Skip to content ↓
MIT staff blogger Beatriz Valdez

Ethnicity Information (Optional) by Beatriz Valdez

No easy way in.

On college applications, you’ll probably come across a question like this, “I consider myself to belong to the following ethnic group(s) (check all that apply)”. At least for myself, this is an easy question to answer: my eyes automatically scan the page for “Mexican-American”. Boom. I mark it and move on to the next part of the application. For some though, this can be seen like a trick question. In a conversation I had with a friend, I discovered the nuances and tricks that this question can pose. For instance, “Hmm, so if I mark an ethnic identity do I get a scholarship? If I mark an identity will that give me brownie points with the admissions staff?” I stared at my friend dumbfounded. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. Was he suggesting that folks, like myself, who belong to an ethnic category through no choice of their own, had it easier at higher educational institutions? The short and easy answer is no. But since I like to complicate things, I’ll invite you to my thoughts.

Let me tell you something….college was hard for people like me- the first generation, ethnically identified, low income, whatever-other-category-you choose students. The difficulty with school wasn’t due largely to rigor of the curriculum; we chose to be at school because we liked it; no, the issues were much larger than that. For us, we had to think about our families we were leaving behind: “How can I help out with the bills this year if I am not there to contribute? How can mom and dad help me with my OWN bills, if I cannot contribute to the household income? How can I make friends at school if they don’t have to go through what I am going through?” For some of us, the issues got too big to handle. One particularly bright student had to drop out her junior year in college because of dad’s newly discovered thyroid problem. Another dropped out his senior year from his engineering program because mom could no longer work due to deportation procedures.

In short, we can come with a lot of baggage; baggage that puts many, many obstacles in our way of graduating from a higher educational institution. According to who you choose to believe, Hispanic and African American students have between a 40 and 49 percent chance of graduating within six years from a university (The Chronicle, 2010), as compared with their white counterparts who have a 60 percent graduation rate.

When people choose an ethnic identity because of the “benefits” in higher educations, it tends to cheapen an ethnic identity. It’s as though being Mexican-American, for example, will buy your way into the college of your choice and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Come college application time and you come across this ethnicity question, I ask you to think of these things. I ask you to answer honestly, and move on to the next part of the application.

12 responses to “Ethnicity Information (Optional)”

  1. George Apostol '87 says:

    At my high school graduation, when I received my diploma, a man in the audience saw it was noted in the program that I would be attending MIT. He spoke loudly, “oh, he only got in because he’s Mexican.” My parents were sitting directly in front of him and my mother turned to him and said, “I’m sorry your child did not earn the grades to go to MIT. My son worked hard.” He sat quietly the remainder of the evening.

  2. phoenix says:

    Here in India, if u belong to a minority, then u get a quota of seats allocated for your group in schools, colleges, jobs etc. Now this rule was made like millions of years ago to provide benefit the minority sections when most of them were economically backward when compared to other classes of society. Situation is so different now, this law is often misused to people who belong to minority section but are well off. Even though I belong to one of these minority classes by birth, whenever it comes to filling forms I tick my category as “General”, just to show my small protest. And for this all my friends, uncles, most cousins etc think that I am crazy or something. Clearly they should be reading your blog.
    And +1 for the cool mom, way to go…..wink

  3. phoenix says:

    I had to nativagb through 12 different captchas to post my previous comment. Is this some sort of record?

  4. JC says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue; so many people would love to know what an admissions counselor actually thinks about racial information. The concern I, at least, have is that race does not have any effect on one’s performance. The patterns and statistics relating race to education are results of studies conducted over a period of time and a wide population. The more information these studies receive, the more they can contribute to a more balanced society. When an applicant profile is considered, however, a racial designation is only a superficial criterion. I don’t know if affirmative action is always wrong, but I don’t think that a box next to a certain race is any measure of contribution to diversity or of merit.
    @phoenix, I admire you.

  5. phoenix says:

    @JC First time someone ever said that to me! Thanks a bunch:)

  6. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:


  7. nikki says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I love to finally hear some else say this.
    I am black and whenever I get top grades on my tests, some of my asian friends used to tell me that I am “too smart to be black” and they dubbed me an “honorary asian.” So when I tick that box saying that I am black on my application, it is me saying to the world “I can be smart and black. it is not a contradiction.”
    People think that I have gotten a lot of slack because I am black but that could not be farther from the truth. I did not get into the honors programs I got into because of affirmative action or quotas. I got here because I worked hard.
    I knew a white guy who applied to a scholarship for black students and when he got it, he took it. That is dishonest. Whether or not you agree with affirmative action or not, you should not lie.
    Thank you so much for bringing this issue to light.

  8. JC says:

    Of course. Clearly, you should not lie.

  9. Anon, says:

    I was really excited with this blog post and topic, but it ended a bit too quickly for my likings. I’d love to see another blog post on exact same topic, but a tad lengthier with an in depth analysis of your thoughts.

    For example, I would like to ask you, why is your ethnicity relevant at all? There are many cultural and political caveats with being part of a certain ethnic, however doesn’t a college learn about those caveats themselves?

    I am white, however I was born in a ghetto and lived off food stamps. Why am I any different from my latino or black neighbor who lived in my exact surroundings? We lived in the same poverty and violence infested hoods.

    I am not demeaning affirmative action, nor why they ask for your ethnicity, however I would like a lengthier analysis, that addresses questions and points I made, as well as other ones that I am sure you are more familiar with.

  10. Vy says:

    I’ve never seen ethnicity in this way. Sure, I joke with friends about “honorary asians” but I don’t say it in a demeaning or serious manner. All my friends are smart — in their own way of course — and I’ve respected them for that, no matter what ethnicity they have. But this kinda opened up my eyes, which I’m happy to say~.

    And I agree with @Anon. Why should ethnicity make a difference at all? Social Darwinism has been out of vogue for quite some time, so it still surprises me that there are some people who make such a big deal out of it. Social stereotypes are probably the worst possible; but it’s highly unlikely that people will change. Humans are stubborn people — I should know, because I’m guilty in this sense.

    And affirmative actions and quotas can be useful, if they aren’t misused, like in many cases all over the world. But regulation seems out of vogue nowadays, so this problem clearly won’t go away.

  11. Andreas93 says:

    Hello, i have a question:
    I have lived in El Salvador most of my life but i was born in Florida, where i study my high school is only 3 years……do i have a chance if i apply with the last 3 years of high school? (My grades are always between 8.5 and 9 on a 10 scale and i`m in the top 5 of a 40 student class)

  12. Mohammad Tariq says:

    hi i actually have a question and since you are the admission counselor, i could not think of anyone elso to ask this other than you. in the application they only mentioned about SAT application fee waiver, so would my application fee waiver form be still eligible if it is from ACT and not from SAT?