Yes, indeed, there are many ways that this discussion could get off-track...
The specific, relevant point is that many universities have certain pots of money ear-marked for whatever-it-is that "diversity" refers to, and "traditionally under-represented groups"' members are the only eligible competitors for any part of that money.
(The discussion of the sense of this is of course the elephant-in-the-room, but is irrelevant to the already-earmarked funds.)
That is, at this point, being a woman in a STEM field (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math), or of ethnic origin other than northwestern European..., or... opens certain money-pots to both the department and to the individual.
It is true that one might easily find reason to not go down that path, ... but I note that many people will presume that one has done so if one had the chance, and all that that might entail.
Honestly, if I were in that situation, and did not have severe need, I'd skip it, just to be able I'd skipped it. But maybe nobody'd listen...
I can clarify further, if this is to-the-point for the questioner. I've been involved with such stuff for a long time...
Edit: to clarify, for example, my department did not create the literal "diversity statement" component of the application, it was created somewhere in the central administration. That is, although we have tried to avoid traditional biases (e.g., ideas how "how a mathematician looks", and such, often included male-gender-correlated attributes that, arguably, have nothing to do with mathematics), we did not formalize any part of such discussion. We've tried to be unbiased for far longer than this recent appearance of overt statements about "diversity", not for any immediate tangible reward from higher-ups, but for more idealistic reasons. Having central administration throw a little money at the situation doesn't really change much.
Graduate programs are always looking for students with distinct backgrounds to help diversify their classes, so being a minority, immigrant, or another underrepresented demographic could be just what you need to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicant pool. Many schools include a question on their application asking you how you will contribute to the diversity of their class (sometimes this is framed as a “diversity statement,” sometimes as a “personal history statement” or other type of essay – the key thing is, they want to know about YOU: what makes you unique, what your values are, what obstacles you may have had to overcome to get where you are today).
When you write your essay, make sure that you highlight the experiences that have shaped you and the strengths you can bring to the school due to your diverse background and lifestyle.
Some of these unique strengths or experiences may include:
One aspect of your diverse background is overcoming obstacles. Are you a member of an underrepresented group? A first generation student? Have you overcome socioeconomic (or other) barriers to education? When mentioning your diversity factor, be sure to highlight any difficulties that you went through as a result of being the odd (wo)man out. This is not an attempt to rally sympathy or plea for pity. Instead, you should illustrate the strengths and skills you have developed as a result of these struggles. Accentuate any character traits that you feel you have built through the adversity and use examples of skills that you currently possess because of these trials.
Displaying cultural breadth
Demonstrate to the admissions committee that you hold a unique set of ideas thanks to your heritage, and elaborate on how these diverse concepts and beliefs can benefit the student body by broadening perspectives and widening tolerance and scope.
Demonstrating varied skill sets
Naturally, various cultures will highlight different values. This is important to a school admissions committee because diverse values will facilitate diverse skills and strengths. Maybe your culture is very family-oriented, focusing on respect, communication, and partnership. These are all critical skills that a graduate student will need for success. Perhaps your culture emphasizes teamwork, perseverance, and mutual understanding. Once again, these are key factors for a productive career in business, education, law, medicine, and many others. Your goal should be to highlight how your unique cultural values have developed these invaluable skills within you, already preparing you to be the best student and professional possible. Maybe one aspect of your identity is bound up in the language(s) that you speak – do those same languages also give you the tools to cross cultural boundaries and work with people around the globe?
Sharing new perspectives
Even if you are a male, Caucasian, third-generation American, you can still illustrate your diversity in other areas. If you have served in the military, traveled to a remote area of the world, taken part in an outstanding event, group, or cause, or had an unusual experience of any sort, play up the distinct impressions, opinions, and perspectives that the involvement cultivated within you. Then, show the admissions committee how you can bring this fresh perspective to the campus for greater diversity in thought across the campus.
Looking for more guidance on how to hone in on your strengths and uniqueness to illustrate to the adcom why you are an ideal candidate for their school? Get your free copy of From Example to Exemplary: How to Use Sample Essays to Make Your Essay Outstanding for more advice on writing an out-of-this-world essay that will get you ACCEPTED.
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