Reed Adds New Identity-Based Essay Question to Writing Supplement for First-Year Applicants

By Declan Bradley

In early August, Quest reporters discovered from Reed’s Common App listing that the college had added a new essay prompt to the writing supplement section of its application. The new prompt — which reads, “How might aspects of your identity positively influence the living and learning community at Reed?” — marks the first significant change to the college’s writing supplement since 2015. While it will not replace the current Paideia question — which asks students to describe a class they would teach during Reed’s annual flipped classroom festival of learning — it will serve as the first question on the writing supplement, and the first thing students see during the writing process.

The new prompt is being formally announced by the college for the first time today, in a letter to the editors of the Quest from Dean of Admission Milyon Trulove, and, as of Wednesday night, still has not been acknowledged on the college’s website (, which continues to discuss the writing supplement exclusively in terms of the Paideia question. 

As a result, the Quest was only able to learn of the existence of this new prompt by viewing the college’s current Common Application listing. When contacted for comment on this story, Dean Trulove expressed his preference to also write a full letter to the editor, stressing the importance of, “consider[ing] the legal implications of what we say and express[ing] our values on diversity,” in breaking the news of the new prompt.

The move comes at a time when colleges across the country are working to adapt to the Supreme Court’s June decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, which effectively outlawed affirmative action in the United States. Recent reporting by the New York Times called 2023, “the year of the identity-driven essay,” and found that more than a dozen highly selective colleges have either introduced or increased their focus on essays related to “identity” or “life experience” since 2022. 

However, colleges across the country that have chosen to introduce identity-based essays this year have done so in the midst of untested legal waters. While it is true that, in the majority opinion of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” he also wrote that, “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Allowing students to discuss the ways in which race and racism have affected their lives as individuals thus remains clearly permissible, but disaffected applicants could attempt to sue on the grounds that such essays simply reestablish affirmative action.

As the court wrote, “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

When reached for comment by the Quest, Dean Trulove stated, “Our newest optional essay continues to serve as an entryway for students to share their lived experiences,” and reassured applicants that, “Students who don’t complete it won’t be penalized; it’s an opportunity to share more about their experiences.”

While the new prompt is optional — unlike the Paideia essay, which remains the only required part of Reed’s writing supplement — it will likely still have a significant effect on the consideration of applicants for the fall 2023 admissions cycle. In Reed’s most recent Common Data Set, which provides data on admissions considerations for the class of 2026, the college reported that it considered only three aspects of a student’s application “very important”: rigor of secondary school record, academic GPA, and the application essay. All other aspects of an application, including an interview, letters of recommendation, and others, were given less weight than those three components — although the Quest was not able to confirm if this will remain true for the class of ‘28 in time for publication.

This is a developing story and the Quest will continue to follow it in the coming weeks.

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