But first-generation college applicants have typically overcome obstacles that other students haven’t — and it’s a story worth sharing.“It is hard for anyone at any age to reflect on their lives,” says Marisa Urrutia Gedney, Director of In-School Programs and College Access at 826LA, a nonprofit that helps students improve their writing skills and promotes access to college for low-income and first-generation college students.
He hasn’t yet declared a major, but he’s studying Chinese in Wesleyan’s College of East Asian Studies.
At Scholar Match, Watson uses freewriting exercises to help students start their essays.
Looking back, he thinks he may have been rejected, at least in part, because his essay was so scattered.
He went back to Scholar Match, and this time he wrote about his family’s move from Panama, and the challenges he faced starting over in a new country where he didn’t speak the language. As a Chinese person in Panama, he never felt that he fit in. “Kids made fun of me because I was a Chinese kid who could only speak Spanish,” he says.
Students come to Scholar Match workshops feeling nervous about the process.
Freewriting helps kids relax and simply write; it also usually helps elicit an essay topic.It can be particularly challenging for first-generation college students, who tend to dismiss the real-life circumstances that make their experience unique.Here, first-generation students and experts who work with them offer valuable insights and advice.We tell them, ‘Colleges aren’t looking for superheroes. You don’t have to make things up.’” “I tell kids that the essay is important because it allows you to tell a different story from the basic demographic information that you provide in your application,” says Nick Watson, Director of College Access at Scholar Match, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps kids navigate the college process.The essay can — and should — help kids “come alive” for admissions officers, he says, and be more than a GPA and SAT score.’ And of course that is intimidating.” In fact, the purpose of the college essay is to give college admissions officers a glimpse of a student that they can’t glean from their high school transcript or other questions on their application.“We tell students, ‘Colleges really want to get to know you,” says Urrutia Gedney. They want students who are well-rounded, who show character and resilience in difficult circumstances.He says his original essay, which he submitted to Middlebury College in his early decision application, covered too many topics. Nick and the other writing coaches at Scholar Match told me to focus on just one topic, but I guess I didn’t understand what they meant.“I talked about moving from Panama to San Francisco,” he recalls. My essay was all over the place.” Yelou wasn’t accepted at Middlebury and he was devastated.Experts like Watson and Urrutia Gedney agree that the everyday challenges students face often make the most compelling essay topics of all.“The thing I see most often with first-generation kids is that they think they don’t have a story to tell,” says Watson, “but most have had rich experiences that colleges are going to want to hear.” These experiences might include taking care of younger siblings every day after school, for example, or picking up groceries for a grandparent, or working an after-school job to help the family cover rent.