What Role Does Race Play in College Admissions?

An Inside Look into the College Admissions Process

Author: Naya Frazier

You spend hours, painstakingly selecting perfect words for the essay, crafting the most stellar resume and spell-checking again and again. At last, you hit submit, and your college application is gone. The mystery for most high school seniors lies in what happens between that fateful click and the final acceptance or rejection letter.

Believe it or not, the final destination of your masterpiece application is the hands of an actual person. And if you applied to the University of Maryland, that person is Shannon Gundy, Director of Admissions. Her mission?

"…looking for students that are not only academically talented, but are interesting, diverse, and are going to help change the face of the University by the things they do when they are enrolled as students there," she says.

But how exactly do admissions counselors pick those students? With an applicant pool that has more qualified students than there are spaces for in a freshman class, the process can be difficult.

Most schools will tell you that their review process is holistic. But the nightmare of four years of hard work being eclipsed by one tick in the "Race/Ethnicity" box can seem very real in light of cases like those of Jian Li, and Asian-American student who sued Harvard and Princeton for rejection in 2006 on the basis of race, and a 2012 complaint from California which has since been dropped.

So how much of a role does race play in college admissions?

"Being of a racial background that means that you might have different perspectives, different experiences, is going to help us determine- yes, you might be someone that we want to have at the University who is going to help shape a class of students that's interesting," Mrs. Gundy admits.

But is it fair for qualified students not to receive admissions for diversity's sake? The answer is complex. Mrs. Gundy likens the process to crafting of a sports team in which different players are needed to play a variety of specific positions.

"For the college application process it's a lot more difficult for people to understand that you're trying to round out a class of students that are going to be meeting a variety of needs across the campus," she explains.

And the goal of diversity is one that has merits outside of creating a colorful brochure.

"It is important to the University of Maryland that we have an incoming class of students that is presenting a very diverse face, Mrs. Gundy says. "We don't want a classroom of people that all look alike and all agree with each other, it's going to be boring. You're not going to learn from each other. 

Mrs. Gundy also offers some words of advice for students embarking on the journey that is the college application process:

Before applying to schools, ask schools what they're looking for in an applicant and find institutions that are a match for you. Schools are looking for different things.

And most importantly, remember that a student can thrive at many institutions. "There is not just ONE college that is the "right" college for any particular student," she reminds students she speaks to. "There are lots of places where students can be happy, successful, and go on to do great things."

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