College Admissions

How to Make the Most of a College Fair Experience

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This post was inspired by a resource I first created for the NACAC Pasadena College Fair and then rewrote after an inspiring conversation with Maria Furtado, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives. To hear that podcast “Colleges That Change Lives: Great Schools You May Not (Yet!) Know About,” click here.

Let’s face it: college fairs can be really overwhelming. To give you a sense, here’s a photo I took of one two weeks ago:

Ack! People!

Ack! People!

You walk into this giant room lined with rows and rows of tables filled with college reps and nervous students lined up ready to ask their questions and your first reaction is like, “Whuuuuuut” and then (if you’re kind of an introvert, like me) you want to either run the other way or just go sit in the corner somewhere and text your friend, “Where u at?”

Here’s a secret: you’re not alone.

There are tons of students and adults and (let’s face it) even college reps who are overwhelmed by college fairs too.

But guess what? There’s a way to make your college fair efficient, productive and (get this) even fun.

How? Below are five ways.

And bee tea dubs, if you’re a counselor, teacher or parent who wants to print this out and give it out to your students, you can totally do that by clicking the orange box below.

1. Decide on a goal for your college fair experience. Why are you going in the first place? Here are some reasons that students at the above college fair shared with me when I asked them why they were there:

  • “To like, find out about some schools.”

  • “To learn about, like, college…?”

  • “Because my counselor/parents are making me.” (Props for being honest, at least.)

Here are some better reasons to go to a college fair (that will actually help you get into college):

  • To make a meaningful connection with a rep from a college that a) you’re interested in and b) that tracks demonstrated interest.

  • To generate content for your “Why us” essay.

Lemme break those down for you right quick:

Demonstrated interest is a system some colleges use to track which students are super duper interested in their school (and therefore more likely to attend). Think of it as “scoring points” with a college. Some ways you can score demonstrated interest points include a) requesting information from the college, b) liking the school’s Facebook page, c) interviewing.

For more on “demonstrated interest,” check out this blog post called Demonstrated Interest: A Brief and Practical How-To Guide, or this podcast episode with Monica James.
The “Why us” essay is a supplemental essay required by many schools that asks some version of, “Why would you like to attend our school?” Why am I telling you this? Because (write this down): You can ask the school rep some specific questions and, in effect, have that rep help you write your “Why us” essay. (I’ll explain how in a sec.) Plus, you can write in that essay, “When I spoke to [insert rep name] at [insert college fair] she shared that…” which could demonstrate even more interest. #DoubleBonus

How do you check the demonstrated interest box and generate great material for your “Why us?”

2. Prepare 3-5 interesting, specific questions for the college reps.
Why do this? Because specific, interesting, questions will lead to more specific, interesting conversations, and the rep is more likely to remember you. Why is that potentially a good thing? In some cases, the rep you meet at the college fair may be the one who ends up reading your application. (Really? Yes.) Not all the time, but sometimes--and this is especially true for smaller schools.

What should you ask? Here are some quick DOs and DON’Ts:


Don’t ask anything you can easily Google:

“What’s your student-to-faculty ratio?”
“Is it cold there?”
“Do you have Biology?”

Don’t ask general questions:

“What’s your school like?”
“Is your [fill in the blank] program good?” (They’ll all say it’s great.)


Do ask specific questions that invite a personal response.

“What are the three coolest things about your school?”
"Where do you like to eat on campus?"

Do ask specific questions relevant to your major:

“Do students have access to film equipment during their freshman year?”
“How easy is it to take classes in the School of Journalism if I major in Physics?”

Stressed about the questions? Not sure what to ask?
Then do this: Go up to the rep, smile, extend your hand, give a firm handshake and introduce yourself. Then ask that exhausted rep how they’re doing. (Really? Yeah.) Just connect on a human level. Be present, then just see where the conversation takes you. Monica James (of the podcast I mentioned above) advises students to treat these interactions like a mini interview, saying “more than anything, it’s about your Presence.” So just do all the things your mama taught you, and see what happens.

Want to know another way to avoid being overwhelmed?

3. Spend an hour putting together a preliminary college list before you go.
How? Use this resource: How to Create a Great College List.


4. Pick 3-5 schools from your preliminary list that you really want to talk to.
Why 3-5 reps? Because depth is better than breadth. I’d say it’s better to have 10-minute conversations with 3-5 reps than 1-2 minute conversations with 25 reps.

Also: you’re more likely to hit that goal. Once you do, if you feel like it, talk to a few more--BY THAT POINT YOU’RE IN BONUS TERRITORY.

5. Talk to a rep from a school you’ve never heard of, especially one who has no one in front of them. Why? Those reps are more likely to be the actual person reading your application.

In fact, at a recent college fair I went up to five reps who had no one standing in front of them and I asked all five, “Do you track demonstrated interest?” All five said yes. Then I asked, “What are the odds that you’ll be the application reader for a student that you meet here today. Four out of five said yes and the fifth one happened to be a Dean of Admissions for her school, filling in for a rep on maternity leave--BUT HEY, SHE WAS THE DEAN.

Why are these small schools at these fairs? Chances are they are recruiting in your area. In other words, many smaller schools are often “under-represented” from certain parts of the country (yours?), so they’re at the college fair trying to get more students to apply. What does it mean if they don’t have many students from your area? Because schools value diversity (and because there is such a thing as “geographical diversity”) you may be just the kind of diversity they’re looking for… this sometimes means your application may be seen more favorably AND you might even get a little scholarship money. So go talk to these folks!

So let’s re-cap:
  1. Have a two-pronged goal:
    1. To “demonstrated interest” in a college (more on that here)
    2. Generate one gem for your “Why us” essay
  2. Prep 3-5 great questions (or just smile and make a personal connection).
  3. Work on your college list before you go, if you can.
  4. Pick 3-5 schools (not 8-10) to talk to.
  5. Talk to at least one rep from a school you’ve never heard of.

Sound do-able?

Totally do-able.

Now go do it?

Still not convinced this is worth your time? Wondering how to develop a meaningful/authentic relationship with a rep? Click here to find out how.

Need some extra helping answering those intense uc application prompts? look no further. Check out my course.

Demonstrated Interest: A Brief and Practical How-To Guide

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This blog post was inspired by podcast Episode 108 with Monica James, in which we discuss everything from how to find out which colleges track demonstrated interest to whether you should or shouldn’t like a college’s Facebook page. You can find that episode here.

Spoiler alert: In this blog post I’ll share with you a list of potential Action Items that involve (among other things) attending college fairs, speaking with admission reps, and maybe even opening a few of those emails that colleges send you--things that might stress you out. And why, you might wonder, would the “ease, purpose and joy” guy ask you to do things that mostly bring you anxiety?

Why are we talking about demonstrated interest in the first place?
Demonstrated interest (which I’ll explain in a moment) has become an important factor that some (keyword: some!) colleges consider when deciding whether to admit students or not. In fact, take a look at this NACAC survey from 2017 asking colleges which factors most influenced admission decisions:

That’s right, it’s #7. TWO SPOTS BELOW ESSAYS.

That’s right, it’s #7. TWO SPOTS BELOW ESSAYS.

For the entire 2017 NACAC state of college admission report, click here.

In short, demonstrated interest can play a big part in increasing your chance of admission. Want more proof? Here’s a 50-page report that concludes that, for the colleges mentioned in the study (those that track demonstrated interest), “off-site contacts [such as sending an email to a rep or requesting info from the school] increase the probability of admission by 10-13 percentage points,” while making both an on-site contact (like taking a campus tour) and ALSO making on off-site contact “increases the probability of admission by 21-24 percentage points.” Source. (Heads-up: There’s a lot of math in that report.)

And get this: according to a 2012 NACAC report, between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of colleges that rated demonstrated interest as being “considerably important” rose from 7% to 23% (see page 23 of the report), although since then it has stayed right around the 20% mark.

What is Demonstrated Interest?
Simply put, demonstrated interest is something that many colleges and universities use to track a) how much you (prospective student) like their school and, more importantly b) how likely you are to enroll if the school admits you.

Why do schools want to know which students are likely to enroll?
A few reasons:

1. Schools have a target enrollment number, which means that each year they want a certain number of students to enroll. Why? Think about it: if they enroll 200 (or even 20) too many students, they’ve got a problem: where do they put everyone? Similarly, if they enroll 200 (or even 20) too few students, then they’ve got a different problem: 20 or 200 empty dorm beds. And when you multiply that number times that many tuitions, it can add up to a really big reason (or, if you like, millions of reasons) why schools want to try and hit their target enrollment number.

2. Schools want to protect their “yield.” What’s yield, you ask? It’s the percentage of students who decide to enroll at a particular college or university after being accepted. So, for example, if Northwestern offers ten spots to ten students and all of them accept, that’s great for them! That means Northwestern is a great place to be and everyone loves Northwestern yay! But if the school offers ten spots to ten students and only one student accepts, then that’s bad. Why? Because then they seem like that one giraffe at the zoo that none of the other giraffes want to play with. #sadgiraffeemoji Why else is it bad? Because yield is tied to a school’s ranking in US News and World Report, which is a place that some parents and students look when deciding which schools they should apply to. (Here’s a better way to build a college list, bee tea dubs.) Put simply, if their yield gets worse, this can have a negative impact on their rankings.

In short, colleges want to know:

Who really loves us?  

And can you blame them? If you were running a college, wouldn’t you want to know who was not only likely to enroll, but also likely to stay all four years and graduate?

Quick personal anecdote: In college I applied for a job at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Evanston, IL and they required me to come to not one, but four interviews. Four interviews! The first interview went great, but I was ten minutes late to the second interview and, when I showed up late, the hiring manager said, “Sorry, we won’t be hiring you.” I asked why and they said, “We just really value punctuality and this shows us you don’t really share that commitment.” And at first I was like, “Daaang,” but then I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” By showing up late I was basically demonstrating a lack of interest in the job.

That hiring manager was saying what schools are saying: Show us you care. Like, actually care.

Okay, so you may be wondering: How do I do that? I’ll tell you in a sec. First, I want to share…

A Few Ways That Colleges Track Demonstrated Interest (DI)
Note: this info is from a presentation given at a conference in 2015 by a few college admission counselors who track demonstrated interest. If you’re really into this stuff, click here for the presentation, as it shows screenshots from the computers of actual reps showing the details. But here’s what they track:

  • Interaction and inquiry card submission (or scan) at college fairs

  • Campus visit during junior year or summer after junior year

  • Early application

  • Supplemental essay: showing your particular interest in that college and how you have researched that school specifically

  • Speaking with alumni or students who may share information with admission office

  • Campus info session/tour in fall of senior year

  • Interview with admission rep/alum

  • Second visit to campus in senior year

  • Overnight program

  • Contacting admission rep

  • Meeting with faculty on campus or by phone

  • FAFSA form--how student ranks the school on the form (Ethan note: NOT true anymore. This was stopped in early 2015, so ignore this one. Source.)

  • Oh, and you know those 42 questions that you answer when you sign up for the SAT? Some colleges pay for that info too. So those are, y’know, 42 other things they track.

Side note--and you can skip this if you wanna’ get to the practical stuff: At a party last night (yes, actually) I met a business analyst for the development office of a highly selective school (and “development office” folks are those who call alumni asking for donations) and she let me know that student engagement is tracked even while students are on campus and--get this--even after you graduate. Why? Because a student who attends alumni events may be more likely to donate. Fun fact: they even use something called “wealth screening” to find out how much money you might have. Yay for data!

Okay, given this information, what should you do?
A couple options:

1. Nothing. That’s right. You can just keep getting good grades and participating in the activities and projects you love and keep living your awesome life. So there is literally nothing that you have to do differently now that you know this. For real. You can still get into a great school without demonstrating interest.

But if you’ve read this and you’re thinking, “Okay, I could probably go to a college fair, and maybe reach out to an admission rep, and I could maybe even like the college’s Facebook page,” then here’s what you should do first:

2. Spend some time developing your college list. Why do this first? So that you don’t stress yourself out trying to “demonstrate interest” for like 20 schools, some of which you may not apply to anyway. Here’s a resource for creating a great college list, for free.

Once you’ve done that, and by the way developing your list may take some time, then…

3. Pick a small number of schools to which you’d like to demonstrate some interest. How many? I don’t know, pick three or four. But…

4. (Heads-up: this is important!) Make sure that each of these schools actually tracks demonstrated interest. Otherwise it’s like you’re buying gifts for someone whose love language isn’t even gifts! (Okay, pretty obscure reference for this crowd, maybe.)

How do you find out which schools track demonstrated interest? Here, lemme Google that for you: “Does [school’s name] track demonstrated interest?”

I love this site.

I love this site.

Once you do, you might learn that, for example, Brown does not track demonstrated interest. In fact, none of the Ivies do. (Don't get me wrong: even though Ivies don't track DI, it's still a good idea to interview, visit campus, and learn about each school you're applying to, just make sure you’re spending your time wisely.) And, btw, if that Google search doesn’t turn up an answer, Google the school name and the words “Common Data Set” and you can scroll down to find a list of factors that a particular school takes into account. It’ll look something like this screenshot from the 2016 Common Data Set for Loyola Marymount University:

See: LMU doesn’t track demonstrated interest! So stop demonstrating!

See: LMU doesn’t track demonstrated interest! So stop demonstrating!

And here’s a look at the Common Data Set for Bates College:

See: they do track it! (So they do care that you care.)

See: they do track it! (So they do care that you care.)

Wow, schools publish this info? Yup.

For more schools, check out the huge Wiki list of Common Data Sets at this link.

Should You Demonstrate Interest?
I’ll make this really simple. You might consider demonstrating interest if a) there’s a school that you’re super excited about attending and b) that school actually tracks demonstrated interest.

If You Decide You Want to Demonstrate Some Interest (and It’s an Important “If” Because We’re About to Go Down the Rabbit Hole!), When and How Should You Do it?
Okay, with all those qualifiers in place, here are 13 ways you can demonstrate interest, adapted from a great article by Lisa Rubin-Johnson. Note that I’ve added how much time each one should take because a) the word “practical” is in the title of this post, and b) it’s a great way to help you make sure you’re doing this with ease, joy and purpose.

13 Ways You Can Demonstrate Interest (in order of the college process)

  1. Get on the school’s email list. (2 min.) You can do this by Googling the name of the school and filling out an “information request” form like this one.

  2. Open the emails you receive from a school and click on something in the email. (3-5 min.) That’s right: actually read the emails they send you, then consider clicking on something in the email (if it’s interesting to you), and maybe even spend a few minutes reading what’s on the web page that it sends you to. (Some schools track these things.) But mostly do it because, hey, you may learn something! And while you’re there...

  3. “Click deep” on the school’s website. (15-30 min.) This is my friend Michelle’s phrase; it basically means spending some time researching to learn, for example, if the school has a rad program that may be right for you. This will not only help you eventually write your “Why us” statement (assuming the school has one), but will prep you for a potential conversation with your regional rep if and when you…

  4. Attend a college fair. (2-3 hrs.) Check out our tips for making the most of a college fair experience.

  5. Contact your regional rep. (10-30 min.) More tips on developing an authentic relationship with your rep below.

  6. Follow the school on social media. (5-10 min.) Google to find out what social media platforms the school is on, and follow or like their pages, then maybe even share or re-Tweet something from the school.

  7. Visit campus. (Time spent depends how far away you live.) This isn’t possible for everyone, but if you’re within a couple hours from the school, it’s a good idea (if you do live close to the school and never visit, a school might wonder why). Make sure they’ve got some record you were there by signing up for a tour or meeting with a rep.

  8. Interview. (1 hr prep + 2-3 hrs driving to and doing actual interview) Some schools have interviews, some don’t--you can find out by Googling--if yes, do the interview. An alumni interview is fine; an interview with your regional rep (i.e. the person who is likely to read your application) is better. More tips on interviews at this link and note that at that link I address, “Does the interview matter?” For schools that track demonstrated interest, the interview matters.

  9. Supplemental essays. (You’ll have to write these anyway if you’re applying; time will vary.) The big one is the “Why us” essay, where essentially you get a chance to show the school why you feel you’d be a great fit for one another. If the school is (actually) your #1 choice, say that in your “Why us.” Lots more tips on how to write that essay at this link.

  10. Apply Early Action or Early Decision. (Takes pre-planning, but no extra work to do beyond actual application.) Early Decision (ED) is something you can do for only one school and means that, if you get in, you have to go. Early Action (EA) is something you can do for several schools and, if you get in, you don’t have to go, but doing so shows you’re interested enough to apply earlier than most students. A few schools have something called Restricted Early Action, but make sure to check the school’s website to see which school offers what. Why might you apply ED or EA? Because the ED and EA acceptance rates are often higher. How much higher? Wouldn’t it be great if a resource existed that compared the difference between regular decision and early decision numbers?

    Behold: a PDF that compares Regular Decision and Early Decision percentages for 2016. You can thank Jennie Kent and Jeff Levy for the time it took them to contact all the schools on this list and put together all this info. (Thanks, Jennie and Jeff!) Keep in mind that students applying early often have stronger applications and more access to resources, so the applicant pool for EA and ED is sometimes stronger. But still: look at the difference in acceptance percentage for regular decision and early decision applicants to American University. (Spoiler: 32% for RD and 82% for ED.) Think it matters? Uh huh.

  11. Submit your application before the deadline. (No extra time required.) This is especially true for schools that read applications on a rolling basis (in other words: in the order applications are submitted). As Monica James says on the podcast, better to be the first oboe player that a reader reads than the sixth!

  12. Thank you notes and emails. (10-15 min.) Hello, life skill. Spend a few minutes following up after an interview or college fair meeting with a little, “Thanks for talking with me!” You can even ask a follow-up question, if you’d like to keep the conversation going, but don’t go crazy (see tips below for more on this).

  13. Follow the waitlist instructions. (10 min-2 hrs, depending) If you’ve been waitlisted by a school, make sure you do whatever they tell you to do--including the optional stuff. They may for example just ask you to fill out a simple form declaring your interest (10 min.), or they may say that you can submit one additional recommendation letter or a short letter detailing any additional information not included in the original application (if they do, send the one--not six--rec letter, and in the follow-up letter you write, only include new information, as they've asked). The school website will tell you what to do; if you can’t find the info, give the school a quick call to ask what to do and take careful notes.

All right, at this point, you might be saying…

Hey Ethan, this all sounds exhausting and I don’t feel like doing it.
Great, then don’t! You do not have to do any of the 13 things mentioned above. Colleges will still read your application and you will be considered for admission. Assuming you have good grades and test scores, you have followed all the directions on the application and (this is important) assuming you have developed a balanced college list, you will still end up at a great school where you can get a great education and find happiness.

But before you decide not to do anything, remember: You don’t have to do all 13 things for all 9 or 10 schools you’re applying to and you certainly don’t have to do them all in one day or even one week. You could just pick a couple schools that you’re 100% certain actually track demonstrated interest, then pick a few things from the list of 13 things and do those.

Here’s the key:

Focus on building on authentic relationship with your regional rep from 2-3 schools on your list.
How? Here are...

Four Practical Tips for Building an Authentic Relationship with Your Rep

  1. Search the school’s website to find out who your regional rep is. This is as easy as Googling, for example, “Davidson College regional rep.”

  2. Email your rep and ask a question you are genuinely interested in. If, for example, you’ve looked on the school’s website (important if!) and have been unable to find out if your rep will be in your area sometime soon, you might write briefly to say, “Hi! I’m wondering if you might be in the Bay Area (or wherever you live) sometime soon, as I’m really excited to apply to your school and I’d love to meet you.” Or you might ask something really specific like, “Hi! I’m writing to find out if it’s easy for freshmen enrolled in the School of Speech to easily take advanced courses in Journalism, as I know that they’re separate schools. But I’m really passionate about both, and I’m especially excited to apply to your school, since I know it has great programs for both of my interests: Communication Studies and Journalism.” Then sign off with a simple, “Thank you!” and give your name and perhaps the name of your high school. (Pro Tip: I’ve even seen some students create a simple signature for their emails where they pop in a headshot so reps can attach their name to a face.)

  3. Keep the email conversation going (for a little bit). Not forever, just a couple emails. How? Ask a question at the end of each email. Careful: this can get annoying after awhile, so don’t go crazy with this. And make sure you don’t email until you have a good and real question. You might, for example, ask if they’re going to be in your area visiting other schools and see if they might have time in your schedule to visit your school (make sure to check with your counselor first!). But treat this like you’re having an actual, in-person conversation at a college fair. Speaking of which:

  4. If the rep is coming to a college fair near you, go and meet them! Especially if you won’t or may not be able to visit the campus. And if you’ve already met the rep because they visited your school, still go and just say hello.

College resumes don't have to be intimidating anymore. here are my best college resume templates for 2018.

Why do this?

Quick personal story: A few years ago I was chatting with a rep at a selective school and a student came up to him and said hello and introduced himself. The rep said, “Oh, yeah, I remember you!” and they chatted for like 90 seconds, then the student said good-bye. I was impressed by how the student carried himself and, once the student left, I asked the rep half-jokingly, “What do you think? Is he in?”
“Oh, he’s in,” the rep said. But he was serious.
“Really?” I said? “If he’s got As?”
“Oh, even Bs. He was the student ambassador when I visited his school and he showed me around--he’s a great kid and we’d love to have him.” I don’t know if that student ultimately ended up at that school, but his demonstrated interest game was on point.

Okay, that’s enough for you to do and think about so I’m gonna’ cut this off here and let you either get to work or get back to your life.

If I had to re-cap the most important things from this post, I’d say:

  1. Check out that PDF that compares Regular Decision and Early Decision percentages for 2016, as it can help you decide if you want to apply ED or not.

  2. Get to work on your college list, so you can decide which schools you may like to apply some of the 13 tips to.

That’s all. Now go back to having an awesome life.

Links referenced in or researched for this post:

ANOTHER GREAT READ: How Choosing Your Classes Ahead of Time Can Help You Get into the Right College


Should I Come Out As Undocumented in My Personal Statement? (Part 1 of 2)

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?

IMPORTANT TIP: Before you begin writing your essay, identify a list of schools that are 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).

Order the Guide at this link.

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 Tip: If you’re nervous to call, ask a counselor or mentor if they’ll call for you or with you.

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...


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

Important note: We haven’t heard of the following things happening, but these are, we suppose, possible.


  1. 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.

  2. 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?

Note to Counselors Reading This: Can you think of any considerations we’ve missed? Email [email protected] and we’ll add them here.

Email [email protected] 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:

  • Supplemental essay

  • Interview

  • Counselor letter

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

  • TBA Matchlighters

  • 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:

Completing applications

  • 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?

Considering majors

  • 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?


Four Things Undocumented Students Need to Know About Applying to College

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Four important questions answered and oodles of resources to help undocumented students prepare and apply for college.

1. Can I still still go to college if I am undocumented?

Yes. There is no federal policy restricting undocumented students from being accepted at a university.

2. Am I eligible for financial aid?

It depends on what state you live in. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal aid, but many schools offer in-state tuition and state and university scholarships to undocumented students. You can find a map of these states here, or on this page.

3. Will applying to colleges give the federal government information that will get me deported?

No. Schools administration do not legally have to give information to the federal government about its students under FERPA (see "Laws and Regulations" below for more information). And any information given to these schools cannot be held against you in court. When it comes to applying for scholarships, the policies different from source to source, so make sure to read their agreements carefully.

4. Should I give up hope on going to college?

No way! You are not alone in this journey. There are many people in your community who are in your same position or are devoting their time and energy to making sure you get to college. Now is the best possible time to apply. 

Here are tons of resources for helping you get there:

Applying to College

How to Get Your Testing, Application Fees, and Basically Everything Else for Free
The title says it all. This is the best and more practical place to start.

The Ten Step Process to Applying to College as an Undocumented Student
Find a college, choose a major, build support, push yourself.

The CollegeBoard’s Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students
A list of organizations and resources for how to get support through applying and attending college.

Free Access to College Essay Guy’s How to Write the Personal Statement
Just write us an email at [email protected] telling us that you are interested in a pay-what-you-can option and you can get free access.

Matchlighters Scholarship
Free college admissions help: four hours of one-on-one essay feedback and two hours of college-list development

Paying for College: Scholarships and In-State Tuition

A List of Schools’ Financial Aid Policies toward Undocumented Students
Each school has their own policies. While your options may be more limited, there are many schools out there that strongly support you in your journey.

A List of Private Scholarships for California Universities

How to Cut Down the Costs of Attending College

MALDEF’s Scholarship Resource Guide for high school, college, and graduate students

4-Year Colleges & Universities Admissions Policies, Financial Aid, and Scholarships
Admission policies, financial aid, and scholarship opportunities at colleges and universities throughout the nation and abroad.

How Undocumented Immigrants Might Qualify for College Financial Aid in N.J.
The New Jersey legislature is writing a bill that will allow undocumented students who graduated from a New Jersey high school to receive state financial aid.

Laws and Regulations

Free or Reduced-Price Legal Help
When in doubt, ask a professional.

The Nuts and Bolts for Getting Ready for College
See section 1 here for a brief introduction to the important policies related to eligibility for applying to college.

DREAM Act - Five Facts You Need to Know About the DREAM Act
Policies differ by state so you’ll have to do your research.

DACA - The pros and cons of applying for DACA
DACA is a temporary option to defer deportation: “If you are considering applying for DACA but haven't yet done so, take the time to first consider your own personal, immigration, and criminal history and the risks of providing these details to the U.S. government.”

FERPA - The US Department of Education
You have a right to privacy regarding your educational information.

HB60 - Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights
An Illinois act that allows in-state tuition for undocumented students.

HB540 - Resources for Undocumented Students (AB 540)
A California act that allows in-state tuition for undocumented students

Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) - American Immigration Council
A number given to people without social security numbers so that they can still pay taxes, gaining tax credits, getting a driver’s license, and other things.

Resources for educators

Post-Election: What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
Everything you need to know about how you can support undocumented students.