I’ve been a little M.I.A. from campus and the blogs lately, and that’s because I’ve been on the road for several weeks! Every year, admissions officers at many colleges and universities will travel across the country to inform students about the opportunities and resources available at our institutions, while also answering questions you may have about the college application process.
Throughout my travels, I noticed that I kept getting asked a similar version of the question, “Do you care about this life obstacle that has affected my educational journey?” However, it was asked in several ways: Do you care that my family was affected my gang and gun violence during my first year of high school? Can I write an essay about how we started a Black Student Union in our school to build community, but then had it disbanded because of problematic school administrators? Do you care that my teacher was shot last year, affecting my mental health in school?
That last question came from a student at a high school that was a 15-minute drive from the house I grew up in (where I was staying to get some home-cooked food from my mom during travels). There were several moments during my travels, including that one, where after I left a high school visit, I got in my car and cried. I cried not only because these stories were sad and hard to hear, but I also cried because of how unfair and inequitable education is in the United States. I cried because I knew that these marginalized students were exceptional and overcoming seemingly insurmountable circumstances, yet would likely arrive at a selective university and experience imposter syndrome; these are often students who are told they are only admitted to colleges because of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status (which is completely untrue). I cried because I knew that I was only seeing a small sliver of underrepresented students – ones who had made it to their senior year of high school (when many others do not). I cried because I reflected on the time I went to a small carnival in my hometown during high school and had to run from a shootout (to be transparent, I grew up in a mixed-income suburb, and this was my only experience with gun violence in high school), yet when I told this story at my privileged and predominantly-white undergraduate institution, many of my peers made me feel poor and impoverished. I wondered how the students I interacted with on the road would experience their own world-shifting when they transitioned to college.
The educational system in the United States is clearly unequal. Many high schools are just as racially segregated today as they were during the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that was supposed to overturn racial segregation in public schools. In our office, we are constantly thinking about how this segregation creates unequal access to advanced STEM courses, standardized test preparation, extracurricular opportunities that may cost money to participate in, and nearly every aspect of our application process.
When I tell people I work in college admissions, I often get asked about how hard it is for me to read these essays about hardship over and over again. First, I try to remind folks that it is much more challenging to live in hardship/experience trauma than to read about it (this also may come from my days as a college counselor, which was byfar the most emotionally draining work I have ever done – kudos to counselors everywhere!). Then, I explain that it isn’t so much any individual story that affects me at this point. Rather, it’s the system. It’s the fact that I can read an application from a wealthy Black student who has seemingly “made it” and has a lot of financial and educational access, but then still experiences racism in their schools. It’s the system that allows me to read an essay about unaffordable housing or gentrification and I will have no idea what city applicants are talking about because these issues are occurring in nearly every city across the country. It’s the fact that across culture, race, or religion, I constantly read essays about LBGTQ+ students who are unable to be themselves in their home environments. It’s not one essay or story that often makes me cry (although they sometimes do), but moreover, the constant exposure to a system that affected my grandparents, my parents, myself, and likely any future children I have; it’s the system that makes me one of very few college graduates in my family and the first to pursue a graduate degree; it’s the system that was designed to keep people like me and my family out, yet forces us to constantly navigate.
So, to answer the question I was asked so many times this year, yes, we care! We care because your context matters to us. When we evaluate your accomplishments and achievements, we try our best to imagine the world in which you are achieving those accomplishments. We care so much that many of us have tried to explain this on the blogs; I know that I’m certainly not the first person to write about this topic on our blogs, or the second, or the third (and there are MANY others). Yet, we’re still getting asked if we care, so I thought it was worth saying again. Lastly, most of us got jobs in admissions because we care about students – and that includes you!
I know we’re in the midst of the application process right now – so seniors filling out apps this year, I don’t want you to think that you have to write about hardships to get into MIT (or that hardships are the only way to get in). However, I want to emphasize that if you have faced hardships or obstacles, it only helps you in our process to tell us about them. Some students choose to do this in their essays (and we ask about a hardship or challenge you’ve had to overcome, so that makes sense); but you do not have to write essays about hardships (particularly traumatic ones). You can always ask a recommender to talk about circumstances in their rec letters, or you can use your essay space to talk about other aspects of your life and include information in our “Additional Information” – it doesn’t have to be a story form, just tell us what’s been going on. You don’t get points for the way you tell us – we just want to know your context to better understand YOU.
Lastly – I did want to mention one more note. When we think of marginalized students in our application process, we don’t just think about hardship and struggle. We also think about the value students bring to our campus. The ways in which, when students feel empowered to tell their stories, they can transform the worldview of students, staff, and faculty on our campus. We think about the resiliency students who have overcome trauma bring to MIT, and how they often are able to provide empathy to other students in our supportive community. We’re also aware of the impact that an admittance to MIT can have on a student’s life, their family’s life, and their entire community. When I think of underrepresented students at MIT, I think of one of our students who is an aspiring rapper and the time I went to his first concert, or the times I’ve spent with students analyzing their astrological signs, or the trivia questions we ask each other to increase our odds at getting on Jeopardy, or the fact that a student who used to work for our office graduated and now works at MIT in the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs trying to increase access to STEM education across the country. I think of inspiring folks who have overcome a lot, but aren’t walking rain clouds of sadness. Rather, I think of the joy they bring to this campus every day.