‘Was that all I had to offer?’: The double-edged sword when students highlight their hardships

Writing in The New York Times, Elijah Megginson, a high school senior in Brooklyn, New York, describes the tension experienced by students of color when they feel obligated to “sell [their] pain” during the college admissions process. It is an “experience not talked about enough,” he says, recounting his own essay-writing process, as well as those of his peers and mentors.

Megginson describes how teachers and advisors told him that—combined with his strong academic performance—his experience growing up in a low-income neighborhood, without an involved father, and surrounded by violence would be an asset in college admissions.

But when it came time to write his personal statements, Megginson’s attempts to “sell a story about all the struggles [he] had overcome” just “didn’t feel good.” Curious to understand if he was uniquely conflicted, Megginson consulted teachers and friends.

‘Forcing us to embody something that was less than what we are’

His middle-school algebra teacher, who attended Morehouse University, recounted how he, too, “felt pressured to write about something I could oversell” and wondered, “are my challenges enough” and “will this give me value?” A younger brother’s teacher—also educated at Morehouse, a historically Black university—had received similar encouragement but decided to avoid writing about his struggles for fear that it would “put [him] in a box.”

Another friend said that, following the advice of her advisors, she wrote her essay for admission to New York University about experiencing poverty and homelessness. And even though she met the school’s academic criteria, she says that frontloading those struggles—experiences that made her think of herself as “less-than, as inferior”—set the tone for a college experience where she “didn’t feel like [she] should have been there.” Her personal statement “had become an internalized mind-set,” Megginson says.

“We had all been given the same message,” Megginson writes, adding that he “felt like the college system was forcing us to embody something that was less than what we are.”

‘I wanted college to be a new beginning’

Ultimately, one of Megginson’s teachers encouraged him to take a broader view of his identity. While acknowledging that his trauma is authentic and “overcom[ing] those challenges was remarkable,” Megginson says he “didn’t want to promote that narrative. I wanted college to be a new beginning for me.” He wrote instead about two relationships in his life that taught him to value and respect diverse perspectives.

Megginson—who received acceptances from several colleges—concludes by urging “those who feel like their stories were written in tragedy to rethink that” and instead see “all the other things you can offer in life.”

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