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What some Harvard students don’t know is how the lived experiences of first-generation, low-income students are often exploited.
Higher education is supposed to be the equalizing step between low-income students and dreams of financial security; however, while visually appearing equal, there are covert ways that the application process is actually anything but. Before they even arrive on campus, FGLI students are often forced to internalize the idea that their traumas are all they have to sell to admissions officers, creating a psychological barrier between them and others at higher education institutions.
When applying to college as an FGLI student, I personally cycled between four personal stories, each harrowing in their own way. I know of friends who wrote about family death, homelessness, inability to make rent or pay for groceries, uneducated family members, health problems that disproportionately affect impoverished people, and dealing with mental health issues as a result of being dealt such circumstances. Coming from a Title I, majority low-income public high school, I knew many students who didn’t have a flashy experience to write on or a unique opportunity afforded to them. They were not equipped to write the gold-standard college essay.
As students across the country prepare for competitive application processes for college admissions and scholarships, low-income students are taught to garner pity while richer students are taught to garner adulation. While the majority of Harvard students have the means to write about their prowess as a learner, others are more reliant on detailing their struggles as a means to boost their successes — often, it is what we are most equipped to use.
Low-income students who write so blatantly of their adversities are competing on two levels. On the one hand, their essays are being placed against students who have had the economic advantage to pursue unique, transformative opportunities. These students have the privilege to curate fantastic experiences which provide fodder for their essays. On the other hand, low-income students are in a contest to see who can garner the most pity while simultaneously appearing as capable as the higher-income students.
This was seconded by a 2016 study by Stanford and Mount Holyoke College. They found that essay content was strongly related to household income and SAT scores. After reading 240,000 UC college essays, they found that students who wrote about educational opportunity, helping others, and family death came from low-income areas and had lower SAT scores. Meanwhile, personal essays seeking answers about human nature and achievement were linked to higher-income students and higher SAT scores.
And it seems that colleges prefer the latter — at least Ivy League ones. In 2013, 67 percent of Harvard students came from the top 20 percent for income. Even more recently, 45 percent of students in the Class of 2025 had a family income greater than $125,000, which is nearly double the U.S. median income level.
I, too, would enjoy writing essays about seeking answers, human nature, and achievement more than writing about my times of peril, especially now knowing they are linked to higher standardized test scores and income. There needs to be appreciation and understanding for students who feel the need to write about their hardship. Yet, there also needs to be room for FGLI students to write successfully about things other than their trauma, even if they do not have sensational experiences under their belt that demonstrate their potential as contributors to humanity.
And my bet is that this is not only relevant to college admissions essays. When applying for other competitive scholarships, positions, or opportunities, it is more compelling for FGLI students to identify as a student who faced adversity and succeeded than to simply be a student. Thus, FGLI students write about their adversity because it is what they are most equipped to do.
All of which begs the questions of FGLI students like me: How exactly am I enough without my past, and when will I feel secure enough in my achievements to not mention my misfortunes?
Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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