Writing Personal Statements Online

Issues of Diversity, Under-representation, and Open-ended Questions


In recent decades, academic programs and scholarship awards alike have taken a specific interest in increasing their diversity pool among candidates, paying special attention to fields where certain populations have been under-represented, such as women in engineering or African-Americans in medicine. Often, this specific interest is reflected right in the application, either in the form of a statement of commitment or a question inviting some discussion of how you as a candidate would contribute diversity to a particular program or discipline.

As one extensive example, study the following paragraph from the cover sheet used by the University of California, Santa Barbara, in its graduate application:

UC Santa Barbara is interested in a diverse and inclusive graduate student population. Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that you feel are important in evaluating your application for graduate study. For example, please describe if you have experienced economic challenges in achieving higher education, such as being financially responsible for family members or dependents, having to work significant hours during undergraduate schooling or coming from a family background of limited income. Please describe if you have any unusual or varied life experiences that might contribute to the diversity of the graduate group, such as fluency in other languages, experience living in bicultural communities, academic research interests focusing on cultural, societal, or educational programs as they affect underserved segments of society, or evidence of an intention to use the graduate degree toward serving disadvantaged individuals or populations.

In considering this issue, especially if the question response allows only one paragraph for a reply, note how other parts of the application will help to address issues of diversity or under-representation as well. Checkbox data including gender, ethic background, and citizenship will reveal relevant background information about you, along with lists of your chosen activities and membership in organizations. Select information for such lists accordingly, and consider ways that your essay material can complement or underscore these traits.

Also, carefully examine the wording of open-ended questions and determine whether they are trying to tease out information in a particular area. As a demonstration, note the variety in these questions adapted from different applications:

Write a short essay about a topic of importance to you.
What other personal information would you like to share with the scholarship review board?
The graduate program at Mythic College is especially interested in enhancing diversity among our students. Describe experiences in your background that would contribute to such diversity.

To determine the best answer to such questions, writers need to consider what information they have shared in other parts of the application, avoiding redundancy and favoring either emphasis or a fresh response that will draw favorable attention. Depending on context and your personal taste, all three of the above questions might legitimately get the same written response. What would be especially hurtful to the application, however, is if you choose to make no response at all to such a question and wrongly deem it irrelevant, sending the message that you self-define as both lazy and uninteresting.

In defining such areas as diversity, it is also important to think beyond categories of ethnic identity and gender. I’ve seen savvy students answer diversity questions by discussing themselves as a returning adult student, an engineer interested in law, a poet among scientists, one who daily manages a physical disability, a woman who has survived a life-threatening illness, a conservative Republican attending a highly liberal school, a horticulturalist living in the city, a speaker of three languages, a world traveler, an ROTC student, a man who aims to devote his life to service. Such responses not only draw our attention, they also show that the writer understands and embraces diversity in a way that is not narrowly defined—where diversity draws positive attention to both the individual and the collective.

Most importantly, share something truly individual about yourself in any diversity or open-ended question. Note how the following answer—excerpted from a Udall Scholarship application in Chapter 5 from a writer invited to share additional information—showcases how the writer perceives herself as a strong, driven individual.

I was raised by two strong women—my mother and my grandmother. Three generations of women living under one roof provided me with a unique experience while growing up. My mother was the first woman in my family to pursue higher education and continued her pursuit even after having a child. As I was growing up I watched her finish her nursing degree at Oakland University and begin a career in Neonatal Nursing. My interest in the sciences and the environment most definitely stemmed initially from my mother’s interest and passion for the subject. While my mother was attending classes and studying, my grandmother was my primary caregiver and she too encouraged my exploration and growth. Throughout my life, my mother and grandmother have continued to be my source of inspiration and encouragement.

Finally, recognize that some writers choose to give no specific space to issues of diversity or under-representation even when invited, either because they would prefer not to, they know that a reference of theirs will address the issue in a recommendation letter, or because they feel other issues are more worthy of their limited space. It’s possible in some cases that the option of silence may suit you well, as long as you’ve made a strong, complete application otherwise.


For some tips on writing about yourself and underscoring your uniqueness and diversity, pay a visit to these websites:

“Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing Your Graduate Admissions Essay,” from about.com

“Eight Steps Toward a Better Scholarship Essay,” from internationalstudent.com