Privilege in College Admissions: How to Frame Your Background on Your Applications

David Merson

Privilege in College Admissions: How to Frame Your Background on Your Applications 

The recent college admissions scandal might have rendered you speechless. If you’re wondering whether this is another overblown news story, think again. The scandal has brought to light students from privileged backgrounds who gained acceptance to top schools through duplicitous means. The discoveries renewed skepticism about admissions protocols and an examination of misused privilege in college admissions.

There’s no doubt that some students apply with more advantages than others. But families involved in the scandal clearly crossed the line into using their advantages illegally. In response, colleges have pledged to make admissions as fair as possible, including rigorous analysis of context.

If you’re from a well-off background, you may wonder how to frame your own privilege in college admissions in the right light. The last thing you want is for colleges to view you as insensitive or spoiled.

As a Former Admissions Reader at Brown and counselor at InGenius Prep, I will use my experience to explain the ongoing attempt to make admissions an egalitarian process, and how to present your background in a positive way. You can’t (and shouldn’t) camouflage your privilege in college admissions, so it’s important to demonstrate perspective sincerely. Pursue your passions authentically and become a community leader, appreciating your advantages, while giving back to your community.

Privilege Depends on Your Perspective

Privilege references an access to resources and exclusive activities that many students with financial limitations lack. Privilege may include obvious examples like vacations, multiple homes, or expensive cars.

But what about the ability to access less tangible advantages? Participation in competitions abroad, elite sports, or summer programs all signal affluence. Privilege shows up in both obvious and subtle ways in an application.

There’s nothing wrong with being privileged - you don’t choose how you’re born. Schools look for applicants who are likable. It’s not that each of your application components must convey humility; it’s that you must recognize exclusive opportunities and demonstrate perspective.

The SAT Adversity Score and Landscape

Colleges have known for decades that standardized testing favors wealthier students. Access to intensive test prep skews scores in favor of the well-off. To tackle discrepancies in preparation, the College Board has announced the SAT Adversity Score and then the Landscape, allowing colleges to view students’ SAT scores in the context of socioeconomic backgrounds and understand how school and neighborhood quality - affect SAT preparation.

Don’t panic. This new component won’t add unforeseen elements into your SAT preparation. The Landscape doesn’t disadvantage wealthy students, but rather provides context for those from low-income backgrounds. Colleges have always put this information together informally. The Landscape simply tries to shed light on your context.

Admissions officers probably already know you’re from an affluent family based on factors such as the absence of a financial aid application, your high school profile, or your parents’ educations and occupations. Rather than disguising privilege, approach your advantages sincerely.

How to Build Your Profile in a Genuine Way

Students from well-off backgrounds typically have more freedom to choose their extracurriculars. Alongside standard sports and clubs, these may include golfing, skiing or touring with a performing group. There’s nothing wrong with listing these on applications but remember that many students don’t have the ability to participate similarly.

For example, if you’re interested in Greek art, you might want to think of better ways to explore this interest than on a family vacation to Greece. Approach your passions in more perceptive ways:

  • Explore Interests from a Meaningful Angle - Rather than exploring Greek art by sailing through islands on a yacht, you might conduct an independent research project or sign up for college classes in Classics.
  • Develop Leadership - Demonstrate tangible leadership and community engagement. Share your love of Greek history by starting a storytelling club with younger students, or check if local schools need a guest presenter.
  • Pursue Volunteer Opportunities- You could volunteer at a local museum or library, highlighting your academic interests. Leave a positive effect on others through your own enthusiasm. This is more relevant and impressive than the traditional (and generic) “service trip,” which too many students depend on to check the “humanitarianism” box. Unfortunately, the expense and questionable effectiveness of a pre-packaged Guatemala trip once again highlights privilege in college admissions.
  • Get a Job - And no, interning at your dad’s law firm doesn’t count. Follow your passion and work with others who share similar interests. Colleges also value hourly retail jobs at McDonalds or the local landscaping company because these convey responsibility.

Articulating Your Background and Experiences to Show Perspective

Privilege will not usually come up as a main theme within an application, but as an inadvertent reference. Stories reflecting experiences exclusive to privileged students often lack perspective and can diminish an application’s impact. Keep the following in mind to ensure the right balance:

  • Write with Awareness - Choose a personal statement prompt that avoids comparison to socioeconomic indicators and discussion of life challenges. While we’ve all faced some degree of adversity, keep in mind that other applicants will have faced extreme challenges. I read an application by a young woman growing up on a Native American reservation in poverty, surrounded by family members who abused alcohol and other drugs. She faced serious discrimination from surrounding communities. Despite these obstacles, she worked hard to earn the best education she could and traveled far to connect with like-minded people. Rather than choosing a topic that could lead to a poor comparison, focus on anecdotes highlighting your work ethic, leadership skills, ability to connect with others, or openness to new activities.
  • Rethink Your Approach to Activities - Admissions officers notice when you’re humble, and they’ll definitely note if your tone feels privileged. Your activities list may include traveling abroad for activities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But remember to also emphasize leadership roles, elaborate on creative problem-solving instances, and explain how you included a larger community in activities. Consider how you used your resources to help others.
  • Honestly Describe Your Activities - Colleges can tell if students are exaggerating their accomplishments, whether through unlikely hours listed for activities or descriptions of great achievements with no quantifiable evidence. Remember, it’s not always the breadth of the activity that matters, but the significance. If you tutored 1-2 students, your profound impact on them is just as important as how broadly effective your activities may have been.
  • Stay Focused On Your Passion - If you’ve had many opportunities to experience the world, that’s fantastic. When writing your essays or preparing for an interview, highlight your passion.  For instance, one student I advised had travelled extensively. Rather than focus on that fact, which would clearly show privilege in college admissions, we emphasized her love of architecture and how she was able to develop that passion through experiencing different architectural styles around the world.

Especially in light of the admissions scandal, it’s time for a more thoughtful approach to frame your privilege in college admissions, showing colleges that you’re not depending on family wealth for admission. Describe your activities by emphasizing impact on others. Establish yourself as a well-respected community leader. And if you’re accepted into your dream school, you’ll know that your own efforts have made you an impressive applicant.

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