How to Come Out As Undocumented in Your Personal Statement (Part 2)

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 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.

I love this opening: three simple repeated words that set up a theme for the essay. Because you know he’s coming back to this later. I appreciate that he translates the words here, since I don’t speak Japanese. Note that some students choose not to translate small portions of their essays and while that can create an interesting effect, the reader who doesn’t speak the language may miss out on something. I also love that he begins with a problem--several, in fact--so the reader wonders how and if he’ll be able to overcome his challenges.

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.

More challenges! He’s raising the stakes in this second paragraph, which basically means that he’s letting us know how an already difficult situation was made even more difficult, which draws us more into his story. I often tell students to imagine beginning the second paragraph with the words, “To make matters even more difficult…” and then fill in the blank. You’ll also notice that he shares with us how he felt (overwhelmed), but not until he first describes the external circumstances that show us why he felt that way. I think this is a good order: give us the “here’s what happened” first before saying “here’s how that made me feel.” Why? 1) That’s the order things happened chronologically, and 2) Using this order gives readers a chance to imagine how they might feel in similar circumstances, which can also draw them into the story more.

But I knew I had to adapt.

Choosing to put this on a line by itself adds drama, and signal that this was a turning point. Nice.

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.

Things are looking up at this point! And notice how straightforward the telling is: he just tells us what happened. I also like that he includes that he’s first-gen here. This will be mentioned elsewhere in the application, but I think it’s nice to include that here because he follows up with a “so what” right away so we understand what being first-generation meant to him.

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.

This is what I call “a two-hill rollercoaster” structure--in other words, the essay goes down (negative) in one paragraph, then up (positive) in the next paragraph, then down again in the paragraph above. This 18-minute video analyzes another essay with a similar structure. By the end of this paragraph, the author is at his lowest point. Screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder called this moment in movies the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s the moment before things will begin to climb up again, which is what happens in the next paragraph.

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.

The situation at the start of this paragraph isn’t promising: a school with a bad reputation, plus gang-involvement. This makes the reader think, “Uh oh…” But then the author makes a decision that will turnaround the essay, and his life. And the moment I read the words, “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” is the moment my heart burst wide open and it’s the moment when (I imagine) the admissions officer says, “Okay, he’s in.” Note that I say this only half-jokingly. Why? Because 1) probably no single line in this essay got him into Harvard. But 2) I happen to believe that this moment shows incredible insight and really takes the essay to the next level. Suddenly he has reframed his negative circumstances in a powerful way and is taking responsibility for changing his life. As the poet William Ernest Henley put in the poem Invictus, this is the moment the author becomes “master of [his] fate, captain of [his] soul.”

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.

The “highest SAT score in the history of the campus” is a brag, but by this point he’s earned it (see Tip #3 below on earning your brags). Given what he’s been through, I don’t judge him for saying this; I feel proud of him. Don’t you? There’s also a great “before and after shot,” which is a technique that involves reminding the reader who you were (“trying to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance”) and juxtaposing this with who you’ve become (“screaming his team chant”). The purpose of this is to make very clear that growth and transformation has taken place--kind of like those “before” and “after” photos people take when doing a diet. For another example of this “before and after shot” technique, check out the “With Debate” essay.

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!"

He finishes with a big “so what,” and when he reveals at the end that he wants to become an immigrant lawyer or a politician, it feels both surprising and inevitable. It feels surprising because we didn’t 100% see it coming (it’s not obvious), but inevitable because it really makes sense when we think about some of the values he has demonstrated thus far. And what I love about his ending most is that he goes one step further  to help us understand why this career feels right to him, and essentially he “so whats” his “so what.” (See Tip #4 below for more on this.) Plus, you gotta’ love that last line, which hearkens back to the inspiring “Invictus” turning point moment in the middle, and brings things all the way back, full circle, to where the essay (and the author) began… with a little "osé, osé, osé!" #DropsMic


Sample Essay #2: What Had to Be Done
Written by: Adrian

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.

What an opening. Note that the tube of toothpaste was one of the items on his Essence Objects list. Anchoring emotions to an object (as Adrian does here) creates a powerful image and the refrain “It’s what had to be done” (which repeats at the end of the next paragraph) strikes with the force of iron.

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 with Daishi’s essay, note how straightforward the tone is. This works very well--what’s important to communicate here is the information, no need to dress it up. If you’re concerned about your essay sounding like a sob-story, check out this post, called How to Discuss Challenges in Your College Essay So that it Doesn't Sound Like a Sob Story. And note that little repetition at the end of the paragraph--the only bit of poetry in the paragraph. It’s subtle, but strong.

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.

Note that this is the only paragraph that mentions being undocumented and notice that the essay could work well without this paragraph. It does add more information, but it’s not 100% necessary. Consider this: you might choose to tell your whole story, keep the undocumented part to one sentence or paragraph, and sharing two versions of your essay with a few people and asking them which they prefer. You’ll notice structurally he also includes a “Dark Night of the Soul” moment (i.e. - lowest point) at the end of the paragraph before things turn a corner in the next paragraph.

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

As in the example above, a sentence on its own. Works well and sends a clear message: I wanted a change.

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.

This part makes me cry. And laugh. And then I think, “Wow.”

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.

Note what he’s doing here: explaining his bad grades. For the record, this student was accepted to UCLA and USC (among other places). Again, not *only* because of his essay, but I believe his essay helped offer context for those low grades his freshman year… and these schools saw past those. And, again, though this may feel like a brag paragraph, given what he’s been through you feel like he’s earned the opportunity to brag a little.

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.

Some counselors will say, “Don’t repeat your activities list in your essay,” and generally I agree. But I feel like this essay is an exception. It’s tough to say why, but there’s something about putting all the “Look what I’ve done!” details in a single paragraph here that feels okay. In fact, if he didn’t put these details in, I feel like I might miss them. He wanted to make sure the schools knew how hard he’d worked and I encouraged him to go for it. Tip: build your brags. In other words, start with the smaller accomplishments and build to the bigger ones.

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.  

And, as you read this, aren’t you excited for him to do these things? This was a student who didn’t 100% know what he wanted to do, but he had some big dreams and I encouraged him to name a few. Through his examples he gives the reader a clear sense of a few of his core values, which is a great way to end your essay if you’re uncertain what career you’d like to pursue (or don’t want to address it in this essay).

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

Note the return to the opening paragraphs: “...what had to be done… what we had to do.” No more, he says… now I get to choose. #Invictus

Five Things You Can Learn from These Essays (If You’re Also Coming Out in Yours)

1. These essays are not primarily about being undocumented. They are about much larger and more complex life stories. Being undocumented just happens to be one part of it. Notice that, in each case, the student’s legal status was just one of several challenges faced and most of these challenges are limited to a single paragraph.

What can you learn from this? You don’t have to focus on being undocumented for the whole essay. In fact, notice (as I mentioned above) that in each case the student could have removed mention of his legal status and it still would have been a strong essay.

How can you avoid focusing too much on legal status in the essay? Complete the Feelings and Needs Exercise and, in the first column, list a few challenges besides being undocumented. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention that exercise, it’s probably because you still haven’t worked through the Essay Workshop in a Box (see note above). ;)

2. Both authors made sure that another supplemental essay (or three!) focused on something other than being undocumented. Why? So that colleges could see other parts of them.

Here is the other essay written by Daishi, the author of the "Osé, osé, osé!" essay. Notice how the supplemental essay focuses on a way that he made a difference in his community--in the case of his essay the community was his high school.

Here are the three other essays written (for the UC personal insight questions) by Adrian, the author of the second essay. Notice that 1) each personal insight question is on a clearly different topic and 2) Adrian was able to shorten his 650 word essay to 350 words for the purpose of the UC application. You can do this too. I recommend writing the long (Common App) one first, then shortening it to 350 for the UC application (cutting it is easier than trying to expand from 350 to 650, trust me).

3. Both essays earn their brags. Sure, both tout their accomplishments around two-thirds of the way through… but not until they’ve shared the extreme challenges they overcame to get to that point. Don’t just brag out of nowhere; show what it took to get there.

4. Both essays “so what” their “so whats.” What do I mean? They offer something meaningful, then keep going, by answering the question “so what?” Then they go one step further by answering “so what?” again.

Daishi does this in his final paragraph (I’ve noted where in the notes above) and Adrian does it in the paragraph that begins “These changes inspired me to help others” (read all the way through the end of the paragraph).

How do you do this in your essay? Simple: after you finish writing a meaningful sentence, simply ask yourself “so what?” Then do it again, and again, until you’ve said something more meaningful or interesting. Practice “so what-ing” your “so whats.” You’ll get better at it with practice. And this will help you in your college writing.

Finally...

5. Both essays pass The Great College Essay Test. What’s that, you ask? It’s a test you can take, once your essay draft is written, to make sure the essay is doing its job. And what’s the job of your essay? To demonstrate that you will make meaningful and valuable contributions on a college campus--and beyond.

Click here to take The Great College Essay Test

And get this: these tips will work for other types of “coming out” essays.

Note to Students/Counselors Reading This: I’m looking for a couple great essays in which students have “come out” in other ways. If you’ve read a great “coming out” essay, please 1) ask permission, if it’s not yours, then 2) submit it to help@collegeessayguy.com I’d love to create a new resource. Thanks!

Are you writing yet? If not, open up a Google doc and get cracking.

The Feelings and Needs Exercise is a great place to start.