What if we were anti-bias? Envisioning & moving admissions & counselling beyond myths of cultural neutrality
What if we were anti-bias? Envisioning & moving admissions & counselling beyond myths of cultural neutrality
What if we were anti-bias? Envisioning & moving admissions & counselling beyond myths of cultural neutrality

By Dr Darnell Fine, educator, writer, & school principal


Neither admissions nor counselling exists on culturally neutral terrains. That is, everything that we do in the realm of admissions and counselling is culturally influenced. The question is: what is the dominant culture holding influence over these processes?

In this blog, I aim to envision university admissions and college counselling beyond the myths of cultural neutrality and consider actionable ways to avoid cultural bias in our admissions and guidance counselling processes.

I also offer three key areas for admissions and guidance counselling processes to address.


The myth of cultural neutrality

Bias exists, and it exists throughout our different communities, schools, and organizations, impacting guidance counselling and university admissions. Too often, a deep exploration of culture and cultural bias is met with denial, ignorance, or a lack of engagement, particularly when we look at bias from an organizational or personal perspective.

In my workshops, I often find that participants usually agree that bias exists somewhere out in the world or long ago. But, when further interrogating their beliefs about bias, participants struggle to see that bias also exists within their organization and themselves. Of course, this is connected to how people conceive of bias and cultural matters, which are influenced by our positionality in the world and where we come from.

Most minoritized cultural groups that I come across agree that bias exists and that it exists within themselves. While too often, members of dominant cultural groups often overlook or are unaware that biases might permeate their own environments or, even more personally, their own beliefs.

This can also be seen within guidance counselling and university admissions, where there can often be a lack of engagement to calls for deeper reflection. Through candid conversations and shared experiences, we can pinpoint and confront these biases in our work, reshaping them through multiple perspectives.

Beyond dominant cultural norms

Living in a world dominated by specific cultural norms can be limiting. Dominant culture is often seen as an “ideal”, subtly influencing our thoughts, actions, and decisions. But there’s more to culture than the overtly visible or popularly accepted.

What about the biases that quietly operate in the shadows? Ones that prioritize individualism over community or sideline multiple histories in favor of a dominant cultural narrative?

It’s crucial for us to challenge these underlying norms. By acknowledging and addressing them head-on, we make room for a broader, richer spectrum of cultural experiences and narratives. And as educators working within educational institutions, it’s our responsibility to ensure this spectrum is not just recognized but celebrated.

In our interconnected world, our actions and beliefs are deeply rooted in cultural norms and ideologies. Oftentimes, cultural biases and ethnocentric viewpoints, both overt and covert, shape these norms. From the prevalence of certain languages and beauty standards to the focus of school curriculums, we see the impact of dominant cultural paradigms. While overt and blatant forms of cultural bias are generally unacceptable, bias in its more covert forms can go unseen or be seen as innocuous.

Table 1. Examples of covert cultural bias in guidance counselling & admissions







Cultural Minimization in Counselling


Disregarding students’ cultural backgrounds when giving guidance.


’Everyone goes through the same challenges in college, regardless of their background.’


Assumption of Language Proficiency


Assuming non-native speakers have the same English proficiency as native speakers without considering EAL programs.



 ’If you’re applying here, you [must] be fluent in English.’

Ethnocentric Recommendations


Suggesting predominantly Western culture-focused activities, majors, or societies to all students.



‘Have you considered joining the Western Art History Club? It’s quite popular here.’

Token Representation in Admissions


Accepting a few international or minority students for the sake of diversity statistics without genuine inclusion efforts.



‘There are not many people here like you! Can we take your picture to get more diverse people like you here?’

Cultural Stereotyping


Assuming a student’s preference based on their cultural background.


- Assuming Asian students will major in STEM or expecting Latinx students to join Spanish-speaking clubs. 
- ‘You're from India? The engineering department is quite popular among Indian students.’


Generalized Essay Prompts


Admissions essays that don’t allow students to share their unique cultural experiences or perspectives.


‘Describe your favorite American holiday.’


Everyone, regardless of their background, can be influenced by these prevalent cultural biases. They subtly shape our self-perception, our interactions with others, and even the institutions that guide our society.

Taking a closer look, we can categorize the impact of these biases through different lenses:

Internalized Bias: Personal feelings, beliefs, and values influenced by dominant cultural narratives. These might manifest as a preference for certain beauty standards or language styles.


​​Interpersonal Bias: Daily actions, words, and behaviors that reflect and perpetuate cultural biases. For instance, preferring one cultural practice over another or making assumptions based on cultural stereotypes.

Institutional Bias: Systems and structures that may unconsciously favor specific cultural norms. This could be seen in hiring practices, educational content, and public policies.


Ideological Bias: Broad collective ideas about what’s considered “standard” or “normal”, often sidelining diverse perspectives.


Navigating cultural biases in guidance counselling & university admissions

Addressing cultural biases in guidance counselling and admissions is essential for creating inclusive environments. It starts with recognizing these biases in every facet of our professional lives:

  • Internal: What if we took a moment to reflect on our inherent biases as guidance counsellors and admissions officers?
  • Interpersonal: How can we ensure our interactions with students from diverse backgrounds are free of unintentional bias and assumptions?
  • Institutional: How might we challenge the existing structures in guidance counselling and admissions that unintentionally favor one cultural norm over others?
  • Ideological: What if we started questioning and redefining what "standard" practice means in our academic and professional settings?

We can move towards a more inclusive and holistic approach to guidance and admissions by addressing these questions.


Reflective questions for three key areas in admissions & guidance counselling processes

To foster a more inclusive environment for all students, here’s a series of reflective questions to help you/your institution engage in critical enquiry as you envisage anti-bias in admissions and counselling.

The reflective questions listed below are accompanied by resources with strategies, tools, and considerations for reducing bias in your admissions and counselling processes through three main areas: letters of recommendation and college referrals, alternatives to standardized testing, and admissions processes.

1. Letters of recommendation & college referrals

  • What if we actively acknowledged our potential biases and ethnocentric perspectives when reading and writing letters of recommendation?
  • How can we ensure our letters for students from diverse backgrounds are as detailed and comprehensive as others?
  • What if we scrutinized the language and terms we use to describe students from different cultures? Is there a disparity, and how can we approach this equitably?
  • How can we maintain high academic expectations for all students, especially those who may have faced challenges in biased educational systems?
  • What if we re-examined our standards of merit to ensure they're free from cultural biases?
  • Can we provide equal time and attention to all students and families, especially those historically overlooked or marginalized?
  • Have we reflected on our referral patterns to selective colleges?
  • How well are we connected with colleges that predominantly cater to diverse cultural groups?
  • How can we assess campus climates to ensure the well-being of all students upon their arrival?


Through the lens of race and racism, consider these guidelines on How to Avoid Racial Bias in Reference Letters | The Muse when writing or reading letters of recommendation. And through the lens of gender and sexism, these suggestions on Avoiding Gender Bias in Reference Writing, from the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women | Religious Studies News. How might we rewrite our letters of recommendation or change our approaches?



2. Alternatives to standardized testing

  • What if we considered making standardized tests optional in college applications?
  • How can we address the inherent cultural biases in standardized tests?
  • What if we offered students the option to submit alternative materials instead of standardized tests?

Alternatives to standardized tests can also serve as a barrier for minoritized groups getting into higher education institutions. Read this report by the American Talent Initiative for additional considerations that should be taken into account before implementing a test-optional or test-flexible policy. How might we overcome these challenges to implement test-flexible or test-optional policies? As part of the CIS Summit of University & School Leaders, a working group focused on alternative assessments is exploring this question: How can we assess a broader set of student skills and experiences while ensuring access, equity, and fairness?  CIS will continue to report on emerging practices at schools and higher education institutions with this aim in mind.

3. Admissions processes

  • What if our admissions officers made efforts to visit a diverse range of schools beyond just elite institutions?
  • Could our counselling and admissions departments develop and publicize a statement promoting cultural inclusion and combating bias?
  • What if we initiated regular training to identify and counteract cultural biases?
  • How can our office exemplify effective practices in culturally inclusive counselling and admissions?
  • Could there be an accrediting body ready to ensure our commitment to these standards?
  • What if we implemented a system to track potential cultural biases in our processes?
  • How can we engage alumni and students from varied cultural backgrounds for feedback to improve our practices?
  • Could partnerships with departments like mathematics and sociology help analyze data related to cultural disparities in admissions?
  • How can we be more transparent about our data during university visits to address potential disparities?
  • Is there a mechanism for students to report any incidents of bias they face during the admissions process?

Consider the seven strategies to reduce bias in admissions provided in this How-To Guide for Breaking Down Bias in Admissions (page 24) by Kira Talent. How would using these strategies benefit guidance counsellors, admissions officers, and students?


Plus …

Let’s consider these potential actions in the wider transitions, admissions, and counselling contexts:

  • What if you created a network of anti-racist admission officers and guidance counsellors to share anti-bias practices in your region?
  • What if we saw our peer institutions not as competitors but as community members as we take action against bias in counselling and admissions?
  • What if we provided healing circles for minoritized students who experience microaggressions after being accepted?

What emotions have these questions evoked or provoked for you? And what defensive reactions might you be feeling? What if we do not respond with denial, denying that bias and ethnocentrism exist, not just within history and society but also within our organizations and ourselves?



Related content:

Related content for university guidance, admissions and transitions to higher education:

  • Events and opportunities to connect with students, guidance counsellors and university admissions representatives.  
  • Blogs
  • A range of resources (briefings, insights, on-demand webinars and more) are available to members in the CIS Community portal > KnowledgeBase
What if we were anti-bias? Envisioning & moving admissions & counselling beyond myths of cultural neutrality
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Global citizenship
  • Intercultural learning & leadership
  • University admission & guidance
What if we were anti-bias? Envisioning & moving admissions & counselling beyond myths of cultural neutrality