To hear the podcasts that accompany this blog post, check out:

Before we get to the essay part…

If you’re an undocumented student debating whether or not to reveal your status in your personal statement, first check out Part 1 of this post: Should I Come Out As Undocumented in My Personal Statement?

If you’d like comprehensive help on your entire application (as in: free help over several weeks)…

Option A: Apply for my Matchlighters Scholarship, which offers up to six hours of college application guidance from a professional counselor at no cost. (Yup, free. All you have to do is fill out the application.)

Option B: Sign up with Strive for College, which connects students with mentors who can advise them on the college process. This is basically the same thing as Matchlighters, except a much bigger program (about 50 students went through my program in 2016, whereas thousands received help through Strive for College).

Why check out these resources? Because, if you have the time, it’s best to get comprehensive help with your entire application process–picking schools, financial aid, etc.–and not just help on your essay.

If you’ve already read Part 1 of this article and already have an experienced mentor helping you with your application, then I recommend working through my Essay Workshop in a Box. Why? Because 1) it’s like taking a 3-hr class with me and 2) it’s free. You’ll learn a ton and have an essay draft by the time you’re finished. Just click on the “Free Student Version” on the left side of the page at the link above.

If you’re wanting help with finding scholarships, check out DREAMer’s Roadmap.

If you’re not going to do any of the above and just want to get on with writing your essay…

Read on! In fact, here are the three steps to take if you want to write a first draft in just one hour:

  1. Read the article below (20 min)

  2. Complete the Feelings and Needs Exercise (20 min.)

  3. Pull out your phone, download the speech-to-text app Dragon Dictation, and record yourself telling your story (using the work you’ve done in the Feelings and Needs Exercise). (10-15 min.)

  4. Export the text to a Google doc, edit the Dragon Dictation mistakes out in your first draft and email your draft to your mentor. (5-10 min.)

And if you can’t download Dragon Dictation, don’t worry about it, just record yourself speaking your essay and then type it up after (just add an extra 15-20 min. for that).

Ready? Heeeeeeere we go!

How to Come Out As Undocumented in Your Personal Statement

Rather than starting off with some general platitudes or tips, I want you to first read two really good essays by students who elected to reveal their undocumented status in their essays and were accepted to highly selective schools.

FYI: Both had really good GPAs and some of the highest SAT scores in their grade. I say this to say that it wasn’t just their essays that got them in–they were bringing a lot more to the table–but I do think their essays helped.

I’ll share each essay on its own first, do a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what I think works well, then offer some tips and take-aways that you can use when you’re writing your essay.

Daishi’s Personal Statement

Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

“Osé, osé, osé!” I scolded myself with the Japanese words meaning, “Push, push, push.” As I tried to keep up with the pace in the morning run, a tree root snagged my foot and I plummeted into the mud. Blood dripped down my knees. The other kids roared in laughter and left me behind. I was the only overweight kid in the kindergarten of my hometown of Shizuoka.

A year later, I moved to the U.S. and walked into my elementary school with my only English vocabulary consisting of the word “Hello.” I spent days trying to figure out the words for the Pledge of Allegiance. How can I memorize all those crazy words? The changes were overwhelming and I wanted to reject them.

But I knew I had to adapt.

I managed to become fluent in English in three months and rise as a shining student of my second grade class. Over time, I realized I carried the responsibility of being the first one in my family to go to a university, so I became determined to reach higher education.

However, I never found a stable home. Being undocumented, my family and I constantly moved from house to house, city to city, following the path of available jobs while being locked with constant financial struggle. I often found myself sleeping in the houses of relatives while my parents were off in distant cities trying to make ends meet. Cases of financial and legal problems between my parents and my relatives left me homeless at one point, leaving me no choice but to live with a friend for three months to finish the eighth grade. The pace of change seemed too fast to keep up

When choosing a high school to attend, I came across a very new school, Panorama High School, which was largely disliked by middle-school teachers and students due to its lack of competitive academic programs and a reputation for gang- involvement. Despite the common word, I saw how the school was criticized by people who put no effort into improving the campus and its community. How can a school become great without anyone taking action? I realized that the school was just like my childhood self in Japan, in a sense that it was looked down upon and left behind. I wanted to do something.

I took the most rigorous classes the school was able to offer and tried to influence the school’s prestige as a student, no matter how trivial it seemed. I was going crazy when I was voted to be the first president of the school’s first honor society and when I scored the highest SAT score in the history of the campus. As my team and I won the first varsity swimming league championship, the kid trying to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance became the swimmer screaming his team chant before the battle. That’s when I knew I was a part of this country, and that this country was a part of me.

More importantly, my experiences at Panorama High School opened my eyes about social change. What can I do for the other immigrants, this country, or the world? I became passionate about studying the government, and set my sights on becoming a lawyer and, one day, a politician. Right now, the debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform intrigues me the most. Should this country enact the law that guarantees a safe path for citizenship upon residing undocumented immigrants? Who knows? But this country won’t know unless we make the initial leap for change. I see my childhood self in this country, for I believe it is rejecting the intimidating and round-the-clock changes of the current decade. But like my current self, we must embrace those changes and prevent people from being left behind in the mud. Great things can truly begin with a little “osé, osé, osé!”

647 words

Adrian’s Personal Statement

Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. I held tightly to a tube of toothpaste because I’d been sent to brush my teeth to distract me from the commotion. Regardless, I knew what was happening: my dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done.

Living without a father meant money was tight, mom worked two jobs, and my brother and I took care of each other when she worked. For a brief period of time the quality of our lives slowly started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became an integral part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me. But our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more and more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, my mom continued working, and Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do.

As undocumented immigrants and with little to no family around us, we had to rely on each other. Fearing that any disclosure of our status would risk deportation, we kept to ourselves when dealing with any financial and medical issues. I avoided going on certain school trips, and at times I was discouraged to even meet new people. I felt isolated and at times disillusioned; my grades started to slip.

Over time, however, I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself.

Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. I learned how to fix a bike, how to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I became resourceful, fixing shoes with strips of duct tape, and I even found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me.

I also worked to apply myself constructively in other ways. I worked hard and took my grades from Bs and Cs to consecutive straight A’s. I shattered my school’s 1ooM breaststroke record, and learned how to play the clarinet, saxophone, and the oboe. Plus, I not only became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m currently pioneering my school’s first AP Physics 2 course ever.

These changes inspired me to help others. I became president of the California Scholarship Federation, providing students with information to prepare them for college, while creating opportunities for my peers to play a bigger part in our community. I began tutoring kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices crafted to individually push my comrades to their limits, and I’ve counseled friends through circumstances similar to mine. I’ve done tons, and I can finally say I’m proud of that.

But I’m excited to say that there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, explored how perpetual motion might fuel space exploration, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see the person that Fernando will become.  

I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.

Okay, here’s the analysis for each one:

Sample Essay #1: Daishi’s Personal Statement (with Ethan’s analysis):

Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

“Osé, osé, osé!” I scolded myself with the Japanese words meaning, “Push, push, push.” As I tried to keep up with the pace in the morning run, a tree root snagged my foot and I plummeted into the mud. Blood dripped down my knees. The other kids roared in laughter and left me behind. I was the only overweight kid in the kindergarten of my hometown of Shizuoka.