Ask Richard: Should I “Come Out” as an Atheist in my College Application Essay? October 6, 2009

Ask Richard: Should I “Come Out” as an Atheist in my College Application Essay?

Dear Richard,

I am a senior in high school and I am preparing to start the college admissions process. A few of the colleges that I am planning on applying to use the Common Application. The essay for the Common App is open-ended and can be written on any topic of choice.

I am contemplating writing about my experiences as a teenage atheist for the subject of this essay. I am not planning on explaining the reasons why I’m an atheist or even talk about atheism itself. I simply want to share how being a minority has affected my life by sharing my experiences. I think that it would be a very personal and sincere essay and it would allow the schools to see who I really am.

At the same time, however, I am worried about the potential for discrimination. I feel that it is risky to even mention the fact that I don’t believe in God to the people who are paid to judge my character and who also have influence over my future. Surely they have received plenty of similar essays from racial minorities sharing their experiences, but I’m not sure how they would react to an atheist doing the same.

Coincidentally, the Common App colleges that I am applying to are also my “reach” schools, so I am willing to take more of a risk with their essays. I have also done some research, and each one of these schools has a student group that is affiliated the Secular Student Alliance. Still, I am hesitant about risking my chances for admission due to my essay topic selection.

So far, I have only found very limited advice on the internet and most of it recommends avoiding the subject of religion, especially atheism. Any additional advice would be greatly appreciated.

College-Bound Student

Dear College-Bound,

Ah, the eternal struggle between principles and pragmatism, what ought to be vs. what works. In principle, you should be able to write about “any topic of choice,” just as it says on the application. But pragmatically, with that particular topic, you’re taking a chance that you’ll be denied an acceptance regardless of how well it is written.

In principle, with an open-ended topic the admissions staff reviewer should be evaluating mainly for your ability to express yourself clearly and skillfully, with a style that shows promise that you will be able to write appropriately for academic works.

In reality, the admissions reviewer is a human being, subject to emotions, biases and even prejudice. The loathsome intolerance against atheists and atheism is very widespread and very strong. At this point in time, discrimination against racial minorities and religious minorities such as Jews is socially taboo enough to get people who discriminate fired, as it should. Discrimination against gays and lesbians is steadily becoming more taboo, but is still accepted by a large portion of the population. However, discrimination against atheists seems to be almost universally accepted, rarely resulting in social embarrassment or penalty at all. We have a long way to go.

When broaching subjects that society is still learning to accept, timing is important. Today, someone writing an application essay about socialism would probably risk little if any negative reaction to the topic, but in the 1950’s they could kiss their chances goodbye, and perhaps even be blacklisted at colleges across the nation. Timing makes a huge difference.

Colleges seem to vary widely in their admissions policies. Is it a picky college looking to exclude applicants for any hint of controversy, or is it more open and only looking at essays to screen out people who can’t write coherent sentences? Is there a clear and practiced criteria for judging an essay, or is it subjective to the sensibilities of whoever happens to read it? You probably have no way of finding out ahead of time.

The admissions staff may have no problem with you being an atheist, or they may disapprove but try to disregard it, or they may be negatively influenced subconsciously, or they may even see themselves as protecting the college from influences that they think are objectionable and they will reject you any way they can. Their set of “principles” may not include giving an atheist a fair chance.

Your “reach” schools may have SSA affiliates on campus, but that does not necessarily indicate an atmosphere of acceptance that permeates all the way into the Admissions department.

I found an interesting website called Education Planner that seems to have some good advice on several aspects of successful college admission, including this statement about essays:

Remember, a great essay can really make an admission official sit up and take notice. However, subjectivity prevails here. Some readers are biased toward content; some toward writing style and mechanics. One applicant submitted an ambitious essay that compared the works of three Eastern European writers. Two of her evaluators were impressed by her literary sophistication and the insight of her analysis; a third couldn’t get beyond the errors in spelling and sentence structure.

College-Bound, whether or not this topic for your essay is a good idea depends on many factors that are not within your control. You have control over some of the materials you send to them, and other materials, such as your transcripts, you do not. By sending them your proposed essay, you will be relinquishing even more control to them, and to the perhaps slim odds that they will follow principles that you hope they share with you.

The problem is that in this horse race, the odds don’t pay any better if you bet on the long shot instead of on the favorite. You are accepted or rejected. That’s all you get. For taking a greater risk, you do not get a greater return.

I want to make it very clear that by starting out my response by contrasting principles vs. pragmatics, I was not implying that you would be compromising your personal principles by choosing a less risky topic. That would be a false dichotomy that does not apply at all. You have made no promises regarding your choice of topic; you owe no one anything about it. This is your bid to get into one of the colleges of your choice. You’re free to write about whatever you want.

Many atheists stress the importance of “coming out” publicly because it helps to dispel the myths and negative stereotypes and to normalize our image as legitimate members of society. In general, I agree with this, but it has to be each person’s decision, made with their own interest in mind, carefully considering the pros and cons of taking that step at any particular point in time.

You said,

I think that it would be a very personal and sincere essay and it would allow the schools to see who I really am.

Yes, I’m sure that it would be sincere and candid. I just wonder if your sincerity and candor will be honored by the people who have the choice to give you or deny you what you want. Whatever you write about, have it be something that you can express clearly, with a balance of both passion and intelligence. That could probably be several subjects. Your atheism is only one aspect of you. In your writing, demonstrate the traits that have led to your atheism: your ability to think freely, to go beyond the popular assumptions, to question, investigate and reason. Those traits apply to many more things in your life than just a question about the existence of gods.

Right now, as a beginning student you have very little power, clout or authority. If I were in your position, I’d wait until my completed education had given me enough power, clout and authority to defend myself against the inevitable backlash before declaring my atheism in an essay.

However, if I were in your position I’d be 40 years younger, and back then “the principle of the thing,” the idea that I ought to be able to write about whatever I damn well please would have been more important to me. Over the decades, I’ve become more pragmatic. I’ve charged up several hills with my comrades only to find myself at the top facing the enemy alone, so I’ve learned to pick my battles and most importantly to pick the right time.

You should eventually write this essay, and I hope that many people read your story. I just would hate to see one more paragraph in it relating how your education was hampered because of another incidence of the bigotry that so many of us have experienced, simply because you made your move too soon.

I wish you the very best of experiences in your education and career. This is the beginning of a wonderful and challenging time in your life.


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  • Luther

    Sound advice, but one thought that I can’t let go of without commenting:

    Groucho Marx said:

    I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

    Could this be the opposite case. Would you want to go to a school that would not welcome an atheist? Perhaps yes, perhaps no – I cannot answer that for you. Would the essay tend to help you get into a school you would welcome and atheist and tend to help you avoid schools that would not welcome an atheist?

  • Tori

    I’m in a similar position, except I’m applying to grad schools for social work. Since working with minorities/being a minority is a big selling point for getting into MSW programs, I am writing my essays about being an atheist as well. I want the programs to know that even though I’m white and middle-class I do have experience with being a minority in a different capacity. I guess that makes the nature of my situation different, but I still am worried that the people reading my essays will think that an atheist is not a good candidate to be working with what is going to be a population which mostly have faith (the whole the poorer you are the more religious you tend to be phenomenon).
    I’m going for it and I wish College-bound luck no matter what you decide to do!

  • College-Bound Student,

    In addition to what Richard said, remember that the term “atheist” is very loaded in our society and it means different things to different people. I was just talking to a neighbor of mine who doesn’t believe in god but doesn’t self-identify as an atheist. He, in fact, has a negative attitude towards atheists. Remember that any admission board (or employer screening resumes) will be looking for anything they can use to weed out the applications. I would have to advice either
    1. not write on this subject,
    2. or only submit the “atheism” essay to one of your “reach” schools and write another essay for your other schools
    3. or choose your words very carefully possibly even avoiding the term “atheism” altogether. You could discuss your “minority status” of not being part of a conventional church when most everybody else was. If you left your actual beliefs ambiguous and that you will be “exploring other options” then perhaps you would not fall victim to an anti-atheism bias that is so prevalent (even among those that don’t go to church).

    You have your whole life to talk about atheism and the whether there is anything called “spirituality”. It would be a shame if you were rejected from a good school because of the un-provable bias of someone reading your essay.

  • Do you want to go to a school that wouldn’t have the real you as a student? College application time is also an opportunity for students to evaluate schools and their admission processes. Writing an essay on atheism might be a way to establish your own elimination process, if that is a deal-breaker for you.

    But if that’s not a game you want to play, completely understandable, it’s possible to discuss your minority status without stating what specific minority you are.

  • JulietEcho

    Writing something like an admissions essay, where there’s a lot of pressure, has always been an intense position for me, emotionally. Usually, when the muse strikes, I write what I know, in that moment, will be the best essay I can write. If it’s on an unconventional or controversial topic, then so be it. The more important thing, in my mind, is writing something that showcases my talent and spark.

    It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic, and if you have your heart set on it – and if you feel that you can write something truly great about it – then I say, go for it. Academia is one of the big exceptions to the US cultural prejudice against atheism, and you’re less likely to be discriminated against than you would be if you were writing an essay for a job application, for instance.

    If you write well and you have a decent academic record/test scores, then you’ll get into some colleges. And I disagree with Richard about risk-taking not having any benefits in this situation. Some “reach” schools might reject someone with your transcript/test scores if they write a boring, run-of-the-mill essay that sounds like a thousand others. Yours might get their attention and lead to them accepting you. Many colleges are looking for diverse opinions among students. Colleges where students are apathetic or similarly-minded about issues tend to stagnate.

  • I’m not sure how much risk there really is in talking about atheism in your application. However, I think there is hardly anything to be gained from it (unless you ran a high school freethought club). Sure, there is some satisfaction in being out, and open about who you are. But college essays have got to be the most unsatisfying way to do it. You will never see your essay again. You may never meet the people who read it. They probably don’t even see your name.

  • Peregrine

    Probably the best reason I would have for not writing on atheism is that I have other things going on in my life besides not going to church.

    What are you planning on studying? Science? Literature? Philosophy? What are your interests? Sports? Music? Popular culture? What’s your opinion on the death penalty? What did you do for your summer vacation? What did you think of that episode of Deep Space 9 where Sisko dreamed he was in the ’50s?

    If you can truly write about anything you want, for something that’s more or less a formality anyway, then write about whatever frivolous thing interests you. There are a million topics under the sun to choose from. And as a young, wet behind the ears high school grad you will have four wonderful years ahead of you to write about atheism, and many other heady topics, and refine both your position and your writing style.

    Get into college first. Don’t waste your A-material on the application essay.

  • Bobby

    I think whether to write the story should come down to whether there’s a compelling story to be told. So far, all that’s known about the essay is that it’s about “…my experiences as a teenage atheist…”

    It almost sounds like the applicant is hoping that as a white male (likely also middle class and suburban) can prove that he doesn’t lack the “diversity” of other applicants. I was a white, male, suburbanite 18-year old applicant with years of no real conflict, so I had a similar problem of writing an application trying to stand out and contemplated writing about atheism. The bigger problem, and the reason I abandoned the idea: I didn’t have a story.

    A college essay should tell a compelling narrative about who you are, what ethic and experience you bring with you, and how it fits in to who you hope you’ll become in college. If you have pushed the boundaries of free speech in your high school, been a plaintiff in a court case, given a coming out speech in a school public forum, or the like. then you should feel free to tell about it. If you got picked on and teased because of your beliefs, well, welcome to high school–so did the geeks, punks, goths, band, choir, Wiccan & every other non-mainstream clique who has attended high school since the beginning of time. There might still be a good story there, but if not, I’d scratch simply trying to stretch it into “I know what it’s like to be diverse.” Of course, as you said, it would be personal and sincere, but there’s a good chance it would also reek of overreaching.

    If you don’t have such a story, then Richard’s probably right: there’s a good chance it won’t matter, but what are you rocking the boat for? You can take advantage that unlike being African-American or female, you can hide your minority status at any time and then, once in college become an advocate.

    That being said, I really doubt writing an essay about being an atheist would hurt your chances in too many schools. But it would cause you to take every rejection personally and ascribe it to some biased admissions councilor.

    Also, @Luther: There’s no reason to believe that the school is homogeneous, and that the 1 or 2 admissions councilors who read an essay are indicative of the rest of the staff or the campus political culture generally. Writing an essay about atheism and getting rejected is no indicator that the school would not otherwise be a good fit. Also, even if the culture isn’t friendly toward atheists, that doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t want to attend.

  • Kaylya

    It doesn’t seem like such a gamble to me so long as you do it in a way that is in no way putting down religion (you want to share your beliefs and experiences, not put down things that the person reading it might believe in). They don’t want to read hundreds of essays on the same topic, they want to see less common things.

    That being said, I never had to write an essay of that sort, as that sort of stuff is only required for a tiny proportion of programs in Canada.

  • Long before I embraced the a-word, I wrote my college admissions essay on why I despise organized religion, quite unabashedly. 350 words on the world’s most destructive force. I didn’t get refused from any of the schools I applied to, including some that had religious affiliations.

    Courage and honesty make for great admissions essays.

  • Laura Lou

    It might depend on what colleges you are applying to. The Princeton Review has some interesting statistics that could tell you how secular-friendly at least the students are. Both my sister and I wrote college essays about being an atheist, but it probably helped that we were applying to Lewis & Clark, the second most secular college in the nation.

    But in general, Education tends to be a liberal field. A sophisticated, sincere essay about your experience as an atheist would be well-received. I don’t think you should water it down, and I hope that you do decide to write about this.

  • Could this be the opposite case. Would you want to go to a school that would not welcome an atheist? Perhaps yes, perhaps no – I cannot answer that for you. Would the essay tend to help you get into a school you would welcome and atheist and tend to help you avoid schools that would not welcome an atheist?

    Except it’s not necessarily the school who would be unwelcoming, but the individual reviewer(s). The school itself may (and probably does) have anti-discrimination policies in place and the administration itself may be entirely neutral on the issue, but the person reviewing it will likely NOT be neutral on the issue of atheism. You may get lucky and one or more of the reviewers may be athiests, but chances are they will be religious in some manner, and therefore subject to their own biases and opinions. It would be a shame to be rejected from a good school where the administration, faculty, and student body would be religion-neutral and accepting of any belief or non-belief just because one or two people who read an essay had their nose get out of joint.

  • Erp

    If you are reaching high (e.g., Ivy league or equivalent), being an atheist isn’t going to hurt. The admissions people will be highly educated and chances are that at least one in each elite school will also be an atheist. How well you write the essay will matter. A possible negative would be if you appear to only be concerned with atheism and nothing else (the same also holds true for someone who only wrote about their love of Jesus and spreading his word and nothing else).

  • @Luther and Kimbo Jones: While I agree with Richard that College-Bound shouldn’t submit the atheism essay with his college application, I also agree with Bobby and Mathyoo that extrapolating your worry about the essay reviewers’ personal opinions out to the entire school atmosphere is a big mistake.

    While i still agree with Richard however, I have to say ZackFord’s anecdote does make this kid’s decision a lot harder!

    But I’m still sticking to my guns that it’s not worth the risk. Why is atheism the only option for a captivating essay topic? If College-Bound is as articulate in his essay as he is in his letter to Richard, he’ll able to write a fantastic college essay no matter what the topic is.

    I know we’re all atheists and we’d love to hear that this kid wrote a badass atheism essay and got accepted everywhere, it’s just not worth it. And unfortunately, his encounters as an atheist minority will likely continue during his college years (hopefully not too much!) which will only give him more material when he chooses to write the essay later in life (or after first semester!! let us know, College-Bound…)

  • zoo

    CB doesn’t mention what s/he intends to study, but I’d think except for very obviously religious schools (e.g. Liberty University) there probably isn’t a worry about the college as a whole not wanting atheists, and it’s even less of a problem in fields like the sciences. I can’t recall religion coming up much in class or out except in mythology class. The real worry is the particular admissions officer that gets to review the application. You can control your field of study, but you can’t pick your admissions officer.

  • Colin

    Great question, and great responses so far. I would love to see a response from someone who works in admissions.

    I agree it does little good to come out in an application essay, and you should probably pick another topic unless your story is tremendously compelling.

    Part of the problem is that the unstated topic of these application essays seems to be “describe a hardship you have overcome”. Some students have great stories that fit this mold, others, no less deserving of a college education, do not. You want to write something that stands out, but I think the risk of being denied by a bad apple in the admissions department is overly high for this topic.

    My own application essay to my “dream school” touched on evolution. I wasn’t admitted, no way to know if the essay hurt my cause.

  • cyn

    Well, I’m an older student who returned to school in order to get a degree. Choice are limited where I live and the area is pretty conservative Christian. I have kept my atheism to myself for the most part. Mainly because I’m not willing to rock any boats since I’m due to graduate next May with a strong GPA.

    In other words, go with what works for you the best.

  • That’s exactly what I wrote about for my college ap – and I got in!

    If this is what feels right, and it’s what you want to write about – go for it.

    Remember: You don’t have to live your life the way others expect you to.

    Good luck!

  • H

    your ability to think freely, to go beyond the popular assumptions, to question, investigate and reason.

    Schools don’t like those traits. Schools exist to teach obedience.

    You pass by swallowing what the teacher says and writing it on your exam.

    People who question things, especially the teacher, get flunked out or put in detention. I’m talking about questioning policies, teacher decisions and ways of doing things, not simply asking a question for clarification of what the teacher said.

    You need to just suck it up and give them what they want. That’s how I survived the hell of highschool.

  • @ H

    Where did you go to school? I think what you said is interesting, and it’s too bad that your educational experience was a negative one. Mine has been quite the opposite, fortunately. Most of my classes to date have been very open.

    Hell, I made a masturbation joke on my statistics quiz (I couldn’t remember what “extrapolation” really was), and I still got partial credit. 😉

    Anyways, I think that if College-Bound is applying for very high ranking schools, then it’s likely that the administrators won’t allow their personal judgment to cloud the admissions process. Like someone said, they may share views that are far from the religious right, as well. If you have an interesting story that would demonstrate a significant part of your experience to date and shows how you deal with adversity, then go for it and more power to you. A compelling essay is a compelling essay, whether the admissions person agrees with you or not, and regardless of the subject matter.

  • Heidi

    You’ve got a lot of things to consider here, obviously. I think the major factors are how strongly you feel about writing this, and how much you have to say. As far as the coming out dilemma, consider your school’s location, your major, and the general type of school it is.

    If you’re applying as an electrical engineering major at MIT, you most likely have no reason to worry. Massachusetts is the bluest state in the country, and MIT will value your critical thinking skills. If you’re applying as a philosophy major at a Christian school in Oklahoma, don’t come out at all, let alone in your application essay.

    @H: Are you talking about high school, or college/university? I had that experience in high school, but it wasn’t so prevalent in college (UMass Lowell).

  • Julie

    As much as it sucks, applying to college/interviewing with admissions is basically the same as trying to get a job, in that you need to give them what they want to hear. Your views on religion will have their place to be heard, debated, discussed, but you have to be accepted first for any of that to happen. I’m only saying this as someone who was accepted to and attended a really great university – the time to stand out is once you’re in, and once you’ve built up a bit of currency for yourself, in the form of references, colleagues, peers, etc… similar to how you can’t really make changes at a job until you’ve worked at it for a while. My advice is to keep it safe until you know you’re in… there’s plenty of opportunity (especially in, say, a freshman English course) to write on whatever your feel is important.

    I agree – the wager is risky and certainly outweighs anything you stand to gain. Someone else suggested that you probably have a more important passion than your absence from church – find that and write about it.

    Also, the admissions officer is NOT a fully accurate representative of the school – I don’t think the “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member” idea really applies, because while the school overall might side with you, the individual reading your essay might not.

  • C

    As an English person, I still find it so unreal that this sort of thing seems to be such a problem in America – thought you were suspposed to be the land of the free?

  • Hannah

    I’m late seeing this post, but I had to comment – I wrote my college application on the difficulty of growing up a liberal and an atheist in my small Southern home town. I was applying to a Southern school but had no problem getting in. I think the letter-writer should write about being an atheist if that’s what s/he wants to write about. Admissions officers are not supposed let their personal prejudices (politics, for example) interfere with their decisions. They may not see atheists as a category like blacks or Jews that they should not discriminate against, but they will still recognize that their own views should play no role in their decision. The essay is also a small part of your total application score. I say, go for it!

  • Do it! Write on the subject! Admissions offices love minority subjects and love reading something that is unique (regardless of the subject) Do it!

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