In school, most kids are told that they have the potential to do great things in life. They're told the sky's the limit. As I started to be recognized as a promising student, around eighth grade, I was told, "You're smart and you're from the hood, you're from the projects, colleges will love you."
When I heard this, I was confused. I always looked at being from the hood as a bad thing. It was something I was quite ashamed of when I was younger. So for my teachers and advisers to make it seem like it was a cool thing made me feel good inside, until I fully realized what they were talking about.
In my life, I've had a lot of unfortunate experiences. So when it came time for me to write my personal statement for college applications, I knew that I could sell a story about all the struggles I had overcome. Each draft I wrote had a different topic. The first was about growing up without my dad being involved, the second was about the many times my life was violently threatened, the third was about coping with anxiety and PTSD, and the rest followed the same theme.
Every time I wrote, then discarded, then redrafted, I didn't feel good. It felt as if I were trying to gain pity. I knew what I went through was tough and to overcome those challenges was remarkable, but was that all I had to offer?
Conflicted, I asked around to see what others had written. I spoke to my old middle school algebra teacher, Nathaniel Sinckler. When he was applying to Morehouse, he remembered, he "felt pressured to write about something I could oversell." He knew enough to write about hardships he had faced, he said, but although "I didn't have enough, I didn't go without."
This made him feel that he was at a disadvantage because he was competing with kids on the same academic level who had faced even more adversity. So the question on his mind, for a long time, was "How can I oversell myself?" He explained that this was an experience not talked about enough: students of color trying to become poster children for trauma and pain. The focus becomes no longer who you are as a person but rather "are my challenges enough," as Mr. Sinckler said, "and will this give me value?"
Mr. Sinckler asked me, "Who are you?" He urged me to question what actually makes up my identity, because while struggles are important, they're not my only contribution. He felt that students of color glorifying their hardships is selling trauma with scholarship "dollar signs behind it."
I also spoke to a friend about her application to NYU. She wrote about experiencing homelessness at one point in her life. I asked how she felt as she wrote about that, and she said that it was "difficult to write, rather forced — and I had an interesting experience rereading it when I graduated, because I had sort of programmed myself to think of myself as less-than, as inferior." Her application described her poverty, her living briefly in a shelter, as well as her dad not being present in her life. I asked why she wrote about her hardships, and she said, "Because I had to get into school and advisers emphasized, like, sell your pain."
"It was a flex," she said, to go to a prestigious school like NYU. "But I didn't feel like I should have been there." She had the grades, she had the credentials, but she lacked self-esteem, partly because she forced herself to write about moments in her life she wasn't proud of. So for the longest time she felt her NYU acceptance was undeserved. She would stay under the radar in classes, instead of making her presence known. Her essay had become an internalized mind-set.
I spoke to one of my younger brother's teachers, Aaron Jones, who also attended Morehouse, and he said, "Teachers promoted it" — the personal statement about hardships. But he wanted to show the admissions officers what he was capable of and decided that if he wrote about his neighborhood in Annapolis, Md., "it would put me in a box."
This box was the clichéd story of a Black kid in America. Mr. Jones said that if he had wanted to go to a PWI — a predominantly white institution — then a sob story would have been more important, but since he wanted to go to a historically Black institution, he could showcase his abilities. He emphasized that students of color have more to offer than the cliché. He said, "The sob story can be truth, but it's not all said all." He argued that college is the gateway to experiencing a fresh start and that bringing old baggage with you only limits your growth. He ended up writing about a teacher who had mentored him since the fifth grade.
Mr. Sinckler, my friend who went to NYU, Mr. Jones and I had gone to different high schools, and we had all been given the same message. But it wasn't just the advisers; I was hearing it from family and neighbors. Everyone around me seemed to know this was what colleges were looking for, to the point where it didn't even have to be spoken. I felt like the college system was forcing us to embody something that was less than what we are. Were colleges just looking for a check on a checklist? Were they looking for a slap on the back for saving us from our circumstances?
As I kept rewriting my personal statement, it kept sounding clichéd. It was my authentic experience, but I felt that trauma overwhelmed my drafts. I didn't want to be a victim anymore. I didn't want to promote that narrative. I wanted college to be a new beginning for me. At the time, my mom, a part-time health aide, was taking care of a patient who used a wheelchair. My mom was sometimes unable to pick him up at the bus stop, as she was just getting off her second job, so I took on that responsibility.
I would wait for her patient at the bus stop; I would make sure he ate, and I would play music for him until my mom got home. I also wrote about my relationship with my middle school janitor. I used both of these stories to show the importance of diversity and the value of respecting everyone regardless of physical ability, status or class. After writing this, there weren't any feelings of regret. I felt free.
Trauma is one of life's teachers. We are molded by it, and some will choose to write about it urgently, passionately. Yet I would encourage those who feel like their stories were written in tragedy to rethink that, as I did. When you open your mind to all the other things you can offer in life, it becomes liberating. Let's show college admissions officers what they're missing out on, not what they already know.
Elijah Megginson is a graduating senior at Uncommon Charter High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, who is still choosing between several colleges for the fall. He wrote this article for the New York Times.