Isabella Carrera remembers not having nearby space to run around or enjoy the outdoors growing up in Panorama City, California.
The lack of green space — which includes parks and outdoor community areas — is an accessibility issue that heavily impacts urban, low-income communities. One day, Carrera wants to own a landscape architecture firm to establish green space in underserved communities, so inner city kids can enjoy the outdoors the way she wanted to.
However, Carrera’s personal essays for scholarship applications don’t include those ambitious goals for the future. Instead, she writes about immigrating to the U.S., being raised by a single mother and the personal hardships in tow.
Carrera has done this since high school and it almost feels like a routine, especially when essay prompts directly ask students how life challenges have impacted them, she said.
“I feel like I’m not writing about myself — I’m writing about someone else,” Carrera said. “It kind of messes with me, because this is my story. This is something that’s personal to me, and here I am writing about it, but I feel removed from it.”
Applications for college, scholarships and jobs often ask students to weave a narrative about overcoming obstacles or life challenges. For students of color and others from marginalized backgrounds, writing about those topics may be uncomfortable because it can unearth trauma or deeply personal lived experiences.
But experts say that may not be what committees reviewing these applications are looking for. However, experts also say it doesn’t help that there’s a lack of transparency in what’s expected from applicants in these essays.
Researchers from Stanford University and Mount Holyoke College published a working paper in April, which found that personal essays in college applications have a strong correlation with reported household income, greater than SAT scores. After analyzing a sample size of 240,000 UC college application essays submitted in November 2016, researchers also found that students who wrote about helping others, educational opportunity and family death in personal essays were more likely from low-income backgrounds and had lower SAT scores.
On the flip side, students who wrote about achievement, seeking answers and human nature were more likely from affluent backgrounds and had higher SAT scores.
AJ Alvero, one of the lead authors of the paper, said he’s worried that students from low-income backgrounds don’t talk about their achievements in their essays and instead feel the need to explain why their grades dipped in high school or other topics including interpersonal relationships with family and community.
That’s on top of “a huge transparency issue” in the college application process, Alvero said, because students may not know what admissions officers want from them in personal essays. More communication from admissions officers about what exactly they expect to see in essays can make a difference, he said.
“I’m sure admissions officers — they think they’re already doing it,” Alvero said. “I just don’t know how much the average 18-year-old realizes what they’re supposed to do.”
This disconnect isn’t limited to college applications. Students applying to scholarships and jobs also spend much of their time second-guessing the purpose of essay prompts in applications.
Carrera, who is a landscape architecture junior at Cal Poly, recalled how everyone in high school, from her friends and counselors to teachers and family, encouraged her to write about hardship. So she did.
While her application to Cal Poly didn’t require a personal essay, many other universities Carrera applied to did.
She said she feels numb after having written about deeply personal experiences in college application essays and later on in scholarship essays.
“I do think it was a product of social expectations,” Carrera said. “Especially like growing up, there was that kind of pressure to share to get into college. Now I’m kind of just like navigating, like, ‘I don’t know what to do now. Like, do I need to tell people this?’”
Lucy Bencharit, an assistant professor of Organizational Practice and Diversity at Cal Poly, said employers and selection committees want to see if applicants can overcome challenges, not necessarily read about their trauma.
While that’s the intention, Bencharit said the impact may be traumatic for students from marginalized backgrounds.
“If we make it more clear what colleges and employers are asking for, then we can reduce the harm that those prompts might have on students,” Bencharit said.
Students who feel the need to explain themselves and their identities in these personal essays may also view it as yet another instance in which they feel othered.
“There’s absolutely a phenomena where people from underrepresented identities have to teach majority group members about their experience,” Bencharit said. “The onus is put on them to further tax their mental, emotional, physical abilities to help others understand what their experience is.”
To Alexander Silva, a biomedical engineering graduate student at Cal Poly, essay prompts about hardship seem obvious in what they’re asking: describe your trauma. There isn’t any ambiguity in that, Silva said, and they feel othered if that’s the only direction in which they can take a personal essay.
As someone who is mixed race and non-binary, Silva looks at these personal essays in the broader context of always having to constantly explain their identity and experiences in various spaces at a predominantly white institution like Cal Poly. Silva said that makes them feel like a “display figure” for others.
During their freshman year at Cal Poly, Silva applied to more than 100 scholarships. In the personal essay sections of applications, Silva would write personal stories about how they served as their mother’s primary caretaker when she went through several surgical procedures.
Silva translated advanced medical vocabulary and navigated the healthcare system only to find gaps in service. That experience drives Silva’s goal to enter the medical field in hopes of providing community-based care that fills in those gaps.
But they didn’t get any of the scholarships they applied to, and Silva said that made them feel like their story didn’t matter.
“Still being denied and still being turned away, I was thinking what do other people share that I can’t share? What makes them worthy, and I’m not?” Silva said. “I think there’s so many instances where I’ve been denied. I consistently evaluate that and say, ‘Oh, I guess, like my struggle wasn’t worth it.'”
Instead of writing about hardship and trauma, Silva said essay prompts that ask them about their aspirations, passions or joy would give them more agency to choose what they want to write about in an essay.
But packaging life experience into a 700-word essay is challenging, said Joan Meyers, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal Poly.
“You’re being asked to tell the story of how you had certain gifts and certain struggles and they came together and you surmounted them to be this amazing applicant,” Meyers said. “I don’t think our lives are really like that. I don’t think we have that sort of cohesion. But we are constantly being asked to produce this narrative cohesion.”
Meyers said she knows from being on selection committees that presenting a cohesive narrative can up an applicant’s chances of attaining opportunities.
That’s why she feels conflicted when advising students on graduate school applications because limiting applicants to writing about hardship means constricting how they’re viewed and who they can be, she said.
“People who already have privilege in terms of race, and ethnicity and class get to be this huge range of people that get to be unique and multiple,” Meyers said. “People who are racialized in this country are reduced to a much smaller category of personas that they can have. That seems like a form of violence.”
While Meyers said she knows those vetting scholarship applications can be well-intentioned, eager to give funds or resources to those who need them most, it still creates a competition of who can best prove their underlying need.
“If we’re all racing to prove the most scarcity, it limits who we can say we are, and limits our way of talking about the abundance of our communities,” Meyers said.
So when review committees receive applications about joy or passion, like the essays Silva wants to write, it’s important for gatekeepers to still value them as much as essays about hardship or trauma, Meyers said.
Carrera also said she would feel more comfortable writing about her passions in application essays, rather than how much she and her mother have struggled.
“My end goal for my career is largely shaped by my experiences growing up and just the way I was raised,” Carrera said. “But it does get kind of tricky because I want to be successful in the professional realm, but I don’t want to have to put out a sob story to get there.”