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Cornell joins Harvard and Princeton in altering application essay questions to reflect the Supreme Court's Affirmative Action decision.

December 4, 2023

Cornell Adds Identity-Focused Application Essay Following Affirmative Action Overturn

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Cornell’s undergraduate application has asked students each year to reflect upon their experiences or ambitions, but students applying to Cornell during the 2023-2024 application cycle will answer a new, identity-based application question, which the University released in August through the Common App.

Outlined in the University’s Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions, the new Cornell essay question asks students to reflect upon Ezra Cornell’s founding motto of “any person … any study,” and to discuss any personal life experiences that pertain to the motto. 

A representative of Cornell confirmed the application prompt was updated but declined to comment on the reasoning for doing so.

After the United States Supreme Court overturned the use of affirmative action policies — policies designed to prevent discrimination based mainly upon race or color — this past June, colleges across the country have looked for ways to continue their commitment to diversity and inclusion, due to concerns about the decreased admittance of students of color and those belonging to minority groups.

Other Ivy League universities, such as Harvard University and Princeton University, have also opted to alter their application questions, with the goal of addressing racial inequity in the admissions process.

The recent change has led some Cornell students and professors to reflect on how they believe universities can best achieve diversity in the student bodies they admit.

Aarav Yarlagadda ’25 expressed support for affirmative action.

“I think affirmative action really does help a lot of people,” Yarlagadda said. “As an Asian American, I understand why someone would be upset at their chances of being hindered by it, but I really think that it’s a good cause that helps a lot of people.”

Yarlagadda, however, said affirmative action policies could be improved by more holistically addressing inequities. Developing more socioeconomic policies could help increase the admittance of low-income students, Yarlagadda said.

“I think [affirmative action policies] need some tweaking,” Yarlagadda said. “A lot of [affirmative action] is ethnically based, but I think just focusing more so on the economic sides of things, rather than just diversity, is a good idea.”

Rachel Chang MBA ’17 echoed the belief that affirmative action can be beneficial in addressing historical inequalities.

“I think it’s important to address [historical inequalities], but I don’t know if it’s going to change people’s mindset,” Chang said. “With it, people are unhappy, and without it, people are still going to be unhappy for different reasons.”

Although Cornell has altered its application prompt, Yarlagadda said he worries admission officers will face greater difficulty selecting a diverse group of students without using affirmative action. 

“I think it’s going to make it a lot more complex in terms of filtering out applications,” Yarlagadda said. “It’s a lot harder to read someone’s life story and get a gauge of [their experiences], versus just having an idea of the person’s demographic beforehand.”

Chang, however, said she thinks the new prompt allows students a greater chance to discuss the role race played in their lives.

“I think it [the new question] is really amazing, and that the experience students have is very valuable,” Chang said. “Without the friction, without the experience, you would not really know or learn what it’s like and how much equality or racism there is in our society.”

Prof. Randy Wayne, plant sciences, expressed disagreement with affirmative action policies in college admissions, saying he believes they are discriminatory and unfair to admitted students. He said he does not believe students should receive admissions advantages on account of their diversity.

“The emphasis on race at Cornell degrades the emphasis of the individual, and that’s unfortunate,” Wayne said. 

Without affirmative action policies, Wayne said he believes Cornell can still admit diverse and qualified students. He urged the University to look for students who are academically strong, who will thrive at the University, who carry out the school’s mission and who are diverse in and of themselves. Specifically, Wayne suggested students be admitted who possess the characteristics listed in the Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions’s Final Report.

The report lists seven general categories of attributes and life experiences — academic achievement, inquiry, distance traveled, persistence, community orientation, leadership and knowledge of and appreciation for Cornell’s unique history and mission — that the University believes enriches a student’s educational experience in the classroom.

“I truly believe that race, gender and any kind of characteristic you put in does not preclude any of those characteristics,” Wayne said. “So if we look for those characteristics, you can have a very diverse group of students.”

Yarlagadda, however, said he believes Cornell should implement measures to ensure that students of color and minority groups are equally represented in admitted students.

“They [colleges] definitely need something to make sure that the people who are less represented at these colleges get in, especially at schools like Cornell and [other colleges in] the Ivy League,” Yarlagadda said. 

As Cornell deals with the absence of affirmative action policies within the application process, admission officers have adopted other measures to promote inclusivity. One such example is reducing the number of students admitted through early-decision, something Cornell has already begun doing this fall. 

Irrespective of what policies are being used in college admissions, Yarlagadda said he thinks the ultimate decision remains with the admission officers.

“To some degree, schools are still going to have an idea of what they want their ideal class to look like,” Yarlagadda said. “It’s up to them and their discretion who they pick and choose.”