The Trauma of Personal Statement Writing for First Gen Youth

I used to write fervently, and then something happened. I got hurt, and my mind said to itself, stop hurting yourself ,and just leave it alone.

Coming from a mix of narratives myself and with my circle heavily influenced by their refugee/immigrant narratives, I noticed few of us like to talk about the bad times. They do not like to talk about feeling cold  and hungry. Or about all six siblings living in the same room as their parents; sleeping, eating, and playing in a one bedroom shack. They do not like to remember the things they lost. They just live in this day, although I could see their eyes wander back to those gone.

There is a pain of loss that is better left alone because its cause is not understood.

Why did he hit me?

Why were we so poor?

Why me?

These questions hurt. In autobiographies that I have edited, there are some chapters that are quickly written. Something happened then. And when I ask, it rehashes the questions that left the author awake at night for years. They are so personal, so painful, that even I feared asking those editorial questions.

Writing can be a form of healing, but if it is the first moment of reflection, a whole slew of reactions will occur. We ask students to sit and write the immediate words that come to mind in response to prompts. One of two things happen: they write a mediocre, generic response that lacks a personality or they go all out in a very personal narrative that seems to go in five unresolved directions. And to make it seem like they answered the prompt, three sentences are used just to start the response off, unnecessary metaphor is used and even long famous quotations eat up the word count.

When I see this as a former English teacher, I notice that the student has probably hardly practiced peer editing or self editing.

With my first round of edits I have gotten these responses:

  1. Crying
  2. “Oh well, I should just start over.”
  3. “I don’t know what to do!”
  4. “Wow I am a horrible writer.

Thankfully I am an editor. So I pull up published books I edited.

“This one sold thousands of copies. Look how much red.”

Then they sit back and jaws drop.

“If there is no red on your paper that is because there is nothing worthwhile. This red is how we came up with more ideas. If there is red that means there is a lot of gold here to work with. But you cannot just throw all your gold on the paper to make jewelry. We have to piece this together. The artistry is in the red.”

Then I show them my own writing, my self editing and a lot of red.

“Red is good! It means we are getting closer!”

Then they lean back, glance at the words, my two dozen comment bubbles, and realize, no there is more.

I will use myself as an example. In this instance, I am thinking about a moment I experienced violence. Even as I write, the tears want to well up. But I continue forward.

Violence. Glass broken. Screaming. Rage. Eyes of absolute rage.

I stop. More images come into mind.

The door. I am thinking about the door. I obviously stared at it. I wanted to get out. The door and then him. The door and him. But I remained frozen. Why did I not run away?

My dear readers, this is me healing. Notice it ends with a question. That is where I have to push hard and accept vulnerability.

I could not run because I was in a country thousands of miles away and the laws there did not protect me. I did not know where to go. And I was pregnant. 

We are asking our youth to be vulnerable without equipping them to be vulnerable! It is hard to exist in duality, to be in control of the helpless person I write about. For students this can be a moment of empowerment! I have had a dozen or so high school seniors cry in my office because they felt like personal statements are all about the most traumatic experience of  their life. So many cried on my shoulder. I cried too. I held their hands and squeezed their hand to show them that they still feel and that I am there with them, away from titles but as a witness to their greatness. Others were afraid to write their truth for fear of danger or being judged. So I became brave. I began to tell them my story.

That is when I learned the power of narrative. It was not for the sake of entertainment but for the sake of relative experiences. In their English curriculum were they reading about single parent homes, being brown in Orange County, poverty, gun violence, drugs, crossing borders, evictions, prisons? No. So why would they write about that for a college admissions office that more than likely does not look like them? And even more concerning to me, who told these youth that a personal statement meant self-victimization?

I refused. You are more than that.

Countless youth heard me say: “No. Stop. Strike that. Change this. You are not submitting this for a pity competition, and what do they care? All they want is to satisfy quotas. What you need to do is use this critical memory from your life and demonstrate how it increased your own self-worth, your value. How did this difficult, defining moment in your life push you to pursue this future pathway, and more importantly, how will this moment help you break the cycle?”

People are ruthlessly biased. Do not play into their stereotypes by writing in a way where people will say, “Oh those poor Mexicans.” “Poor foster youth.” “Poor Black girl.”

Schools will use your story to prop themselves as being diverse and supporting the “poor you.”  You are not going to college because of pity and to be their marketing ploy. You are going because you worked hard, have a future, and your situation shows you work harder than most.That savior complex is half the reason why institutionalized gaps exist to keep communities down in higher education.

I also saw professionals just push tissue boxes at kids. They were a part of the pity complex, and it made youth feel lesser.  These are the people who are more than likely to proofread a personal statement draft anyways, and now they will add to the hurt and confusion. A natural reaction a student has is to reject the whole thing and go back to writing something generic.

If schools fail to offer trauma informed practice and resources, and these are central to the identity and experiences of our youth, then what is to protect the youth from personnel who are left to the whims of their own prejudice when it comes to such critical, transitional tasks? That prejudice can be how they identify, interpret the narrative, interpret the purpose of college, or interpret their role in this process.

That is too many uncontrolled variables now in play for a student’s future. A promising student can be derailed without an overarching strategy and key stakeholders, especially if their writing skills already suffer from years of poor curriculum. They can also be derailed by a lack of editorial skill, that is,  personnel not challenging the content to a higher level of reflection. Which begs the question, what role does mindfulness play in college readiness? A lot more than the SAT does, in my opinion.

As is becoming more apparent, the implications of years of of inconsistent academic support, writing development in classroom, integrated programs for reflection and mindfulness, and a lack of spaces for healing will make this endeavor extremely painful and burdensome for youth and personnel alike.

I am available to assist youth and institutions with their personal statement strategy through a strategy I authored and have been using for over ten years. I have consulted clients into top universities and graduate schools based on this formula and earned students over a quarter million dollars in scholarships. I also offer pro bono services for clients who demonstrate a need.  Feel free to reach me by emailing me at