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How to Talk About Race on College Applications, According to Admissions Experts

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Rafael Figueroa, dean of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy, was in the middle of tutoring Native American and Native Hawaiian students on how to write college application essays when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the race-conscious college admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional.

Earlier in the week, he told the students that they shouldn’t feel like they need to talk about their ethnicity in their essays. But after the June 29 Supreme Court ruling, he backtracked. “If I told you that you didn’t have to write about your native or cultural identity, you need to get ready to do another supplemental essay” on it or prepare a story that can fit into short answer questions, he says he told them.

For high school seniors of color applying to colleges in the coming years, the essay and short answer sections will take on newfound importance. Chief Justice John Roberts suggested as much when he wrote in his majority opinion, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” That “discussion” is usually in an essay, and many colleges have additional short-answer questions that allow students to expand more on their background and where they grew up.

“The essay is going to take up a lot more space than maybe it has in the past because people are going to be really trying to understand who this person is that is going to come into our community,” says Timothy Fields, senior associate dean of undergraduate admission at Emory University.

Now, college admissions officers are trying to figure out how to advise high schoolers on their application materials to give them the best chance to showcase their background under the new rules, which will no longer allow colleges or universities to use race as an explicit factor in admissions decisions.

Shereem Herndon-Brown, who co-wrote The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions with Fields, says students of color can convey their racial and ethnic backgrounds by writing about their families and their upbringing. “I’ve worked with students for years who have written amazing essays about how they spend Yom Kippur with their family, which clearly signals to a college that they are Jewish—how they listened to the conversations from their grandfather about escaping parts of Europe… Their international or immigrant story comes through whether it’s from the Holocaust or Croatia or the Ukraine. These are stories that kind of smack colleges in the face about culture.”

“Right now, we’re asking Black and brown kids to smack colleges in the face about being Black and brown,” he continues. “And, admittedly, I am mixed about the necessity to do it. But I think the only way to do it is through writing.”

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Students of color who are involved in extracurriculars that are related to diversity efforts should talk about those prominently in their college essays, other experts say. Maude Bond, director of college counseling at Cate School in Santa Barbara County, California, cites one recent applicant she counseled who wrote her college essay about an internship with an anti-racism group and how it helped her highlight the experiences of Asian American Pacific Islanders in the area.

Bond also says there are plenty of ways for people of color to emphasize their resilience and describe the character traits they learned from overcoming adversity: “Living in a society where you’re navigating racism every day makes you very compassionate.” she says. “It gives you a different sense of empathy and understanding. Not having the same resources as people that you grow up with makes you more creative and innovative.” These, she argues, are characteristics students should highlight in their personal essays.

Adam Nguyen, a former Columbia University admissions officer who now counsels college applicants via his firm Ivy Link, will also encourage students of color to ask their teachers and college guidance counselors to hint at their race or ethnicity in their recommendation letters. “That’s where they could talk about your racial background,” Nguyen says. “Just because you can’t see what’s written doesn’t mean you can’t influence how or what is said about you.”

Yet as the essay portions of college applications gain more importance, the process of reading applications will take a lot longer, raising the question of whether college admissions offices have enough staffers to get through the applications. “There are not enough admission officers in the industry to read that way,” says Michael Pina, director of admission at the University of Richmond.

That could make it even more difficult for students to get the individual attention required to gain acceptance to the most elite colleges. Multiple college admissions experts say college-bound students will need to apply to a broader range of schools. “You should still apply to those 1% of colleges…but you should think about the places that are producing high-quality graduates that are less selective,” says Pina.

One thing more Black students should consider, Fields argues, is applying to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). (In fact, Fields, a graduate of Morehouse College, claims that may now be “necessary” for some students.) “There’s something to be said, for a Black person to be in a majority environment someplace that they are celebrated, not tolerated,” Fields says. “There’s something to be said about being in an environment where you don’t have to justify why you’re here.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com