5 Tips for Homeless Teens Writing College Essays

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June 6, 2016 by poverty2professional

Personal statements: That one section of the college application where you really do have to put your soul into writing. This section is not your high school transcript – no cold equations of classes taken or GPA – it’s not your SAT score, it’s not your list of titles or volunteer work or the hours racked up in achieving either. Basically, this is your one shot to sway an admissions officer, the gatekeeper your postsecondary experience after high school, that you are another human being.

Personal statements generally require that you elaborate on a certain quality or characteristic that you have or a challenge that you’ve experienced and how you used said character trait to overcome the challenge. That’s doable. But wait! You also must include some of the accomplishments you’ve achieved and/or contributions to society that you have made and how your college degree will help you save the world down the road. Tall order.

So, what do YOU, a homeless teenager, write in a personal statement?

I’m looking back at my own as I write this post now. I had spent the whole summer before senior year of high school roughing out my first drafts. Pro Tip: Get a draft going at the end of 11th grade. Make a deadline for that first draft: June 1st. Get a teacher to read it. Why 11th grade? You’ll have racked up most your high school honors by then, have a solid sense of your GPA (for better or worse – it’s okay), and pretty much any major volunteer work you’ve done will either be complete or currently on-going. Why June? Because November – when most college applications are due – comes up fast. And you DO NOT want to be the applicant that the server crashes on come November 30th. That wasn’t me, but I had friends who could not believe they MISSED their shot at a University of California school by that much.

So, you’re reading this post on June 6th and thinking, “But I don’t got a draft!” Cool. Let’s get started!

  1. Read that prompt.

The college wants to know about you. It wants to know about a challenge YOU faced and how YOU overcame it. Homelessness is not you. Don’t let your experience in homelessness define who you are. It’s part of your identity – no denying that – but it’s not your only identity. Instead, flip homelessness on its head and take pieces of it to show who YOU are. Don’t be shy about stating the facts. Your family lost their home. Maybe you’ve been in foster care. Maybe one of your parents isn’t in the picture. These are facts to state, they aren’t points of pity. None of this about making anyone feel bad for you; rather, you are using your challenges to show who you are as a person.

So, after you state the facts, point out how it’s made you better, stronger, and more compassionate and/or aware. Maybe you didn’t have a great dad or mom in your life so you volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters to mentor a younger person in the same position. If you’re homeless, talk about how it helped you understand that you can still finish school even without all the advantages (stable housing, regular internet/electricity) that your housed friends have. Always bring the challenge back to you and what you’re going to do about it. When you get to college, will you create a group to offer more educational support for low-income/other homeless students? How are you going to give back?

Remember: Colleges look at your grades to see that you can do the coursework, but they look more closely at your personal statement to see that you’ve got the heart.

  1. Know yourself.

So, the prompt is asking you to talk about a character trait or a quality about yourself. Okay, start with your top 5 (or 7, whatever) qualities you like about yourself. If you can code a computer, yay, good for you! But look, none of these qualities have to be academic. Maybe you’re really good at basketball. Or you can make anyone laugh. Start with the easy stuff. Now, refine the list. Why are you good at basketball? Because you get “into the zone?” You know what I mean, when you focus on that ball, on that court, and nobody can get in your way. Do you make your friends laugh and smile because you’re a good listener and you know what can get to giggle-snort like they never would in front of anyone else?

Now, looking at the five qualities that you picked, narrow it down to just three. Maybe you’ve got nothin’. Here’s the one quality that I’ll give you off the bat: You’re determined. You’ve survived/are currently going through homelessness – something no young person should have to endure – and you’re applying to college. Wow! Somewhere you probably heard that having a college degree leads to better jobs which means better pay. So, you’re looking to improve your own situation. If you want to go to college to become a doctor, lawyer, a dancer, a museum curator, a writer, a graphic artist, think about what inspired you. You want to help people? You’re compassionate. There’s a multitude of talents and qualities you have. Just take a moment to think about it.

Now write. Yes, this is why we start in June.

  1. Select your examples and your words very carefully.

Choose your life examples carefully. Was the first time you fell off your bike and decided to get back up despite your scraped knee a good example of your tenacity? Yeah, sure, but so is you going to school every day despite your family living in a shelter. Go straight for the heavy stuff and then focus on what YOU have that helps you get over it. You’re homeless and you still help other students afterschool? You’re empathetic and care about the success of others. Your family recently got housing and you’re helping take care of your younger siblings? You’re responsible. In each of these cases you can tie them into how you’re on track for college. Being responsible and caring about other people is important (even more important than classes in college) because it shows what you can give back to THEIR school. Determined, courageous, responsible, caring? Yes! You’re the kind of student they want! Make sure your essay reflects that.

Usually these college essays have a word limit. Be direct. You’ve probably heard a teacher say, “Don’t use passive voice.” What’s that? TLDR answer: It’s a way of writing that makes your sentences longer.

Example: George was tripped by Jake. VS. Jake tripped George.

I got rid of TWO words right there. Boom! That’ll make a big difference when you’re trying to find space in the final draft.

  1. Find a trusted adult who went to college and ask them to read your work.

Why someone who’s been to college? Because they’ll have better sense of what to look for. Did you talk about your volunteer work? Did you mention how you passed that Trigonometry course and busted your chops to do it? And, most important, did you mention why a college degree matters to you? A college graduate can pick up on these points and help you refine them. I always recommend a trusted adult, so that way YOU feel okay sharing with them a piece of yourself that – if you’re like I was – maybe you don’t feel too comfortable sharing with just anyone. It doesn’t have to be someone who already knows your homeless (sometimes that can work in your favor if you want their reaction to be as fresh as an admissions officer). It should be someone who is honest and someone you respect feedback from.

Pro Tip: Get at least 2 of these readers in your corner. Don’t know where to start? Go to your favorite teacher or counselor.

  1. Murder your darlings.

Your first draft will stink. The second one will stink less. Do not fear revision! It’s okay to have a weak sentence here and there when you get started. The point is that you don’t keep them. And this is also why you have that trusted adult from the last step. Let them be the person to say, “You can make this better.” Oh, but you liked that sentence? No one says you have to change it, but think long and hard if you choose against changing it. A fresh pair of eyes catches what you missed or what you thought was great. Finally, remember that you will get better. When you were learning how to walk, did you ever fall down and say, “Well, screw it. This isn’t for me.” No, you got back up and now you’re walking! This is natural. Make mistakes and keep going. That’s not just college, either. That’s life. And if you’re surviving/survived homelessness, chances are you’ve got the right attitude to keep going.

Good luck!

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