Harvard’s Newspaper: Application Essay Word Limits Alienate Marginalized Students

FILE - Students walk through Harvard Yard, April 27, 2022, on the campus of Harvard Univer
AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

Harvard’s newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, has called the university’s recent restructuring of its essays on applications to have a “disparate impact” on those with marginalized backgrounds.

Following the end of affirmative action for college admissions as ruled by the Supreme Court in June 2023, Harvard University restructured its application to go from one open-ended essay and two short essays to five required essays of 200 words or fewer. The editorial board of the Harvard Crimson claimed that the new setup does not give members of marginalized communities the space needed to express their trauma and background. 

“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 statement read. 

The editorial board called on the university to give applicants resources on how “they can write about trauma productively given the new prompts.”

According to the board, applicants engage in “trauma dumping” to help give the university a better understanding of their background and how they have overcome obstacles in their lives. 

“Those who have undergone traumatic experiences should not have to fear that writing about the experiences that shaped them looks like a beg for admission.”

The editorial board also believes that one of the new essay prompts asking applicants to share a memorable intellectual experience is alienating. 

“’Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.’ This question seemingly privileges applicants from well-resourced backgrounds for whom additional academic opportunities were plentiful in high school.”

Not everyone on the editorial board agreed that the new essay prompts are disastrous for “marginalized” students. 

Two members of the Harvard editorial board, Ruby J.J. Huang and Joshua Ochieng, disagreed with their colleagues and co-wrote a dissenting opinion

These prompts give clear guidance on what Harvard wants to know about its applicants. For a student with limited experience in writing an application, the prompts assuage the burden of trying to determine the aspects of their life that are of interest to Harvard.”


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