I am an undergraduate in the US applying to REUs in mathematics. Every REU I am applying to through MathPrograms has a section where you can choose to fill out your gender/race, along with a message of the form

The U.S. Department of Education requires [university X] to report on the racial or ethnical composition of its student enrollment. Information on individual students is held in strict confidence. Self-identification is entirely voluntary.

It is not a secret that REUs want to encourage higher participation of minority groups, and indeed the web pages of some programs say things like, "Members of underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to apply."

I am a white male from a suburban area. Clearly this is not going to boost my application, so my question is, could there be much benefit in choosing "decline to answer" on these questions?

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    "I am a white male from a suburban area. Clearly this is not going to boost my application" - [citation needed]
    – 410 gone
    Jan 6, 2017 at 8:27
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    While the type of job is different, the answer to Should I disclose gender, race, disabilities etc. in tenure track job applications? seems to address your question as well.
    – ff524
    Jan 6, 2017 at 8:34
  • @ff524 That post was helpful; I'm just going to follow the general consensus there and fill out the information. Thanks Jan 6, 2017 at 22:12
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    For job applications, demographic information like this is usually kept separate from the rest of the application, and is not used in making the decision. Is the same true for REU applications? Jan 16, 2017 at 23:41
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    Just to be clear: being a white male does help your application significantly through unconscious bias. Some programs will be better at being conscious of and counteracting unconscious bias, but not all are. There are many studies where a predominantly white male name on a resume/application resulted in more acceptances than a female or ethnic name on the same exact resume/application.
    – NMJD
    Feb 9, 2017 at 17:42

3 Answers 3


I am an undergraduate in the US applying to REUs in mathematics. [...] I am a white male from a suburban area. Clearly this is not going to boost my application

The personal consequences for you of being labeled on your application as a white male are not something that anyone can predict with any certainty. Even assuming that the data are visible to the people evaluating your application (which is probably not the case), the putative effect would depend on things like the individual attitudes of people evaluating your application. These attitudes would be variable and we have no way of measuring them.

Keep in mind that any pile of applications in mathematics in the US is going to contain vast numbers of white males, so even if there were some very strong bias against you, or some extremely aggressive affirmative action program, the result can't possibly be to exclude all white males.

Since the actual consequences of your disclosing your information or not disclosing it are unknowable and probably negligible on an individual level, your guess about those consequences is not a good criterion on which to base your choice.

You might instead want to base this on your political opinions. Reasonable people can be for or against the idea of having the US federal government classify people into racial categories. An example of a reason for: a horrific national history of slavery and oppression, which we could try to undo to some extent. An example of a reason against: race is a nonsensical and artificial construct, and there is no logical way to apply it to people of mixed race.

If your personal utopia is one that lies on one side or the other of this issue, be the change that you want to make.


A 2015 study demonstrates that women that men and women faculty members from biology, engineering, and psychology departments prefer female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles:

Men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Comparing different lifestyles revealed that women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers and that men preferred mothers who took parental leaves to mothers who did not. Our findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers.

We also know that African Americans and Hispanics are typically favored over European Americans and Asian Americans in college admissions:

In court papers, Arlington, Virginia-based Students for Fair Admissions said an Asian-American male applicant with a 25 percent chance of admission would have a 35 percent chance if he was white, 75 percent if he were Hispanic and a 95 percent chance if he were black.

Also, there are numerous campaigns worldwide to increase the number of women in STEM, offering scholarships and other opportunities to women that are not offered to men. There are even cases known, where only women are allowed to apply for a specific academic positions, like this Assistant Professor Position for the Vienna University of Technology or these three senior positions at the university of Melbourne. Similar initiatives exist for "minorities" as well.

For these reasons, I would be inclined to not mention race and gender on my applications to REUs in mathematics.

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    None of this data is relevant to the question, which is whether you can expect any kind of advantage by not stating. Aug 15, 2018 at 15:49
  • How did Students for Fair Admissions come by those numbers? That seems like a difficult thing to quantify from outside of the admissions office. Aug 15, 2018 at 19:50
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    @AzorAhai : From the NYT : Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university. Aug 16, 2018 at 8:36
  • @JohnSlegers Yeah, I read that article when it came out, but it doesn't mention those specific quantifications. Aug 16, 2018 at 16:00
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    @AzorAhai : Why so sceptial? 60% of all students who score at least a 750 on the SAT is of Asian descent & only 2% is Black (source). Meanwhile, Aftican-Americans make up 14.6% of students admitted to Harvard and Asian-Americans only 22.2% (source). It seems pretty obvious to me that institutionalized discrimination (aka "Affirmative Action") is the main cause of this discrepancy. Aug 16, 2018 at 19:09

There’s no advantage whatsoever to not declaring. The NSF REU program does have as an official goal increasing representation of underrepresented groups (see official language below), but someone who doesn’t mark anything isn’t helping you meet that goal in a way you can put in a report to the NSF. There’s just no difference whatsoever between marking white and not saying anything at all.

NSF is particularly interested in increasing the numbers of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in research. REU projects are strongly encouraged to involve students who are members of these groups.

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