This is Not a Personal Statement: A Book Review

It was with great anticipation that I cracked open Tracy Badua’s This is Not a Personal Statement when it arrived on my doorstep after its January 17, 2023, release. I was not disappointed! While young adult literature is not my typical fodder for reading, I was interested to hear how Badua would interpret the current state of college admissions in her novel.

The novel follows Perla Perez whose eager parents had her skip two grades in elementary school making her a high school senior at the age of 16. Perla has experienced a rocky high school career. Not only is she two years younger than her classmates, but also her parents have advertised what they consider successes in big and small ways including regular bragging to friends about grades and even more outrageous, sending a press release to the local paper when Perla began high school as a 12-year-old. As you can imagine, her high school cohort is less than impressed.

We quickly learn that Perla attends a pressure cooker of a high school. Perla tells us, “I attend one of the most academically competitive high schools in California. People spend their life savings on tiny, dilapidated houses in this school district so their kids can come here because our grads go on to be governors, CEOs, and all manner of brag-worthy intellectuals and notables.” At this high school where students begin their day before sunrise at Zero Period to get in an extra course each year to further inflate their GPAs, each student’s success or failure is based on where they are accepted to college and where they ultimately attend.

Just last week, the CDC released a new report on the alarming levels of sadness and hopelessness in young women. One in three teens who identify as female report feeling persistently sad or hopeless. This is nearly double those feelings reported in young men. What Perla experiences in high school (and the high competition my students describe in their real-life high school experiences) contributes to the dire mental health challenges faced by our nation’s young people.

Perla has her sights set on the fictious Delmont University, a highly selective school where she intends to launch her path toward medical school and a Ph.D. This is part of the plan that Perla and her parents have labored over since her elementary school years. It is important to note that this is more the plan of Mr. and Dr. Perez than it is a plan owned by Perla. We learn that she has other interests and passions, but since they are not the “right” career paths, she allows her parents to dream for her. Perla has never envisioned an alternative to Delmont University and assumes that she will get the acceptance letter she expects just as she has gotten everything else she has worked for in her young life. There’s a reason she has been called (sometimes meanly) Perfect Perla by her classmates.

I am sure you know where this is headed. Perla does not get into Delmont. She also did not heed the warnings of her high school counselor who suggested she add a few target and safety schools to her very top heavy (in terms of admissions probabilities) list. In what has become the hallmark of the admissions college cycles since the start of the pandemic for students who do not accurately assess admissions probabilities, Perla does not receive a single acceptance.

This is where the book moves from angsty young adult fiction to what felt like a horror story to me. Perla is too ashamed to admit to her parents that she has spoiled their plan by the rejection letter that arrived from Delmont. Acting on sheer adrenalin, she creates a fake acceptance letter and carries her charade throughout the summer, culminating with her moving into Delmont with no room assignment, no acceptance letter, and no money since she has told her parents she has a full-ride scholarship to avoid them sending tuition money to a school where she has not been accepted. Badua captures the heavy weight that our teens experience through this process in a way that left me horrified for Perla and frustrated with her parents for their lack of support. Our teens need the full support of their parents, schools, and community during the stressful and sometimes heartbreaking process of applying to college. Perla had none of that, and Badua’s novel paints a grim picture of what happens when a teen has no one to turn to.

Let’s consider what went wrong for Perla that caused her to live in hiding at a campus where she was not admitted to avoid disappointing her parents. First – and this is big parents, so take note – Perla believed that her parent’s love and approval was solely based on her academic performance and achievements. Jim Taylor describes this as Outcome Love – parents who only show love when a child performs to please them. Perla’s belief is with just cause based on the lens through which Badua allows us to meet Mr. and Dr. Perez, Perla’s parents. They are the epitome of the parents who view their child as an accessory meant to better their own social agenda. Perla has only received attention and love from her parents when she gives them fodder to brag to their friends about. It is a stressful existence for this young teen to only feel loved when she has outcomes her parents like.

Perla and her parents have also underestimated the tumultuous nature of the current climate of college admissions. Her short college list was top heavy – meaning she did not have a balanced list of colleges with varying admissions probabilities. All of her schools were what I would call “Wildcard” schools, meaning their admissions rates are below 15%, and therefore even students who are perfect like Perla can be rejected from their freshmen classes. There are more perfect students than there are seats at these highly selective (or what some call highly rejective) colleges. Because Perla and her parents refused to listen to the voice of the professional – her high school counselor – they stacked the deck against Perla long before she sent in her first application.

Perla’s story goes from bad to worse as she endures a semester full of lies, homelessness, and desperation while hiding at a school where she was not admitted.

Your story does not need to follow this story arc. Approaching your college admissions cycle with realistic expectations, support from family, and a balanced college list will go a long way to guaranteeing a successful outcome for you. Would you like some expert advice to help you in each step of the process to avoid the Perla trap? Email me to schedule a free consultation at [email protected].