Writing Essays: The Low-Income Lens

Students from low-income backgrounds may not realize that they have a unique perspective to present to admissions officers. If your identity has been shaped by financial difficulties and other obstacles, consider writing about these challenges in your essays so that admissions officers understand the full context of your successes and academic accomplishments. You may describe the specific circumstances that you have risen above, such as:

  • You bear a significant amount of responsibility in your household (e.g. caring for siblings, preparing family meals).
  • You have a part-time job to pay for school or household expenses.
  • You live with people other than your immediate family or have been in foster care.
  • English is not your first language.
  • You have been homeless.
  • A parent has passed away or is not present in your life.
  • You commute a long distance to attend a better school.
  • Your family or community is not supportive of your educational goals.

Giving admissions officers a lens into experiences such as these can be a way to present your unique story in your college application. Keep in mind, though, that there are many other topics that don’t relate to your economic background which would also make for wonderful essay topics (e.g. a favorite book, a community service project, etc.). Whichever angle you choose for your story, make sure to highlight the most important things that have shaped and are shaping your identity.

Bring us into your world. We want to know you. We want to know your truth.

- Ashley Pallie, Associate Dean of Admissions, Pomona College

If you choose to write about challenges in your life, it’s important to be careful to avoid using overly critical or negative language. This is a good opportunity to emphasize your emotional maturity and how challenges in your life have helped you grow as a person. You may compromise that impression if your tone is resentful or excessively dramatic.

Additionally, do not simply list the challenges you have faced, or the accomplishments you have worked for. Admissions officers are looking for more than a chronological explanation of your life or an expansion of your resume. Instead, focus on one theme or topic you want the admissions officers to understand about you. You can use different examples to support your theme, but avoid talking about too many things without a defined focus.