I have been reading and responding to so many personal statements, I’ve lost count. Mercifully, many have been through email, so I can always do a search and count them up. Which I have to do so I can track them all for work, but that is future me’s problem…
The thing about personal statements is that they are draining. Well, actually, everything with high school students is draining, but that’s just because everything in high school is the very first ever in the history of life, because 13-18 is the age range where you start to experience others in a more concrete way, but you’re still too young to really pay attention to what you’re learning in class to realize that everyone on the planet has gone through something similar, so it’s not really the first time in the history of humanity; it’s the first time in the history of your life.
And then, just as everything is on the very edge of beginning to come together, you have to write a personal statement (or 5) to get into college and fund your next round of education. And so all of the life experience ends up on the page for other people to read.
I’m not sure how students who attend the best schools approach personal statements. I graduated from a high school that failed so bad, when all the standardized tests and NCLB were implemented, that the district restructured it into predominately vocational-training school because that coincided with the opening of a new high school. And now I work with students who attend high schools caught up in the systemic racism and socioeconomic discrimination that happens in communities that have become largely non-white. So my experience with personal statements is that they come as a surprise when college applications begin opening in August.
So my job is to work with students as they develop their voice in the high-risks state of college admission.
For many students, the first draft of the personal statement is the place where they begin to confront their secrets. Sometimes, it’s their secret desires and goals. And sometimes, it’s their secret pain and the suffering they grown up with but never shared with anyone. And sometimes, it’s the secret that they never really did much in high school.
The real trick to reading high school personal statements isn’t trying to get students to find something to write about, but learning how to see the secret hidden in the first draft and helping the student confront and use that piece of information about themselves they’ve never wanted to acknowledge. Because those secrets usually hold the key to what drive the students to continue onto college when everyone around them gives up.
In more cases than not, I’m the first adult who has refused to tell them what to think or write. I make them own their personal statements, because that is the point of personal statements. And by owning their secrets, they begin the process of owning themselves and becoming responsible for their decisions before they’re facing the even higher-risk decisions they could face in college.
I am currently in the middle of reading for over 100 students’ drafts, in various stages, as they are tidying up their applications. And I’m exhausted, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because, at the end of the day, I get to watch the students as they develop in dramatic ways and really take their first steps into becoming an adult. And despite the times I want to pull my hair out/strangle people/give up, I never do because working with students on personal statements is really fun.
(this is just a collection of random thoughts on personal statements. it may grow up to a thoughtful inquiry into the digital impact on working with student writing, since this is #digiwrimo, but that will have to wait until more personal statements are as done as they can be)