Three Ways to Answer "How Are You Diverse?

Ryan Kelly

All right, let's talk about one of the most dreaded questions that arise during admissions essays and interviews: “how are you going to add to the diversity of our class/company?”

What people usually do wrong is focus too much on things like race or ethnicity. Not that those aren't totally valid things to talk about in your diversity answer, but I think it's pretty limiting, especially for most candidates who aren't part of an underrepresented group.

So you want to think about the three layers of diversity that you might bring and what those layers could be. There’s cultural diversity, of course, but also intellectual diversity and experiential diversity.

If you're part of an underrepresented group in certain fields, like African-American, Hispanic, or LGBTQ+ people are in medicine, for example, you can probably center your answer around that part of your identity. Sometimes our ascribed statuses make us diverse, or in other words, the things that we’re born with.

But it can also be things that you've simply experienced. And those aspects are likely going to be more viable for most candidates. So, you want to think about whether you majored or minored in something unusual in college, or whether you were involved in atypical activities. Or maybe you have unusual hobbies or been to unusual places. It could also just be something in your lived experience or background that most other applicants wouldn't be able to claim.

Strategy #1: Cultural Diversity

Maybe you’re part of an underrepresented group. Maybe you're an immigrant or the child of immigrants. Maybe you practice a religion that might not be common among applicants. It could also pertain to organizations you joined that have to do with culture and cultural exposure.

I'm a white guy from the Midwest, which doesn’t seem very culturally diverse. But if I think deeply enough about my background, I can make a culturally diverse argument around the fact that I went to a lot of different religious schools growing up, even though I'm not religious.

I've been taught by Buddhists, secular Jews, Benedictine monks, and Jesuit priests. So I've learned a lot about religion or spirituality, even though it's not necessarily something that I practice, but rather carry as part of my identity and perspective.

So, even if you feel like you're not the most diverse person culturally, I think if you dig deep for what that word ‘cultural’ actually means, you'll probably come up with something.

Strategy #2: Intellectual Diversity

Intellectual diversity is the diversity that's taken place in your academics or scholarship.

Maybe you minored in public health or double majored in biology and psychology or art history or Spanish. If you have something in your academics that's uncommon, you definitely want to bring that up in your essays or interviews.

At the same time, it doesn’t have to be a major or minor. It could be a research project where you've studied something unusual. I recall a student who did a travel research project where she went all across the South to interview people about their environment and health factors. This unusual field work was a pretty cool item she could bring up for her intellectual diversity.

So it basically comes down to whether you have studied or examined something to a greater extent than the average person, and being able to articulate the value of that.

Strategy #3: Experiential Diversity

Experiential diversity is what it sounds like. It's about experience. It's about whether you’ve been exposed to something to a greater extent than another person probably has.

This could be greater exposure to a certain kind of population, like veterans or homeless people or autistic children. It could also be the extent of exposure to a certain kind of condition, perhaps like HIV+ patients or people in palliative care who are elderly and terminal.

The goal is to show an extra degree of exposure to something unique or relatively uncommon and explain the valuable insights you gained as a result.

How to Structure Your Answer

The structure of the diversity answer is pretty simple. Introduce the three layers of diversity, and cover them one at a time. That not only gives you a great natural blueprint for your answer, but it also has rhetorical power for the interviewer or reader, because they'll be able to see the depth of your diverse perspectives. You won't just be bringing diversity in one way, but three ways. And that has an underrated influence and effect on delivering a convincing answer.

So the structure is simple: you introduce your layers of diversity, hinting at the items you’ll be writing or talking about, then discuss each layer one by one. And as I said before, you want to end the discussion of each layer by indicating why it's an important perspective.

An Example Answer

For my purposes here, I’m going to pretend I’m at a medical school interview. And keep in mind that this is an “ideal” example that I made it up for myself. Some of it has to do with who I really am, but some of it doesn't at all. So it’s OK if your answer isn’t necessarily as deep or polished.

You certainly may not be able to claim these three things that I'm about to talk about myself. But hopefully, you can find three comparable things that fit each of these layers so that you can develop your own great diversity answer.

WATCH the video here.

[This is transcribed from a verbal response I recorded in a video]

That's a great question. I think diversity is extremely important for a medical school class. I may not bring traditional forms of diversity based on my culture and family, but I believe that my general educational background, my scholarship, and my lived experiences and exposures bring a lot of diversity to the table.

For one thing, I was educated by many different types of people who come from various ideologies and religious backgrounds. Throughout my education, I was trained by Buddhist monks, secular Jews, and Benedictine and Jesuit priests, so I learned a lot about all different kinds of things: dogma, scripture, meditation practices, the role of social justice and religion. I was exposed to different views on the meaning of life and our purpose for being here on earth, and I also learned a lot about how faith manifests differently in people's lives and how it actually can affect things that have to do with health decisions, end-of-life decisions, the way that we view our bodies, the way that we view our health, the way that we want to take care of ourselves. All of that is often wrapped up in people's faith and their ideology, and I feel like because of my background and that wide exposure, I'll be able to make people around me more aware of how faith interacts with health and wellness. I think that'll also allow me to better relate to patients, depending on their backgrounds.

I also studied public health in a lot of depth in college. I actually minored in it in addition to my normal major, and so I studied issues like the 11-State Stroke Belt and elevated diabetes in Native Americans. I examined the many ways that environmental and social factors influence people's health and their health outcomes, and I learned that you can't treat someone just based on their physical ailments in some kind of vacuum. You really need to consider a lot of these other things that can affect your life outside the clinic, often weighing on people’s health literacy, their decisions, their compliance, their ability to pay or afford something. So I think this public health background will let me relate to patients better, maybe anticipate their needs a little bit better, since I might have more awareness of what's going on outside the clinic. It'll certainly help me look for those things when I'm talking to patients. And it'll also help me raise the awareness of my peers and my colleagues to help us understand the lives of our patients outside of the clinic.

And then lastly, I've spent a lot of time as a crisis counselor on a suicide hotline. This was a very humbling, difficult experience. I fielded a lot of calls and texts from people who had suicidal ideation. They were going through domestic abuse, eating disorders, or many other kinds of mental health crises. And so I learned strategies of de-escalation. I learned how something like mental health can manifest below the surface and in ways that don't necessarily have to do with physical health. And I just gained a lot of sensitivity, empathy, and attunement to the things that people might be going through, and how to talk to them in a way that validates them, doesn't condescend, and makes them feel more secure, welcome, and safe. And I think this exposure to mental health is a third valuable way that I can bring a diverse perspective to your class and help others be more aware of how to deal with mental health issues, whether in themselves or while helping their patients.

These are all ways that I think I can add to the diversity at your school. And I would also really look forward to learning a lot from my peers because I know that they're also going to have amazing experiences and great insights that I might not have as much awareness of. And so I think that's the whole point. We can all enrich each other and make it a more collaborative, overall more aware learning environment.

[End of transcription]

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, everybody has at least one element from their lives that will fall into each of these three layers of diversity. So you just need to brainstorm, dig deep, and figure out what your three layers are going to be, then formulate your answer and make sure you can explain why each layer will be important to those around you.

If you do this, you'll be able to overcome this dreaded question in your essays and interviews.

Best of luck!

- Ryan

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For over 11 years, Ryan Kelly has guided hundreds of students towards acceptance into top colleges and graduate schools, with an emphasis on standing out while also staying true to themselves. Read more about Ryan here. Or book a free intro meeting with him here.