When I Applied to College, I Didn’t Want to ‘Sell My Pain’

I spoke to one of my younger brother’s teachers, Aaron Jones, who also attended Morehouse, and he said, “Teachers promoted it” — the personal statement about hardships. But he wanted to show the admissions officers what he was capable of and decided that if he wrote about his neighborhood in Annapolis, Md., “it would put me in a box.”

This box was the clichéd story of a Black kid in America. Mr. Jones said that if he had wanted to go to a P.W.I. — a predominantly white institution — then a sob story would have been more important, but since he wanted to go to a historically Black institution, he could showcase his abilities. He emphasized that students of color have more to offer than the cliché. He said, “The sob story can be truth, but it’s not all said all.” He argued that college is the gateway to experiencing a fresh start and that bringing old baggage with you only limits your growth. He ended up writing about a teacher who had mentored him since the fifth grade.

Mr. Sinckler, my friend who went to N.Y.U., Mr. Jones and I had gone to different high schools, and we had all been given the same message. But it wasn’t just the advisers; I was hearing it from family and neighbors. Everyone around me seemed to know this was what colleges were looking for, to the point where it didn’t even have to be spoken. I felt like the college system was forcing us to embody something that was less than what we are. Were colleges just looking for a check on a checklist? Were they looking for a slap on the back for saving us from our circumstances?

As I kept rewriting my personal statement, it kept sounding clichéd. It was my authentic experience, but I felt that trauma overwhelmed my drafts. I didn’t want to be a victim anymore. I didn’t want to promote that narrative. I wanted college to be a new beginning for me. At the time, my mom, a part-time health aide, was taking care of a patient who used a wheelchair. My mom was sometimes unable to pick him up at the bus stop, as she was just getting off her second job, so I took on that responsibility.

I would wait for her patient at the bus stop; I would make sure he ate, and I would play music for him until my mom got home. I also wrote about my relationship with my middle school janitor. I used both of these stories to show the importance of diversity and the value of respecting everyone regardless of physical ability, status or class. After writing this, there weren’t any feelings of regret. I felt free.

Trauma is one of life’s teachers. We are molded by it, and some will choose to write about it urgently, passionately. Yet I would encourage those who feel like their stories were written in tragedy to rethink that, as I did. When you open your mind to all the other things you can offer in life, it becomes liberating. Let’s show college admissions officers what they’re missing out on, not what they already know.

Elijah Megginson is a graduating senior at Uncommon Charter High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who is still choosing between several colleges for the fall.