This post accompanies podcast Episode 102, in which I interview Dr. Aliza Gilbert, veteran counselor and advocate for undocumented youth. She contributed most of the great questions and considerations in this article. To hear the full podcast, click here.
“To put out that your status is undocumented,” says Dr. Aliza Gilbert, “is a really scary thing for a student because you don’t know who is on the other side reading that application.”
Dr. Gilbert, whose dissertation examined how high schools influence an undocumented student’s college search, has been working with undocumented students since the 90s. I interviewed her in Episode 102 of the podcast and asked her point blank:
Should students reveal their status, or not?
“It’s not my job to tell them whether they should or shouldn’t disclose,” said Dr. Gilbert, “but I try and help walk them through it.”
That’s the purpose of Part 1 of this article: to help you (or the student you’re advising) to decide.
If you do decide to reveal your status, Part 2 of this article will address how to do it.
But before we address whether or not to reveal your status, there’s a bigger question: Which schools should you apply to? And how will you know if they’re supportive of undocumented students?
How will you know which schools are likely to be supportive?
Option A: Buy Strive for College’s I’m First! Guide to College and start shopping for schools that are looking for you.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about a one-of-a-kind college guidebook that’s designed uniquely for first-generation college-bound students. Take a Sneak Peek at this link. The Guide features profiles of colleges and universities committed to serving first-generation college students, an interactive college planning and preparation curriculum (plus a great article from Educators for Fair Consideration about undocumented students!), and a section for parents and mentors (translated into Spanish).
Get this: I definitely don’t get any money if you order it, but you can definitely get 30% off the guide if you use discount code COLLEGEESSAYGUY when you check out.
So check it out. This is $20 that could introduce you to the school that changes your life.
Option B: Use my How to Develop a Great College List article and, once you’ve whittled your list down to like 8-10 schools, anonymously call the schools you’re interested in and ask these questions:
Does your college or university admit undocumented students?
Does the university require students to submit a social security number and proof of residency?
Are there any state laws which bar undocumented students from public colleges or universities?
Is there a point person in admissions that the student/counselor can contact with questions?
Are other undocumented students enrolled in the college/university?
Does the institution have a policy regarding whether or not it will report undocumented students?
Will the institution consider undocumented students for institutional or private aid?
Is an undocumented student eligible for merit aid?
Does the institution offer any special scholarships for international students? Can undocumented students apply for these scholarships?
Another GREAT read: Four Things Undocumented Students Need to Know About Applying to College
Okay, now to the question at the top of this post.
And sorry it took me so long to get here, but the stuff I just said is like super duper important.
When it comes to coming out as undocumented, there are some potential PROS and potential CONS. And like Dr. Gilbert said, we’re not gonna’ tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, but here are some things to consider...
It could help you get in. In some cases, letting the reader know your status (and the difficulties that have come with that) can help the reader see what a rockstar you were for enduring all that stuff and STILL getting awesome grades or STILL scoring the highest SAT score in your grade, as was the case for Daishi, one of the students whose essay I share in Part 2 of this post.
It could help explain why your grades were… maybe less than ideal. As was true for Adrian, the other student I’ll talk about in Part 2 of this post.
It could help you get more money. In some cases, letting a school know you won’t be eligible for federal or state aid (due to your status), the school might (keyword: might!) increase your merit scholarship. Both Dr. Gilbert and I have seen this happen.
It could help the school connect you to resources on campus. If the college admissions reader knows you’re undocumented, they might be able to connect you with resources (an undocumented student group, for example, or maybe an on-campus advocate for undocumented students).
It might help you feel more free. Coming out of the shadows might help you feel like a weight has lifted. You might even feel empowered. (Listen to Daishi on the podcast at 19:15 talk about how he felt the moment he embraced his status.)
It could help you stand out... in a good way. At 47:38 on the podcast Daishi talks about how he felt that telling this story was crucial to the admissions reader at Harvard understanding who he was.
All those things sound pretty good. Having said that, we have to get real and share with you some potential negative impacts of revealing your status in your essay.
The person reading your application might automatically reject you because they think undocumented students should all go back to Mexico (because all undocumented students are from Mexico, amiright?). Probably won’t happen, but it could.
You could get deported. Again, we haven’t heard of this happening, but check out these recent Tweets:
That’s right. People reporting people via Twitter. More on this here.
3. Your family might get deported. While we’ve never heard of a student or a family being picked up by ICE because of an admissions essay, our country is in a different place with immigration issues than we have been in recent years, so it’s something to think about. Note that if the college has a history of accepting and graduating undocumented students, we tend to be less fearful when students disclose in their essay. How will you know what the school’s stance is? See list of questions above to ask a school when you call.
Note to Counselors Reading This: Can you think of any considerations we’ve missed?
Email email@example.com and we’ll add them here.
Okay, let’s check in: How are you feeling at this point? Which way are you leaning?
If you’re feeling like you shouldn’t, then don’t. That’s it. Just don’t. Find another story to tell. You are brilliant and complex and have so many stories to tell. (And by the way if you just felt relief reading that, it could be a sign.)
Or maybe you’re feeling like you do want them to know, but you don’t want this to be Like Your Main Thing (as in: you don’t want this to define you). In this case, you might consider revealing your status elsewhere, like in your:
And bee tee dubs: If you want your counselor to mention your status, you definitely have to let your counselor know this in an explicit way. As in: “Dr. Gilbert: Can you do me a favor and talk about my undocumented status in my recommendation letter?”
Why might you do this? Some students just feel uncomfortable talking about it, or want their main essay to be about something else, but they still want colleges to know.
Why do you need to do this in an explicit way? Because (think about it) no counselor is gonna’ share your status without your permission. If so, that person should probably be fired.
If you’ve read this far and you’re still not sure, and maybe want to talk it through with someone, here are a few options:
Talk to your counselor
Talk to a teacher/mentor
Register with Striving for College to get connected with a personalized mentor
If you’re leaning towards yes, then go to Part 2 of this article, How to Come Out As Undocumented in Your Personal Statement, which will show you how.
I asked Daishi Tanaka, an undocumented student who’s currently a sophomore at Harvard, why he decided to reveal his status in his main essay, and here’s what he said:
Primarily it was because being undocumented was a huge part of my personal story… but also... I knew that the admissions officer who was reading all these applications must want to see different perspectives… and must want students who can provide these unique experiences to contribute to their campus. So, although throughout my life I always thought that being undocumented was something that held [me] back, in this circumstance it was a way to push me forward.
Side note: click here to listen to the full interview; the part I’m quoting comes in around 50:40.
Is this decision right for you? And will it definitely get you into Harvard? (Spoiler: No.)
But if you do decide to reveal your status, click here to learn how.
For those interested, here are some more questions to ask when it comes to evaluating colleges:
Does the application ask for a social security number?
If a student does not have a social security number should they use zeros or leave it blank?
Does the application have an appropriate “box” for an undocumented student on the section that asks about citizenship?
If a student does not/cannot answer all of the questions on the on-line application will it be submitted or do they need to complete a paper application?
Can a student submit an on-line application if they are using a fee waiver?
Applying for financial aid and scholarships
Does the institution require all applicants, even those who are undocumented, to complete a FAFSA in order to be considered for private or institutional scholarships?
Will the institution accept the College Board CSS Profile or an institutional form in lieu of the FAFSA?
What other forms must be completed?
Does the major require a background check?
Does the major lead to certification or state licensure for which an undocumented student might be ineligible?
Are advisors and career development staff aware of these issues?