Undergraduate Admission Blog

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July 5, 2018

Politics, Religion, and Football: Addressing Personal Beliefs and Sensitive Topics in Your Application

Growing up, my parents taught me that there were three topics you should never broach at the dinner table: politics, religion, and football.  These three things, they claimed, were so sensitive and so entrenched in personal opinion that to bring them up when there were forks and knives at hand’s reach would trigger an inevitable decline into awkward tension soon to be followed by bloodshed.  While I appreciate my parents’ desire to put mild manners on the menu, I have to admit that I’m very encouraged by the willingness of our applicants to discuss difficult–and sometimes controversial–topics. College applications often provide insight into students’ values, opinions, and identities. There are many students out there who want to broach these subjects but may be confused about how to do so appropriately.  Perhaps it’s something you’ve been interested in writing about, but you are concerned about being disadvantaged in the college admission process if you do. Let me set down my knife and fork for a moment so we can talk about it!

First things first: USC is an institution that values diversity in its many forms.  Our goal is to admit a class of students from a wide array of ethnic and cultural identities, socioeconomic statuses, geographical locations, etc.  Not only do we want our students to come from a variety of backgrounds, we want them to think differently from one another! We appreciate diversity of political thought and religious belief…but if you want to root for a football team other than the Trojans you best look elsewhere!!  Unlike my dinner hosts, the admission counselor reading your application will not write you off for having a different opinion or affiliation. If you are not comfortable sharing your beliefs in your college application, that is completely fine.  You are under no obligation to do so! If, however, you feel that your opinions and experiences (be they political, religious, athletic, or something else) are key in understanding who you are, don’t be afraid to address them in your application.  In most cases, I’ve seen this done very successfully. The purpose of a personal statement is to give colleges deeper insight into your world and the way you engage with it. Writing about your beliefs can be an excellent way to show us what’s important to you and allow you to showcase how you think critically about those beliefs. The USC supplements can also serve as an appropriate place to discuss your perspective. One short answer prompt even directly asks about it: USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view.  You can safely assume that, if we’re asking about it, we want to know!

That being said, the thing about personal beliefs is that they are personal.  While we appreciate learning more about each student, the focus of your college essay, regardless of its topic, should always be you.  When you’re passionate about a subject, it’s natural to want to broaden your scope. Be careful, however, that in that passion you don’t overstep the personal boundary.  When writing about religious or political beliefs, beware of these pitfalls.

  • Don’t try to change your admission counselor’s opinions.  This is a college essay, not an op-ed or a sermon. Its purpose is to reveal more about yourself to the reader, not persuade them to agree with your beliefs.  An essay will read well if it provides genuine insight into your life–there’s no need to convince anyone that your way is the right way.
  • Don’t assume your admission counselor is coming from the same place.  Many of us, intentionally or unintentionally, surround ourselves with people who are similar to us.   The world is a wonderfully diverse place, however, and one of the most important aspects of a college education is learning about and from people who are not like you.  One of those people is likely your admission counselor! Be cognizant about the assumptions you are making as you write your essays. Are you using terms that someone outside your faith wouldn’t recognize? Are you repeating statements that you’ve heard from friends and family but can’t back up yourself?  Admission counselors read applications from all over the world. They can appreciate who you are and where you come from, even if they don’t have the same worldview. However, being aware of your own particular lens goes a long way in showing your maturity and understanding.
  • Don’t disparage or invalidate experiences, identities, or beliefs that are different from your own.  Here we get back to the fact that the focus of your writing should be you. True, juxtaposition is a useful tool for highlighting what sets each of us apart.  Comparing and contrasting opinions is fine, but we expect students at USC to be respectful of others (even if they don’t root for the Trojans!), and insulting or derogatory language in a college essay does not align with our community standards.

In the end, regardless of what you’re writing about, one all important (albeit general) piece of advice applies: it’s not so much what you say as how you say it.  Religion, politics, football…nothing is taboo in a college essay as long as you approach it thoughtfully and with self-awareness. Now pass the salt please…

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