Episode 4: Personal Statements

Featured Guest


Eric Waldo

Executive Director for Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Intiative and Vice President for Access and Equity at Common App


Elisa Castillo

Former CAC adviser at USC and current CAC Program Coordinator at USC


Carla Veliz

Former CAC adviser at USC and current Academic Advisor at Biola University


Nicole Hurd:  Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Knowledge for College podcast. I’m your host, Nicole Hurd. I’m so thrilled to have you here today. Uh, this is my second episode with these three amazing people.

Um, and last time, if you haven’t watched, we talked about partnerships this time. We’re going to talk about personal statements about telling your story, uh, back with these P words, we’re going to talk about passion and persistence because when you’re applying to college, those are two important words. So one of welcome back, Eric Waldo, uh, and our two former advisors, uh, who are now amazing alumni, Elisa and Carla. So welcome back everybody.

Nicole Hurd: Thanks for doing this a second time. We are going to get personal real fast. Here we go. So, uh, I will, I will start by getting personal by saying, uh, I’ve already shared in the podcast. My daughter is a first year a freshmen in college, but my son is a senior in high school.

So, uh, I am still in the midst of the college process, not just, uh, In my passion vocation with the college advising Corps, but in my home. So, uh, Matthew is applying to college this year and we were on, uh, looking at the lovely common application prompts. Uh, and it was time for him to start thinking about his essays.

Um, and he said to me, mom, what makes a good personal statement? And I said, I have three people who I’m going to ask that. So, uh, in her spirit of this podcast, giving light and love and hope. Uh, in amplifying voices, which again, so thrilled to, to amplify the three voices on this podcast today, also into practical advice.

So, Eric, uh, I don’t wanna embarrass you too much, but do you remember that personal statement that you submitted a couple of years ago?

Eric Waldo: [00:01:32] Believe it or not. I do. I’m one of those people who has like, create a crazy memory. Um, so I, I wrote, so I wrote, I do remember my personal statement. I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you.

I bet. So folks, you know, that can maybe lead into my advice. My, you know, like you gotta be, you gotta be honest, you gotta be true and you have to say something that’s uniquely you. And so for me, um, you know, my bio is a little strange, right? I like to tell people I’m a Puerto Rican Jew from Alabama in Cleveland.

And, uh, I talked about actually the experience of my grandmother. I don’t know if that Rodriguez who, um, raised three daughters by herself in Puerto Rico raised my mom and her sisters, but then late in life, um, had Alzheimer’s and just like how seeing our family struggle, dealing with sort of the matriarch in the family.

Um, you know, go through this mental health decline and what it meant for me as the grandchild and, and seeing that change. And, you know, and I was really just me writing less about myself, alpha more about this sort of what was happening to our family and what I was seeing it bring out in my mom and me.

And what do I was learning about people in the healthcare system and you know, it, wasn’t me saying like, Oh, by 27, well, I’ve written my first Pulitzer by 45. I’ll start this organization do X, Y, Z. Kind of letting people have a little window authentically into who I am and my life. And, um, that essay got me into my, my top two schools.

Um, and I, and I always, I always remember it.

Nicole Hurd: [00:03:05] Thank you for sharing that. Beautiful. I think it is so hard to be vulnerable. Right. And it’s so hard to be brave. And I think that’s what that statement’s all about. Right. And so, um, at least you want to talk about what was your statement like?

Elisa Castillo: [00:03:20] Yeah, I mean, I took.

A non traditional route through higher education. I was a community college student and then transferred to a Cal state where I didn’t really have to write a personal statement for my undergrad, but I just completed my graduate program. And I definitely had to write a personal statement. And honestly, when I was writing those personal statements, I was still an advisor.

And so. Uh, just when my students are writing their personal statements, I was writing mine as well all along with them. And, um, yeah, I was just. In, in that personal statement for my graduate program. Um, cause I was, I graduated in college counseling and student, uh, student development from Azusa Pacific. I focused on my journey and so my journey through higher education, being a first generation and student, having gone to community college and being a stellar student in high school.

But again, I didn’t have that support to tell me, Hey, there’s a difference between a two year, a four year. You have the grades and the capability to go to a four year. You know what? I didn’t have someone to challenge me to say you should go. And again, that’s another reason why I want to go into counseling because I want to be that voice to say, Hey, You can, and you have the grades and you’re capable of doing it.

Let’s push you. I didn’t have that person in my, in my high school experience to push me to challenge myself. And so, in my opinion, no statement, I spoke about that journey and I advise my students to do the same and to, to speak on a journey or speak of an experience that shows that, you know, they’re dedicated, they’re passionate and they are, you know, want to Excel and succeed.

And, um, I mean, I’m going to share if I can, I can share an experience. Uh, oftentimes students would come to me saying, well, miss, I don’t have. A sob story to share, or I don’t have, um, anything that’s unique or, you know, I’m just, I’m just ordinary then I would, you know, I, I will take a pause and I will have them, you know, look through the questions and, you know, I would say, okay, let’s forget about the questions.

And I would rephrase

Nicole Hurd: [00:05:31] one of the questions for them.

Elisa Castillo: [00:05:33] And I would ask them. Okay. Um, tell me about, you know, why are you interested in this hobby? Cause I would see their folders we’ll have pictures or things. Right. So I would catch something from them and they would go on for five minutes speaking on that and very creatively.

And I would tell them. Next time, I’m going to have a tape recorder and I’m going to record your conversation because there goes your personal statement. Um, and oftentimes they don’t know that. And, um, and so that is something that I would tell my students. I’m like, you see it’s right there. You just told me your personal statement.

Um, and so that is something that I, one of the memories that I do cherish is that my students know what they want to. They know what they have to do, but they don’t know how to do it. Um, and so I would always encourage them. Like you just told me. You just got to put it on paper,

Nicole Hurd: [00:06:23] Carla,  you want to talk about your personal statement or some of your, your experiences, that lovely process.

Carla Veliz Logie: [00:06:29] Yeah, no, I, um, my experience, I applied to everything. Um, I use the common app. I use the UC app, Cal state private application. So I had a number of different, yeah. Um, and at the time in the, uh, actually thinking about the comment, yeah. They had like different types of questions, but also the institution can add like their own question.

So my particular institution, I was really interested in going to faith based institution. So I’m actually the uniqueness of some of my personal

statements was

getting to talk about like, well, why do I want to pursue my education? Uh, um, a faith based institution. Um, and that was something that really mattered to me that I, I value my faith.

Um, and that was something that I was looking for, uh, in a school. So actually even the question challenging me to like, well, why do you believe in what you believe in and why do you want to learn it here? That was my, um, that was essentially what the question was asking. So I, um, I had the experience of being able to share, um, personally how I had come, um, to, to, to face and in my family, uh, Hispanic culture, um, really being, um, Struck by faith at a young age age, and how that influenced my desire for education and wanting to care for the people around me, the way that I, I believe that God cares for the people around us.

Um, so that was something that was embedded into. And so even the questions that some of the schools that I was applying to, um, asked, and, and I see that, um, when. Yeah, we read through so many different, um, personal statements for students. And a lot of times I would see the struggle between making a, finding their authentic voice in that.

And oftentimes it’s, it’s kind of funny, cause it is a personal statement. And, um, there is like Alisa was describing, there was a struggle of

like, well, I

don’t have anything unique. Um, and it was really being able to dive into like, well, what is something that is unique about you? Um, that, that may be me.


be a bit vulnerable to share, but we’ll be able to say so much about you. Um, and I’d add being able to do that in a concise way. When we read through so many that were four or five


um, I had, I also had opportunities to read for different universities and noticed after so many of these. Um, if, if there were five pages, if there’s a very long, it, it can be pretty, pretty tough.

But, um, something that I really appreciated was, was being able to see like how, how students would be able

to, to share their voice and share their

stories, um, in a way that, um, w

we were able to read

through, um, shortly, and a lot of them do have short characters, uh, where, where they do have to, to write.

Through that. So, um, I would always encourage students to, to not submit just their first rough draft, that it was a shorter amount of characters or words that they had to use, because that would mean that they would have to revise and review them. Um, and that’s something that the counselors and


advisors like us were able to


we were able to help them revise,

help define,


like Lisa shared a unique experience that was unique to them, um, that that would allow them to share who they are, who they


Nicole Hurd: [00:09:34] So thank you for sharing that. Eric, you want to talk about, you gave us a beautiful, um, memory of your statement. Just a little bit of advice you have, I’m sure. Students and you get this question. What, what, what would you put what’s what makes a good personal statement? Do you have any, any tricks or, or thoughts that you have in your head when that comes about?

Eric Waldo: [00:09:53] it’s just to build on the, um, the conversation, I would say, right? That in some senses it’s more of an exercise of reflection about. Deep understanding of how you do have a super power, even if you don’t think you do. So, actually, Nicole you’ll appreciate this. It was the week. It was the week after Trump was elected in 2016.

We had planned already with another nonprofit, eight 26 DC. It’s a chapter of Dave Eggers, national nonprofit, eight 26, which has a, which. Runs basically after school writing centers around the country, they want to get young people excited about creative writing. They really make these really fun places.

They do essay writing workshops all the time, and they brought in students to the white house, low income, first generation students of color into the EOB. And we were having this day long session about how to be a better writer and how to write your own story and know it’s really a fun exercise. And I actually think no matter how old you are, um, The personal statement is a good exercise because it forces you to think about, you know, if you’re an older person, you know, thinking about your LinkedIn profile, thinking about writing a cover letter, thinking about your resume, they’re all different versions of how are you telling someone your story and the same problems that maybe played some people when they were 17 and 18 still played people when they’re 37, 47 and 57, because they think, huh?

Is that important? Does anyone care about that thing? I did set thing. I did important enough for me to put on my resumes and important enough for me to write about in a personal statement. And I would argue, and again, this is advice from Dave Eggers, great writer and Michelle Obama, another great writer, two bestselling writers who, because Obama, we did a, uh, a student event before the becoming book tour started right as it started actually in Chicago where she visited her old high school.

Um, and we went to Chicago. And we did a round table with, with, with girls who are current high school students in rural high school. And she, you know, becoming is all about learning, to tell your own story and seeing the value in your own story. And mr. Obama was talking to, so some of the young women and someone’s like, well, I don’t know.

Like, I don’t even know why I got chosen to be here. Like, she kind of felt like she didn’t feel like she deserved to be in the circle. And mrs. Obama said, well, you know, you just told the story about your, you know, you have a job you’re taking care of your brother. You’re doing all these things. Like that’s important.

That’s, that’s a bigger deal than, you know, being on the swim team, you take having a job, taking care of your brother, had the getting into school the way you have to. That’s impressive. And you just don’t know it at the time, because then the value system, right. Sometimes of a teenager, you think, Oh, that’s not that’s, that’s not that doesn’t seem to have.

The the, the monetary value think it does, but I, but admissions Dean’s people whomever, as long as you can tell that story compellingly what it means to take care of your brother, cook a meal, walk to school, whatever your life is, what you’re thinking about. It has value. And I think that the coming and mrs Obama’s story, and I would argue the reason reach higher and better make room existence, because we want young people to see.

Their own worth thrown value that they’re worth it. And the college and education will help them self realize. So any story you can tell if it’s authentically you and you can convince the reader, why you believe in it, that’s all that matters. It’s about, you know, your favorite  recipe or it could be about, you know, why you feel while you’re upset about protesting the street, you name it.

It can be about any

Nicole Hurd: [00:13:19] thing

  1. Eric. You’ve got me so inspired by that, because let me tell you, I think, um, so many of us don’t keep journals or we do keep journals, or we keep journals at part of our lives. And I think, you know, a personal statement is just, it’s just almost a journal exercise, right? It’s really just one of those incredibly important moments of self reflection.

And while we’re in. The pandemic. I think this is an incredibly important time to do some self reflection, but I nerd out for a second here in until one of my stories. I, uh, I used to journal a lot and I kept a diary when I was little. And I actually recently found my diary from when I was in third grade.

Right. And I mean, it’s totally dorky, right? Like, I mean, I’m in third grade, it’s in pink. It’s in pink writing. Um, But it’s amazing the through lines in your life, right? The people who touched you, um, when you’re young and how they continue to kind of, you stand on their shoulders or you hold their hands through your whole life.

Right. And you see these three lines and I, I could appreciate, you know, I shouldn’t do it publicly, but in third grade I wanted to answer a word and I still, I love to dance. Like I said, I will not do it on these podcasts, but, um, yeah, I will say like, there are these things that you find out about yourself that you forget sometimes.

Um, and when you go back and read a personal statement or you go back and read a journal, Are you allow yourself to be vulnerable and actually do the becoming a work because we’re never through. Um, we’re always evolving. We’re always growing. I think that’s the best of these extra sizes, right? I always tried to tell students that this is not painful.

Um, it shouldn’t be painful. Try to enjoy this. This is an entree point into telling your story of getting your voice. And if it’s painful, then you’re not going to write something that somebody’s gonna want to read. Um, if you think of it as fun, even if that sounds a little perverse, and I know those of you who are applying right now, think I’m crazy, but if you try to make it fun, um, if you try to give it.

Yeah. Talk about that favorite recipe or your favorite grandmother or your favorite, whatever it is. Um, and let your, let your, I always say we’re most powerful when our heart, our hands and our heads are in alignment. Try to get in that alignment and let that shine through that exercise actually can be really powerful.

So, um, as we, as we kind of wrap up on this, you know, also just want to say, you know, what each of you talked about kind of, when you look back and you tell your story, Yeah. What are the words that you went as a student here right now, in terms of being scared to tell their story? What, what would you kind of encourage them in terms of, of being brave at this moment?

Any, any thoughts about, about kind of putting yourself out there? Carla, you want to go first?

Carla Veliz Logie: [00:15:45] Yeah, no, I would just say that, um, Yeah. Being brave, um, does involve like a sense of vulnerability, but it’s, it’s, it’s when we’re vulnerable that we’re actually able to, to encourage one another. And, um, that, to be able to think of a personal statement, as, as thinking about you sharing what you value and what you care about, and actually.

That connects so well with someone else. And that, that could inspire you to care for like you guys were saying a recipe or whatever it is,


whatever it might be, that the question is asking, but could inspire someone else. Bye bye. Being vulnerable to care as well, as much as you do for something.

So, um, when that is put into light, I think it makes it so much less daunting and exciting to be able to, to share with someone else, um, what you care about and why they should care too.

Elisa Castillo: [00:16:41] Yeah. Um, I guess for me, I would say, is to think beyond. Just it being a intrinsic entrance essay or a personal statement. Um, this is a document that you can look back to in the future when you’re in finals week or in the middle of, you know, your, your time at your institution when you’re.

Feeling down or you’re feeling like, wow, this is just too much to go back and read your personal statement and we gain inspiration for why you chose to go to that institution or why you chose to study what it is you want to study or kind of realign your passions. That’s definitely what I, what I did during my time in my graduate program, when I would meet or reach those breaking points where I’m just like, Why am I here?

Why was I chosen it especially being first-generation first in my family, that imposter syndrome is real. And there’s times where I. Doubted myself. Um, and I would go back to read my personal statement to regain inspiration or to reignite that light or that spark in me that allowed me to apply in the first place.

And so I think it’s important just think beyond getting accepted, but also as a tool to help you in those times of need. Um, when you’re yeah. In your program

Nicole Hurd: [00:18:03] now, that’s, that’s absolutely beautiful framing. I mean, to think of this is not an. And exercise, but actually something that is a reflection point for the rest of your life, right.

That it’s not about getting into one college at one point in time, but it’s about, you know, we use this phrase all the time, the court. The sparks that create fireworks, right? It’s a spark. And in letting, instead of letting things go dim, I can remind you that you are a spark and you are becoming a firework and you are constantly improving.

And like I said, I’m no a lot of people that are watching this and listening to this. Um, but we constantly have to. Keep telling ourselves in renewing ourselves and, and keeping that, that piece lit that doesn’t go away. Um, you never get to a point in your life where like, yep, I’m done. I’m, I’m perfectly, um, uh, you know what Zuora is, Sparky, Pepe, whatever the word is.

Um, I don’t need to have that light, um, you know, uh, kind of sparked, um, I’m good that that never had, at least I haven’t found the day where that happens. You have to constantly remind yourself and keep letting that, that, that. That spark Eric, any, any final thoughts you have? You’re you’re somebody who, um, like I said, you’ve, you’ve seen a lot of, um, of students go through this process, but you’re also somebody who I think.

This is one of the reasons why I love you so much. Um, who’s very reflective about kind of, it’s not just the end point. It’s about the journey, right? It’s not just about, about getting to one place. It’s about, it’s about the process and kind of the friends and the reflection and the self care that you take along the way.

So any, any final thoughts you’ve got your, yeah, I

Eric Waldo: [00:19:37] just want to reflect and say what you’re talking about right now. What each of you said makes me think in some ways, thinking about a personal statement. More like a letter to your future self or sort of one of these moments where you’re reflecting or maybe it’s a letter to your past self.

Right. Of like, Hey, like I wish you’d known this or that, you know, cause it’s a moment of forced reflection about meaning. And to me again, uh, you know, it’s so fascinating. Cause I think. College is one of the biggest, first hurdle, like a signifier moment of change. Right. But for people throughout their lives, you know, and Nicole, you know this, and I think about mrs.

Obama, just as having worked with her for so many years, no matter how successful you are, you made us college, you still feel like an imposter. You made it to the white house. You still feel like an imposter. You know, you have a bestselling book of all time. You’re still wondering if someone not going to like you, you know, I am in a place where I, I have a job I’m proud of and a team I’m proud of, but it’s still like, wait, you’re still, you’re never done.

Right. All of us are always growing and changing. And so to me, the personal statement, these journeys, these reflections is really just a chance to learn. And actually I would argue something that we don’t do well enough is talk about it as a chance to fail. And that’s the other thing that resonated in my mind.

I think unfortunately, There’s so much stress and anxiety that’s placed on the college application process that we don’t acknowledge the reality. That failure is a hundred percent part of life and how you bounce back is more important. So yeah, like it’s okay to fail your personal statement or not get into your Tufts school or all these things that failure is so much more often and what all of us will experience.

And yet, for some reason we don’t normalize it. And to me, I wonder how do we. You know, it’s like, I feel like I want to write a personal statement about failing and that we should make failure acceptable because failing is actually learning. And so to me, all of this is making me think how, you know, I work with really high performing adults who are still afraid of family.

And are still are so, so has so much anxiety about being told like that wasn’t good enough. And gosh, if only we could to fix it at the personal statement level and stuff like he’s edits, they’re great. Like we’re making it better. It didn’t work out the first time. That’s okay. Like let’s work on it next time and we’re all just growing and improving.

So to me that, that that’s, the journey is just constant learning, growing, and self reflection.

Nicole Hurd: [00:21:57] Eric, it’s really beautiful. And I’m thinking about, um, Not only have I heard you say this and mrs. Obama say this, the other thing, this is Obama says all the time, which I love is, um, A lot of us are brought up as, as box checkers.

Right? You check the box, right? So you check the box, you go to high school, you check the box. So you go to college, um, you know, and that might be all sorts of different ways. Community college, four year you check the box. I mean, for those of us on this call, you check the box and you go to grad school or you go to law school or whatever that looks like, and you keep checking these boxes and then you, he realized the real joy.

Real life. Real love real satisfaction does not come from checking boxes, right. It actually is something much more profound than that. And actually, if we just check boxes, we wake up one day and say, I’ve checked a whole lot of boxes, but where’s, where’s the joy. Where’s the fulfillment. Where’s the growth.

Where’s the happiness. Uh, because the box in and of itself doesn’t make us happy. Right? I mean, I, I think about my own educational journey and I remember getting a PhD first in my family to ever go to graduate school on, on, on the one side of the family. And. Um, it was a big moment in a lot of ways, but I also felt afterwards like, okay, box check.

Right. And, and back to the imposter piece, I think we all, there’s so much humanity in this. There’s so much common thread that I’m hearing in all of our voices right now about, um, The personal statement, if you do it right. Might actually just be one of those moments of reflection where we just say, you know what, this is who I am right now.

And I’m going to share it with you admissions officer, I’m going to share it with you counselor. I’m going to share it with you adviser. I’m gonna share it with you parent or friend. And I know that this is a work in progress cause I’m a work in progress. Right. Um, and I’m not going to let this be a moment of judgment.

I’m gonna let this be a moment of reflection. Um, and I think anytime we can move from judgment to reflection, we’re always going in a good direction. So. Yeah. Okay. Any, any final thoughts we’re about to wrap up here? Anything you want to say? The students out there who are about to do this? Start early turn in your first draft.

I heard that one have

Eric Waldo: [00:23:55] someone read yet someone read it, fix your commas and your semi-colons and all those things. Again, that’s the same thing with resumes, same thing with cover letters. Let someone else read it. The typo is the easiest way for someone to say, I guess they didn’t care. The other thing I think is, you know, I’ll give you the piece of writing advice that a playwriting teacher of mine gave me in college and not a playwright, but he was a good player.

Right. Um, and he said, you know, the secret of writing and playwriting is just. Right, right. Something you wish you, you could, that you’d be excited to read. Right. So if you’re writing something, that’s not interesting, no one else is going to find it interesting, like right. The thing that you’re, that you’re excited about.

And again, I think that’s the same deal that vulnerability, right. You’re excited to read something that feels raw and truthful. And something that no one else could say. So what’s that unique, truthful, vulnerable thing that only you can offer this world. And that’s, it’s simple advice, but it’s so hard to execute, but once people who unlock that, those are those that’s electric, right?

That’s electricity in a box. No, I’m

Nicole Hurd: [00:25:02] looking at I, you, you all have done it beautifully today. You actually have modeled it. Um, Just be yourself. Right. Be authentic, just show. Um, and you know, I’ll, I’ll do one little quick tip from when I was a college faculty member. Read it to yourself out loud. It’s amazing.

When you read something out loud, the things you don’t catch when you try to read it in your head. So well, we’re going to wrap, um, but I do want to say this. I think we got some good practical advice out there. So students. Do not panic. Uh, our final word of advice. And I know all four of us mean this from the bottom of our hearts is we believe in you, you can do this.

So, um, go, go do that, go fill out that personal statement, those in your life that are supporting you. Thank you for supporting your students. We know there is so much talent and so much opportunity, and we need to make those things happen. So, uh, to the three of you, thank you so much. I’m so grateful for you and so grateful for the light and love you bring to the college, advising core into students into your work now.

Um, and I will say goodbye, uh, for all of you watching and listening. Thank you. I hope you’re fired up in this fire. I’m fired up inspired. It’s such an Obama thing to say fired up. Right. But we’re fired up and ready to go. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to get kids to college. Thank you all so much for joining us.

We’ll see you next time.