant could write about:
- They grew up with a strong insistence on respecting elders, attending family events, or learning their parents’ native language and culture.
- They are close to grandparents and extended family members who have taught them how teamwork can help everyone thrive.
- They have had to face difficulties that stem from their parents’ values being in conflict with theirs or those of their peers.
- Teachers have not always understood the elements of their culture or lifestyle and how those elements influence their performance.
- They suffered from discrimination and succeeded despite it because of their grit, values, and character.
- They learned skills from a lifestyle that is outside the norm (e.g., living in foreign countries as the child of a diplomat or contractor; performing professionally in theater, dance, music, or sports; having a deaf sibling).
- They’ve encountered racism or other prejudice (either toward themselves or others) and responded by actively promoting diverse, tolerant values.
And remember, it’s not just about who your parents are. It’s about who you are – at the core.
Your background, influences, religious observances, language, ideas, work environment, community experiences – all these factors come together to create a unique individual, one who will contribute to a varied class of distinct individuals taking their place in a diverse world.
How to write about your diversity
Your answer to the diversity question should focus on how your experiences have built your empathy for others, your embrace of differences, your resilience, your character, and your perspective.
The school might well ask how you think of diversity or how you can bring or add to the diversity of your school, chosen profession, or community. Make sure you answer the specific question posed by highlighting distinctive elements of your profile that will add to the class mosaic every adcom is trying to create. You don’t want to blend in; you want to stand out in a positive way while also complementing the school’s canvas.
Here’s a simple, three-part framework that will help you think of diversity more, well, diversely:
- Identity: Who are you? What has contributed to your identity? How do you distinguish yourself? Your identity can include any of the following: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion, nontraditional work experience, nontraditional educational background, multicultural background, and family’s educational level.
- Deeds: What have you done? What have you accomplished? This could include any of the following: achievements inside and/or outside your field of study, leadership opportunities, community service, , internship or professional experience, research opportunities, hobbies, and travel. Any or all of these could be unique. Also, what life-derailing, throw-you-for-a-loop challenges have you faced and overcome?
- Ideas: How do you think? How do you approach things? What drives you? What influences you? Are you the person who can break up a tense meeting with some well-timed humor? Are you the one who intuitively sees how to bring people together?
Think about each question within this framework and how you could apply your diversity elements to the classroom, your school, or your community. Any of these elements will serve as the framework for your essay.
Don’t worry if you can’t think of something totally “out there.” You don’t need to be a tightrope walker living in the Andes or a Buddhist monk from Japan to pass the diversity test!
And please remember, the examples I have listed are not exhaustive. There are many other ways to show diversity!
All you need to write successfully about how you will contribute to the rich diversity of your target school’s community is to examine your identity, deeds, and ideas, with an eye toward your personal distinctiveness and individuality. There is only one you.
Want our advice on how you can best show diversity?
Take a look at this sample diversity essay, and pay attention to how the writer underscores their appreciation for and experience with diversity.
Diversity essay example
When I was starting 11th grade, my dad, an agricultural scientist, was assigned to a 3-month research project in a farm village in Niigata (northwest Honshu in Japan). Rather than stay behind with my mom and siblings, I begged to go with him. As a straight-A student, I convinced my parents and the principal that I could handle my schoolwork remotely (pre-COVID) for that stretch. It was time to leap beyond my comfortable suburban Wisconsin life—and my Western orientation, reinforced by travel to Europe the year before.
We roomed in a sprawling farmhouse with a family participating in my dad’s study. I thought I’d experience an “English-free zone,” but the high school students all studied and wanted to practice English, so I did meet peers even though I didn’t attend their school. Of the many eye-opening, influential, cultural experiences, the one that resonates most powerfully to me is experiencing their community. It was a living, organic whole. Elementary school kids spent time helping with the rice harvest. People who foraged for seasonal wild edibles gave them to acquaintances throughout the town. In fact, there was a constant sharing of food among residents—garden veggies carried in straw baskets, fish or meat in coolers. The pharmacist would drive prescriptions to people who couldn’t easily get out—new mothers, the elderly—not as a business service but as a good neighbor. If rain suddenly threatened, neighbors would bring in each other’s drying laundry. When an empty-nest 50-year-old woman had to be hospitalized suddenly for a near-fatal snakebite, neighbors maintained her veggie patch until she returned. The community embodied constant awareness of others’ needs and circumstances. The community flowed!
Yet, people there lamented that this lifestyle was vanishing; more young people left than stayed or came. And it wasn’t idyllic: I heard about ubiquitous gossip, long-standing personal enmities, busybody-ness. But these very human foibles didn’t dam the flow. This dynamic community organism couldn’t have been more different from my suburban life back home, with its insular nuclear families. We nod hello to neighbors in passing.
This wonderful experience contained a personal challenge. Blond and blue-eyed, I became “the other” for the first time. Except for my dad, I saw no Westerner there. Curious eyes followed me. Stepping into a market or walking down the street, I drew gazes. People swiftly looked away if they accidentally caught my eye. It was not at all hostile, I knew, but I felt like an object. I began making extra sure to appear “presentable” before going outside. The sense of being watched sometimes generated mild stress or resentment. Returning to my lovely tatami room, I would decompress, grateful to be alone. I realized this challenge was a minute fraction of what others experience in my own country. The toll that feeling—and being— “other” takes on non-white and visibly different people in the US can be extremely painful. Experiencing it firsthand, albeit briefly, benignly, and in relative comfort, I got it.
Unlike the organic Niigata community, work teams, and the workplace itself, have externally driven purposes. Within this different environment, I will strive to exemplify the ongoing mutual awareness that fueled the community life in Niigata. Does it benefit the bottom line, improve the results? I don’t know. But it helps me be the mature, engaged person I want to be, and to appreciate the individuals who are my colleagues and who comprise my professional community. I am now far more conscious of people feeling their “otherness”—even when it’s not in response to negative treatment, it can arise simply from awareness of being in some way different.
What did you think of this essay? Does this middle class Midwesterner have the unique experience of being different from the surrounding majority, something she had not experienced in the United States? Did she encounter diversity from the perspective of “the other”?
Here a few things to note about why this diversity essay works so well:
- The writer comes from “a comfortable, suburban, Wisconsin life,” suggesting that her own background might not be ethnically, racially, or in other ways diverse.
- The diversity “points” scored all come from her fascinating experience of having lived in a Japanese farm village, where she immersed herself in a totally different culture.
- The lessons learned about the meaning of community are what broaden and deepen the writer’s perspective about life, about a purpose-driven life, and about the concept of “otherness.”
By writing about a time when you experienced diversity in one of its many forms, you can write a memorable and meaningful diversity essay.
Working on your diversity essay?
Want to ensure that your application demonstrates the diversity that your dream school is seeking? Work with one of our admissions experts and . This checklist includes more than 30 different ways to think about diversity to jump-start your creative engines.