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FAQ About the Race/Ethnicity Section of the Common Application

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As you may already know, the Common Application asks questions designed to learn more about an applicant’s background as part of its “Profile” tab. These questions range from inquiring about an applicant’s religious preferences to their military affiliation to their race/ethnicity.


Many applicants wonder about how they should go about addressing that last topic. There are various misconceptions regarding the race section of the Common App, which can lead to uncertainty or even anxiety for students filling out the Common App. In this blog post, we’ll answer some of the most common questions about the race section of the Common App.


Want to master the Common App essays? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.


Is the race section mandatory?

One of the most common misconceptions is that you are required to disclose your race when applying via the Common App. In fact, this section is optional, and you can submit a completed Common Application without answering these questions.


Common App states the following with regards to the demographics section as a whole: “The questions in this section, while helpful to colleges, are entirely optional, and you’re welcome to move on without answering them. Before you do, please confirm for us that you’ve completed this section to your satisfaction.”


As you can see, choosing to list your race or any other demographical information is entirely up to your discretion. If for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable doing so, you can choose to skip this section and move on to other parts of the Common App.


What counts as an underrepresented minority race?

You may have heard the term “underrepresented minority,” or URM, being used during the application season. URM students are generally considered to be one type of “hooked” applicants, and you may be wondering to whom that applies.


Generally, URM races are those who have been traditionally underrepresented at American universities. This includes students of Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Pacific Islander, and Native American origin or background, though what is considered an underrepresented minority may change depending on the school in question.


Will putting down a URM race help my chances at admission?

It is possible that students who list that they are a member of an underrepresented minority race may receive some extra consideration in the application process. Being a URM applicant is generally considered to be one example of a hook.


“Hooked” applicants are students who fulfill a given university’s special institutional needs in one way or the other. Depending on the school, other types of hooked applicants may include first-generation students, recruited athletes, students with exceptional skill in a given area, and URM students.


There are several reasons being an underrepresented minority student gives you an edge in the admissions process. Firstly, oftentimes URM students face systemic obstacles to academic and professional success that their peers do not, and admissions committees consider these obstacles in their evaluation of a student’s application. Additionally, colleges want diverse classes, comprised of students who come from a variety of different backgrounds who can bring unique experiences to their institutions.


The impact of being a URM student varies based on every given school. Being a URM student may give an applicant an extra edge at one school, but may perhaps have less of an influence on their application at another depending on each school’s individual needs.


That being said, you shouldn’t respond that you belong to an underrepresented minority group if that isn’t completely true just because you are looking for some kind of advantage in the process. For instance, if you are 1/16 Native American, it would be dishonest to list only Native American on your application without also listing the other component(s) of your racial identity to give colleges a complete picture of who you are as an individual. As a general rule of thumb, you should strive to be as genuine and transparent as possible when applying to universities.


Will listing a race such as Asian or White hurt my chances at admission?

One of the most prevalent reasons why students may feel uncomfortable about the race section of the Common App is that feel that they believe responding one way or the other may adversely impact their application. In reality, race is a factor colleges may take into consideration when evaluating your application.


Generally, college admissions officers will compare you to a pool of students who are similar to you. This means that students of Asian origin, for example, will be compared to other Asian students. Because of this, the pool for these students may be more competitive, and thus they will be held to a higher standard in some regards because Asian and Asian-American students generally have higher average high school GPAs and test scores.


However, it is important to keep in mind that race is only one factor that colleges consider when evaluating applications. It is certainly not the be-all and end-all of your college application, and will neither make nor break your chances of admission. Indeed, the other components of your application, such as your test scores, high school GPA, and extracurriculars are likely to play a larger role in your chances for admission.


Can I choose not to put my race if I think it will hurt my chances at admission?

As we mentioned earlier, the entire demographics section of the Common App is completely optional. This means that if for whatever reason you do not wish to specify your race, you are completely entitled to do so. You may simply skip this section and move on with the rest of your application.


That being said, your race is often “given away” by other aspects of your application, such as your last name or your parents’ names (or where they went to school). Withholding your race will probably change little when it comes to your chances.

I’m Hispanic/Latino, but Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnicity and not a race on the Common App. Which race should I select?

The Common App first asks students whether or not they are Hispanic/Latino. After that, students are then asked to select one or more of the following racial options, regardless of their answers to the last question: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or White.


If you are Hispanic/Latino and unsure of what to list as your race, you have several options. Most Hispanic/Latino individuals are a mixture of African, European, and Native American races. If you identify with one these races, select that option. If not, you may put all three, or none at all. Keep in mind that you do not have to answer this question, and so if you feel that listing your ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino and not including a race best reflects your personal racial identity, then you should do so.


I don’t identify with any of the races listed on the Common App. What do I do?

You can choose to leave the question about race blank, and if you choose to do so, discuss your race/racial identity in other parts of your application. For instance, you could mention or elaborate on your racial identity in one of your essays and flesh out your identity and its importance to you in detail. Prompt One of the Common App is particularly conducive to this kind of topic.


Another option is to include your racial identity in the Additional Information section of the Common App. For more assistance regarding the Additional Information section, check out CollegeVine’s guide to the Additional Information section


Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2019-2020.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.


Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.