What Student Activism Means for College Admissions

High school students in the U.S. have long been at the forefront of social change through activism. Student protests have helped lead to landmark Supreme Court rulings on matters of racial equality and free speech rights within schools.

The Little Rock Nine’s action in 1957 helped force the actual desegregation of public schools three years after a historic decision by the Supreme Court, and 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker of Iowa fought for her right to protest the war in Vietnam by wearing a black armband in school in 1965 — and ultimately won. These are two examples in a long history of student activism that continues to be written.

Recent examples include mass walkouts across the country in 2018 to protest gun violence following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. In 2019, students walked out en masse to put a spotlight on climate change. And this year, many high school students have focused their attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, joining mass protests across U.S. cities prompted by police killings of Black citizens.

But what does student activism mean for college admissions? And how do universities view student activism? Those answers, experts say, may depend on the institution itself and the type of activism a student chooses.

How Admissions Offices View Activism

Ted Thornhill, a sociology professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, found in a 2018 study that colleges were less likely to respond to applicants with seemingly Black-sounding names who were involved in matters of Black activism.

Thornhill contacted 517 college admissions officers, sending emails from fictitious Black applicants. Using four email templates for these fake applicants, he built in various interests and extracurricular activities. He ultimately found that emails sent emphasizing activism around racial issues were the least likely to get a response from admissions offices.

[Read: Diversity in College and Why It Matters.]

But much has transpired since 2018. Mass protests across the U.S. this summer have made the Black Lives Matter movement a household name and many white allies have joined. Likewise, many colleges have issued statements of support and some acknowledged their racist past, removing monuments to Confederate soldiers and renaming buildings.

Recent movements allow Thornhill to express guarded optimism for politically active Black college applicants.

“My suspicion is that some institutions will be more likely to embrace these student activists in a manner that they perhaps hadn’t previously, because it’s at the forefront now,” Thornhill says. But he encourages high school activists to look past the Black Lives Matter statements on college websites and to focus on practices rather than public relations.

Some colleges made their stances on student activism clear in 2018, when walkouts over gun violence were in full force, making statements that an applicant’s disciplinary history due to protests would not be held against them.

Gonzaga University in Washington was one such college to release a statement in 2018 promising not to penalize protesters in the wake of school walkouts protesting gun violence. Later, marches around issues such as immigration policy and racial justice prompted the college to keep the statement up, according to Erin Hays, director of undergraduate admission at Gonzaga.

“The policy still stands,” Hays wrote in an email. “Any time there is a discipline issue, context is always taken into account. We seek context from both the student and the school, and make a decision based on the information we receive.”

How Student Activism Is Factored Into an Application

Applicants who highlight their activism give college admissions officers insight into what they care about and who they are. Colleges may contextualize this in the same way that extracurricular activities or volunteer experiences are weighed, says Burcak Deniz Cakir, founder and president of college counseling firm EdMission Possible. How activism is viewed and the weight assigned to it “depends on every specific college’s admissions rubric,” she wrote in an email.

It’s also important to note that there is no single way to do activism.

“Admission professionals consider what activism a student engages in, the context of why the student engages in the activism, and why a student gets involved,” Hays says. “Students’ involvement in activism can be varied; some may participate in — or even organize — a protest. Some students might bring a speaker to their school to share a perspective. Other students may raise awareness, or raise money, for a social justice cause.”

It’s important, she adds, that colleges understand “what motivates a student to get involved with an issue.”

[Read: Colleges Tackle Free Speech, Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces.]

Isaiah Moore, a senior at Columbia College Chicago, notes that “everyone’s activism looks different.” Moore has recently been involved with protests against raising tuition at CCC amid the coronavirus pandemic. In high school, Moore was active in causes such as police brutality and mass incarceration. Activism, Moore notes, can come in many forms, whether it’s marching in the streets or sharing resources and information on issues.

How College Applicants Should Frame Their Activism

If a student is committed enough to activism to list it on an application, he or she should be prepared to talk about it.

“One way students can highlight their activism efforts in their college applications would be to talk about their contribution to the cause and the impact they made in their supplemental essays or bring up the topic and talk about it during college interviews,” Cakir says.

“If a student is known specifically for her/his activism in high school, then the student should ask one of her/his recommenders to mention this and attest to the student’s efforts in the letter of recommendation,” she says.

In 2020, when many extracurricular activities have been canceled due to COVID-19, students with an interest in activism still have plenty of opportunities, Cakir says, such as participating in call banks for their preferred political party ahead of the U.S. election, attending peaceful protests or joining virtual clubs that align with their beliefs.

But students need to think carefully about how they talk about their role as activists, experts say.

Cakir urges students to “refrain from any extreme behavior or social media posts” as part of their activism.

Moore suggests fellow students emphasize that they are helping and educating people while standing up for what they believe in.

And while Thornhill urges applicants to think carefully about how they frame their activism, he encourages them not to hide who they are to appease admissions officers, suggesting that colleges may find it deceptive.

Finding the Right Fit as a Student Activist

Ultimately, prospective students who engage in activism must do their due diligence in determining whether a college is the one for them.

“I think it’s incumbent upon (applicants), their parents and advocates to actually get on the phone with admissions counselors, or senior admissions administrators, and ask difficult questions,” Thornhill says.

[Read: 3 Questions to Ask About Campus Racial, Political Climate.]

He cautions prospective students to beware of generic statements from colleges around activism and to look at its track record on key issues instead. Likewise, applicants should ask questions of the faculty in their chosen major and look at what they are posting on social media.

Current students are another valuable source of information, Thornhill says, as are multicultural affairs offices. Students should ask questions that are not on the college’s website.

But being denied the chance to spend four years at a college that is hesitant to embrace part of a student’s identity may not necessarily be a bad thing if an applicant has to reframe his or her image to be accepted.

“If you have to conform or hide who you are to get into a place” Moore says, “I don’t think that place is really for you.”

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What Student Activism Means for College Admissions originally appeared on usnews.com

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