How Does Affirmative Action Work in the College Admissions Process?

Affirmative action is a complex issue that can be felt in different areas of American life, especially in the higher education system. While more students are attending college, demographic studies are showing that there is still a disparity between white and minority students. Affirmative action has been a driving force for providing students who normally may not be considered for acceptance at selective schools a chance to attend those schools. But where did affirmative action come from and how does it work? Here’s a quick primer on how the process works.

Related resource: The 20 Most Affordable Colleges with High Four-Year Graduation Rates


The United States introduced affirmative action, a term coined by President John F. Kennedy, in the early 1960s. It was used to prohibit discrimination in the workplace. It moved from the workplace to educational settings in the late 1960s, providing minorities and students from underrepresented populations the chance to be considered for placement at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions. Since its introduction into the college admissions process, students from all backgrounds have fought for or against affirmative action both in the court system and the mainstream media.

How It Works

Affirmative action is amorphous in its application, meaning that not all colleges and universities approach the idea of processing applicants the same way. Most schools will endeavor to consider the applicant’s test scores, transcripts, extracurricular activities, and the student’s personal statement while also looking at the student’s background, including race and socioeconomic class. This is a holistic approach to college admissions, one that takes the applicant’s life and education into consideration. At its core, affirmative action presents minorities and students from lower income areas the chance to earn a spot at prestigious schools, providing them with an education that will both serve them in the real world and also ensure the school is a diverse and welcoming space to all students.

The Consideration Of Race

The consideration of race is the most debated part of affirmative action. Many critics state that race should not play a factor in who is accepted into a school and that by using race as a factor, schools are letting down students who are more than qualified to take their place within its programs. The truth is more complex; many schools use race as a moderate factor while other schools, which are trying to improve diversity on campus, may utilize it more often. Forbes published an article stating that while race may play a role in affirmative action admissions processes, it can also be used to benefit white students from lower income areas. Therefore, race is considered for all applicants, not just minorities, and has benefitted students from all races.

A Holistic Approach

Affirmative action at schools like Harvard is often discussed as providing a “holistic approach” to its admission process. This means that the school looks at the applicant as a whole: transcripts, test scores, extracurricular activities, race, socioeconomic status, and more. Looking at an applicant’s entire life is thought to provide schools with more information on what that student could accomplish in their programs and how they would do after graduation. This means that all students are considered equally, regardless of their race, socioeconomic class, gender, or sexual identity.

The Merit Myth

There has been controversy surrounding affirmative action since it was first enacted in the late 1960s. Many students have accused schools of rejecting them even though they would be a good fit for the school based on test scores and transcripts alone. This is known as the “merit myth,” the idea that merit alone should be the basis for admission. It is simply not true; the case of legacy students, meaning students who had parents attend the same college they hope to attend, and rated athletes continue to receive admission that is not based on merit alone, something that has been a tradition at competitive schools for decades. This alone should be enough to dispel the notion of the merit myth, but for those who are rejected, the myth is something they cling to. Now it is becoming clear that merit alone is not enough to guarantee acceptance into a program; students must work harder in order to earn their place in the program of their choosing.

Affirmative action has its place in American higher education, but the extent to which it is useful is up for debate. What is known is that more minorities and students from lower socioeconomic classes have a better chance of attending schools that meet their educational needs, meaning that America is benefitting from more diverse college campuses. Students are encouraged to remember that schools look at the totality of a student’s application, not just their race; this alone should give them the determination to follow their educational dreams.