“Personal statements that stand out to application readers aren’t five paragraph essays”

By Marisa Urrutia Gedney, Director of Operations and Programs, Echo Park

My favorite time of year is the fall season. It has nothing to do with the leaves turning, but everything to do with self-discovery and storytelling as a means of actualizing higher education. During the hours I spend in classrooms and college centers alongside students and 826LA volunteers, I teach the art of crafting personal statements, a new and somewhat mystifying genre all its own.

Personal statements that stand out to application readers aren’t five paragraph essays. Colleges are looking for personal and honest stories, the type of revealing writing that teenagers aren’t taught. 826LA volunteers spend time with students to learn their stories and then shape their experiences into essays that reveal character and determination. We emphasize reflective and thoughtful writing while making sure students are answering all the questions in the prompts for UCs, private colleges, and Cal State EOP short answer questions.

Supporting this process takes time, and it never starts with writing.

This past fall, 826LA partnered with the College Center at Roosevelt High School. That’s where I met Ashley Atayde, a 17-year-old peer counselor who came in with a draft of her story and lots of ideas. I started our first meeting with the questions we advise tutors to always begin with: “What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome? What are you most proud of? What are some of the responsibilities you have at home?” While she answered, I scribbled away, making notes of everything she shared. Together we looked at all the different angles her essay could take to answer the two UC prompts, decided what details were essential to her story, and talked about if anything like changes in grades needed to be explained.

From September to November, Ashley and I met several times looking at her revised drafts while discussing the importance of detail. I asked even more questions: “How did you feel when you moved back into a house after it was taken away, and how did that affect your grades? What made you want to teach yourself how to play so many instruments? How do you balance school, teaching at church, and responsibilities at home?”

The beginning of Ashley’s final essay states boldly, “I am seventeen years old, yet I feel about ten years older. I had no room for a childhood, because my mother, brother, and I were always running away from my dad.” She explains that her mom had to work two jobs while Ashley took care of her and her younger brother, and how this motivated her. She continues:

Considering I had no one to teach me the basic essentials of growing up, I was self-taught in almost everything. From waking myself up, to making myself food. I was teaching myself how to be a kid, but at the same time, I was my own parent. I taught myself how to play piano, the drums, the guitar and the bass. As a self-proclaimed musician, I performed in anything that was offering a spot in participation, either in church or a talent show. My loneliness gave rise to remarkable creativity, which took form in low octaves and high melodic notes.

Ashley is a beautiful writer, as are many of the students 826LA works with across LAUSD. It’s not usually the writing we finesse. Instead, we focus on ensuring that students tell the stories that best represent their specific experiences, so they aren’t writing essays only about being a hard worker and their passion to attend college. Because admission officers see the students’ grades and extracurricular activities in their applications, we prepare students to write a personal statement that tells the fully story and leaves the admission officer with a better understanding of how truly remarkable the student is.

News came in early for Ashley and she sent me an email during the first week of January.

Dear Marisa,

Hello :) Well I just wanted to say you have been a huge blessing in my life! Thanks to your constant revision and meet ups … my personal statement was awesome! So awesome that I got accepted to my #1 top choice school Washington State University … my GPA wasn’t the best and the school even emailed me saying they enjoyed my personal statement! Wow! Thank you VERY much! From the bottom of my heart! And may God bless you! And the rest of the advisors! Thank you and happy (belated) New Years :)!”

After visiting her at Roosevelt to give her an in-person congratulations, she shared feelings of unease about the acceptance email and wanted to double check with a phone call why they accepted her even though her grades weren’t as high as the average accepted at Washington State. She explains.

Out of curiosity I called the admissions counselor assigned to me and asked if she was able to tell me how and why I got accepted. Her reasons were 1.) my constant emails to every admissions counselor in Washington State University 2.) my my extracurricular activities, and (what caught my attention the most) 3.) my personal statement. Apparently my admissions counselor read my personal statement and said, ‘Your words touched my heart and I could see your determination to leave your ‘norm’ and head off to college. That is exactly what we are looking for her at WSU. We are proud to have you in our Cougar family.’ I’ll never forget those words. This couldn’t have been possible without the aid that Marisa gave me when it came to writing a personal statement.

I hope all of the students we tutored start to hear good news from the colleges they are most excited about attending. I hope that when admission officers read their essays, they are impressed and inspired, just as much as we were when working with them.

Effective personal statement writing is not something that teachers or counselors have time to teach in heavily burdened classrooms. I am proud that 826LA is a leader in training volunteers and supporting students in what could be the deciding factor that gets students into the college of their choice. It the clearest and most powerful example of writing as a powerful tool for empowerment and equal access.

Ashley is fundraising for her and her mom’s plane ticket to Washington State. You can go to this website to help her reach her goal: http://www.gofundme.com/1wk30c.

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