Three-Minute Legal Talks: Race and Ethnicity in College Applications

Should you include your race or ethnicity in your college or graduate school applications?

For more than half a century, admissions officers were free to factor in an applicant’s race or ethnicity into their decision as part of affirmative action policies. However, in June 2023, the Supreme Court issued Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. That decision effectively ended affirmative action and the practice of using race as the key factor which determines your admission to a college or university.

Many applicants and guidance counselors now worry that any mention of race or ethnicity — most likely included as part of a personal statement — might adversely affect admissions chances. 

In three minutes, Theo Myhre, Teaching Professor at UW Law, examines Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and lays out what applicants need to know about stating their race or ethnicity during the admissions process.

Read the Transcript

Theo Myhre: I'm Professor Theo Myhre from the University of Washington School of Law.

Three-Minute Legal Talks: Can students mention their race or ethnicity in college admissions applications?

TM: Absolutely. Yes, they can. So, students can talk about their race or ethnicity in a college or grad school application, but it's self-disclosure. It can't be required by the university or the school. But if you want to bring it up, you certainly can.

TMLT: What are common misunderstandings about the Supreme Court case, Students for fair Admissions v. Harvard that limits Affirmative Action?

TM: One of the things that's been happening this year is that a lot of people are afraid to use race or ethnicity in their college or grad school applications. So, they're self-censoring themselves. What we've actually got is this case, which came out in October of 2022. And it's enormous. This is a double-sided thing. It's 100-some-odd pages long. No one can read this unless you're in law school. So, here's what the case actually says:

“Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality or character, or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

That's what the Supreme Court decision says to you. That means that you can use race or ethnicity in your application.

TMLT: Are there any adverse consequences if students decide to mention their race or ethnicity?

TM: There are not adverse consequences if you bring up race or ethnicity in your college applications or graduate school applications. The restrictions from the Supreme Court case are on how the university or the college uses that information, not whether you provide them with that information,

TMLT: Why might an applicant decide to mention their race or ethnicity?

TMLT: So, in your application, what you need to understand is that you matter. And your context matters. What the court has said, and what universities or colleges will look at, is the impact that race or ethnicity has had on who you are. So, what you have to understand when a university decides who to admit, sometimes it uses soft criteria, which is what your personal statement is about. And by soft criteria, we mean those things that are not like your GPA or a national test score or something like that.

The point of a learning community is that every member of a learning community is interpreting information in a unique way. And when they share how they're learning and what they're learning and what that means to them with each other it broadens everyone's understanding, and it deepens everyone's understanding of the information also. So, when you talk about your race, or your ethnicity as part of your personal statement, one of the things you're showing them is what this will bring to the learning committee. So, when they decide who to admit, they're admitting learners who have broad and different sets of experiences from each other, and that's of great value to applications.

TMLT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

TM: When you apply to a college or university, do not self-censor. Do not be afraid of a Supreme Court decision like this. Be who you are and make sure to tell the admissions committee the most important things about you. That is something that will really help advance your application through the admissions process. So, good luck, everybody, and I hope you get the path you want to.