There is an optional prompt on my PhD application:

censoredSchoolName University regards the diversity of its graduate student body as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the university. We encourage you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, the quality of your early educational environment, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Please discuss how such factors would contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your censoredSchoolName classmates.

If I were to answer, what I would write is something about how I grew up in a large family with five siblings all attending college around the same time, so though I come from a middle-class family, I have had to handle much of the financial responsibility of my education. In addition to this, neither of my parents have attained higher than a non-scientific Bachelor's degree, and I have mostly blazed this path under my own independence and ambition.

But I feel that this might not be what the question is really looking for? What I've written above does not make me diverse in the way that I think the University probably wants. I'm a middle-class white male, I will say, which my application has of course already reflected. I'm wondering if I might be better off leaving it blank rather than coming off as forcing a hollow answer, or even pitying myself when there are certainly other applicants with serious disadvantages.

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    The question in its current form is about how a particular answer (or non-answer) on an application will be perceived, it is not an invitation to debate the wisdom of diversity initiatives in the comments. This conversation has been moved to chat, further discussion is subject to deletion. – ff524 Dec 12 '17 at 0:33

11 Answers 11


Thank you Anonymous for appreciating my comment. I suppose that makes it good enough to be a succinct answer.

The admissions committee is made up of people. I would suggest showing them your humanity and social intelligence in the best way that paints the most professional picture of yourself.

Did we apply to the same school? That looks like the prompt I received. Hopefully you're not applying to the same program as me. Anyway, you don't have to say that your race is what makes you special. You could talk about what makes you intellectually diverse. How do you handle when you get an unexpected result in your experiments? How do you work with others? What have you learned from collaborating with others and what have they learned from you? What are your views on mental health? I knew an intelligent student who committed suicide last month. Some professors talked fondly of him at his memorial.

Some people might be applying to a program because they like how collaborative it is, and that you are allowed to be a TA in another department or something. The point is mental health and a good work environment is important to a university's reputation and production. Of course you can leave it blank, but you don't have to emphasize that you are a white middle class person. The admissions committee is made up of people. I would suggest showing them your humanity and social intelligence in the best way that paints the most professional picture of yourself.

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    I am selecting this as the answer because the boldened text above was what I thought to be the most satisfying piece of advice here, though xyz123 does reflect very similar sentiments to ElizabethHenning and @AnnaSdTC, whom I also thank. And thanks to all for the discussion over the past day or so. – user84325 Dec 12 '17 at 9:33
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    @NicoleHamilton first of all, especially after this thread, I don't think there is any "correct" kind of answer. Secondly, I didn't really talk anything about what this answer says in its third paragraph. I just chose it as an answer because the bold text alone made up my mind to put a nail in this and answer it (after all, the question was should I answer this, not what should I say). For the actual context of my answer, I said more of a combination of what ElizabethHenning and AnnaSdTC answered. – user84325 Dec 12 '17 at 14:05
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 17 '17 at 0:54

Leave it blank

You don't have to play along with the diversity people, but that doesn't mean there won't be any consequences.

Throughout my time in undergrad, the US military, and now grad school, I have steadfastly refused to answer questions about my race. And why should I? My father is from Mexico and is still a dual citizen. As far as I can tell, that gives me a pretty good claim to be Hispanic. I am born in Boston, I don't speak Spanish, and I don't particularly like anything Mexican. Am I hispanic? What is my hispanic blood quantum? Am I white? Who cares?

What ought to matter is the content of your character, or so I've heard.

Just don't be surprised when people don't want to let you go. I have been called into a senior officer's office (in the military) and forced to answer a question about my race. When I told him it was 'American', he filled out the forms in question for me as white. I haven't always got off easy, but I've done alright in life, and without participating in such racist activities as classifying people based on their skin color.

PS: The original form of your question was just fine. If you have sneering contempt for this kind of diversity question, then you do. Don't let people bully you into thinking your opinion isn't valid.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 12 '17 at 0:36

First of all, nobody is discriminating against middle-class white men. This prompt is an opportunity for applicants who feel they are stronger than the standard academic metrics might suggest to make a case for that by highlighting other unique contributions that they would make to a program. Not coincidentally, people from underrepresented groups or who have had to overcome other difficulties generally fall into this category. If you feel you fall into this category, then by all means answer this question with your story. If you don't feel you fall into this category, then one possibility is to try explaining your own personal commitment to enhancing diversity and giving opportunities to others who might not have had them earlier on.

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    That's the thing- I do not honestly feel that I fall into the category. While the possible answer to the question I gave is true, I don't feel honest in using it as a response to a question about overcoming difficulties. Your last sentence is the best advice I could have hoped for, though. Thank you – user84325 Dec 11 '17 at 19:21
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this is certainly not the place to debate the wisdom of diversity initiatives. This conversation has been moved to chat, further discussion in comments is subject to deletion. – ff524 Dec 12 '17 at 0:30

This is a prompt that allows you to defend your weaknesses or bolster your strengths.

These types of questions are designed to bring the person, not the paper, into view. People who are 4.0/40/800/99%ile all appear the same on paper grades-wise, it's the writing prompts that put us past the numbers. If you disingenuously mention that you are an average applicant, of course no one will put that in your favor. If you want to sell yourself, you sell that parts of you that are unique.

I would use this question to justify why my past educational history of getting a 1.5 GPA in one graduate school is not indicative of my current performance, and explain how this setback influenced me and my educational and professional prospects, and how I ostensibly recovered from it and received a Master's degree in a completely different subject with a more acceptable 3.6 GPA, covering my work history and renewed focus on other extra-curricular activities and maybe point out my renewed interest in painting.

You'll notice that not once did I mention, or even need to mention, my ethnic background, because I didn't feel it was relevant for making me unique.


I would say that growing up with many siblings and the financial responsibility that comes with it is, indeed, the kind of diversity that many universities want to have. At the end it's not about gender/race by itself, but about possible difficulties you've had on your path to academia, and race/gender are very obvious sources of such difficulties, but not the only ones. Plus, it signals a degree of early adultness that many people don't have even when they go to grad school, even less so at age 18, both in the financial side (you were self-sufficient, or almost, quite earlier than most people), but also, if you think it is true, you can elaborate on how living with so many siblings turned you into a person who knows how to work in team, etc.

In my PhD application, in my statement of diversity, I briefly mentioned about being a woman in a STEM field and all this, but I mostly talked about studying and performing music quite seriously at the same time I was doing math in college. Moreover, my main letter writer also emphasized that I had quite a few shitty jobs during that time. With these two things I (and him) were trying to explain my low GPA (high GRE though) and my extra years to get my bachelor's, but that I actually had quite a bit of self discipline. I don't know if that helped, but I got into some of the top programs I applied to. The same professor wrote, a year after, a letter of recommendation to my friend and colleague P, who was working for him at the same time as me, saying that P worked in a supermarket on evenings and weekends all his college years to pay for it. P also got offers from good PhDs.

A statement of diversity, as I understand, is not necessarily "what color is your skin" but "what makes you unique and different from others, or what added value other than academic performance are you bringing to our department".

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    Thanks. I am the opposite - high GPA but totally bombed my Biology GRE. So I'd like to take any opportunity - like this one - to boost my application. I just felt that this question really wasn't intended for me. But I guess you're right. Congrats on your success – user84325 Dec 12 '17 at 0:01
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 17 '17 at 0:53

To agree with @kingledion's answer:

Leave it blank

In principle, there're ways that you could use that field to your advantage by crafting a sufficiently clever response. For example, as @ElizabethHenning suggested, it could be an opportunity to talk about the value of diversity, signalling a political alignment that'd be statistically likely to work in your favor. Objectively speaking, doing so would probablymight increase the odds of your application getting accepted.

The problem's that, if one buys into that premise, it'll come to influence their character a bit, however slightly that might be. Every time a person thinks of themself as having been disadvantaged, they lose a bit more personal power. Cumulatively, it becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this is certainly not the place to debate the wisdom of diversity initiatives. This conversation has been moved to chat, further discussion in comments is subject to deletion – ff524 Dec 12 '17 at 0:32

I hate to discourage you, but I highly detest institutions that ask for your very private, personal details but themselves provide boilerplate, elusive texts which are (up to the school name and address) not school-specific or even country-specific. Essentially, their approach is "do as I tell you to do, not as I do myself". As an answer, you could provide a top-level boilerplate, equally elusive text on diversity which seems specific but, in fact, is not specific and not revealing any personal details beyond your CV. Feel free to take a look at the diversity statements of different schools (they are mostly completely interchangeable up to the school name), mix them, adapt them to your name, and pepper with "personally", "subjectively", "in my experience", etc., at appropriate places.

This is a good exercise: you'll demonstrate your language proficiency in selling fog. This is what the diversity statements often boil down to in reality. In your life, you might have to do it every once in a while, and writing a diversity statement is an excellent opportunity to start.


As with all things, this has nothing to do with you. It has to do with money. Your university doesn’t actually care beyond what is required to comply with laws and state and federal regulations regarding “race”.

You are not required to answer it. So if you don’t want to, or have a problem with these kinds of questions, then don’t answer it. Since you are white middle-class it should neither help nor hinder you very much.

If you were non-white, it could very well help you and would be worth your time to answer.

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    Your final paragraph directly contradicts your first paragraph. – DrMcCleod Dec 12 '17 at 12:05
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    (In the first paragraph) I think you're confusing this question on an application with the kind of question you get on a employment form when you've been hired. – davidbak Dec 14 '17 at 18:21
  • @DrMcCleod Where exactly is the contradiction? – Dmitry Grigoryev Dec 15 '17 at 13:43
  • @DmitryGrigoryev: The first paragraph suggests that the university considers this to be nothing more than a form-filling exercise, but the third suggests that it will be used to give race-based, preferential treatment. One or the other, but not both. – DrMcCleod Dec 16 '17 at 10:45
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 17 '17 at 1:15

You should answer the question, because each personnal story is valuable and unique.

You don't have to find your background original. Most people would describe themselves 'normal', so it would be a good idea to ask a friend about what they find special about you, about the interests or experience you have for example. No friend would answer 'You're my friend because you're from -this minority race/gender/religion group-'. Friends don't care about a lot of the aspects mentionned in the question, so focus on the ones that matters. There are original personnal traits that are perceived as 'diverse', but in fact a lot of them don't contribute to others at all.

Sharing about your experience demonstrates effort and authenticity, and that will certainly contribute to the experience of your classmates.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 17 '17 at 0:56
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    "Personal stories" can also help interviewers differentiate between two equally qualified candidates: your personal story may hint that you'll be a harder worker, or you'll bring something unique to a graduate program, or that you may be temperamentally suited for graduate school or the type of work you're applying to. – Gaurav Dec 24 '17 at 22:18

There is an optional prompt on my PhD application:

Whoa! There's the problem. IMHO anyway.

If you really want to go do research someplace, talk to the faculty in the group you're interested in. Go for a visit. Discuss potential research avenues. Perhaps even read something at their behest to see how you like it. Then, if they unofficially express interest in you coming to work there (and yes, I did say work) - then either they can take care of the formal application, or you can go through the demeaning motions of applying to a web form - but then you wouldn't need to fill these kinds of boxes since, supposedly, it should be in the bag.

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    At my university all applicants must go through the online application process in order to be considered for acceptance by the university. I can't do that process for them (how would I have access to grades and such?). – kmm Dec 14 '17 at 14:09
  • @kmm: 1. If you're a permanent member of faculty, act to change this (not for you to do it for people, but to be able to circumvent this completely with people you/your research group/your department have decided they want to recruit. 2. If you want to hire someone, then you've already seen any grades which might be relevant. 3. Even if you're stuck with the current predicament, be in a situation where you can tell your new recruit "Just skip all of the unnecessary fields and copy-paste a message saying to contact Professor KMM". – einpoklum Dec 14 '17 at 14:21

The question does not seem like the typical generic "optionally check here to identify your race/ethnicity", but more likely a question to provide some insight into your though processes. If you are applying to a social sciences grad degree, I'd give serious thought to answering the question. If you are applying to a chemistry or some program like that you might be able to get away with not answering the question. Also, some institutions ask these kinds of questions not because they want to, but because they have to.