When I was a homeless 16-year-old, I learned that my chance at upward mobility hinged on marketing. I’d just spent weeks bouncing between people’s sofas, punctuated by several nights sleeping in an unheated stairwell while the Minnesota windchill dipped to negative 20 degrees. When I’d returned to the boarding school I attended on scholarship, I’d immediately headed to the library, more certain than ever that college was my only way out, but equally unsure of how to get in.
There, nestled among the test prep tomes, I discovered my new favorite book. Rock Hard Apps, written by an ageless celebrity admissions consultant whose students called her “Dr. Kat,” taught me that every successful applicant to the top schools had a shtick: legacy, recruited athlete, organ player. The fictional characters in the book snagged their admissions letters by packaging themselves, transforming their high school careers into attractive narratives. My only conceivable selling point was the awful things I’d triumphed over with courage and mettle, although I hadn’t exactly “overcome” those circumstances: They were ongoing. Yet it appeared that in order to escape my past, I’d need to package it first.
I sat on the floor of the library, terrified. Compared with me, the book’s invented protagonists had simple histories. I had no idea where I’d even start: my mom, a charming hoarder who’d gotten me put on antipsychotics? Our dire financial situation? My other parent’s disappearance after coming out as trans? The cloud of psychiatric diagnoses that represented the welfare system’s preferred response to chaotic childhoods? My mom would kill me if I talked about the year I’d spent in foster care. My problems had been somewhat more consequential than the book’s example of missing a year of French club: I’d been hospitalized for mental health issues five times, culminating in eight months in a locked facility. And no one would cover up my misdeeds, as one fictional student’s father had—instead, I sensed my mom would be the first person to throw me under the bus. Worst of all, I feared that the facts of my life had made me an unreliable narrator, right when I most needed to be believed.
According to a news article, Dr. Kat’s Platinum Package cost more than $30,000. I tried to imagine going over the griefs and humiliations of my life with my school counselor, who knew nothing about my family and had no time for me on her best day, and failed. Then I noticed that Dr. Kat did pro bono work. I Googled “pro bono” and learned it meant “for free.” So I burned my best art-class photographs onto a CD and stuffed it into an envelope with some of my poems. In a fit, I wrote a letter about my life, begging her to take me on. I was never that candid, but Dr. Kat was a stranger who would probably throw my sob story in the trash.
But five months later—after the dorms closed for the summer and I’d hitched a ride across the country with a classmate and slept on her sofa until her mom dropped me off at the Greyhound station, then crashed with another friend, followed by a third—I got an email. Dr. Kat had chosen me for “pro-bono services that value $16,775.”
When Dr. Kat called me, her voice sounded scratchy, as though by 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, she’d already spent a full day telling people what to do. She asked me what I was doing that summer. “Well, I’m at topology camp right now, at Stanford,” I said, as if I knew what “topology” meant. “Then I’m going to AP Chemistry camp at Northwestern.” I didn’t waste Dr. Kat’s time with any of the uncertainties, the unplanned in‑betweens, and I sighed in relief when she seemed pleased. She explained that two documents were most important: my personal statement and a Letter of Extenuating Circumstances, which would explain my background to colleges.
“We just want to tell your story,” she cooed. “I’m glad I’m here to help, because it’s not going to be easy.”
Her warning, despite its warmth, struck me after I flipped my phone shut. Of course it wasn’t going to be easy. Nothing so far had been. But I realized Dr. Kat was telling me that this wasn’t hard in a standardized-test way or even a finding-housing way, but in an all-consuming, almost spiritual way—a grueling task even for a celebrity college consultant.
Even with Dr. Kat on my side, my life remained chaotic. I worked on the essays on buses and other people’s sofas and at a succession of fast-food restaurants, where I drank unlimited refills of pop to stay full. Five days before I owed her my essay drafts, I had to get surgery. I thought I would wake up from anesthesia and immediately get to writing. But at the friend’s house where I was meant to stay, beer cans and dog turds littered the carpet. Her boyfriend smoked menacingly at the kitchen table and seemed overly curious about my Vicodin. A vague sense of unease wasn’t enough to get me to leave. Only the thought I can’t write my essays here motivated me to sneak out, leaving the front door unlocked behind me.
I went to the library, where I couldn’t focus on my laptop screen. Colleges demanded to know who I was. Who was I? I was hungry; I hadn’t eaten since the day before: a protein bar after surgery. Who was I? I wanted to cry. I didn’t know. My other big task was no easier: the Letter of Extenuating Circumstances providing context for my life. But I had no context. I was still in the middle of it.
I only had the story adults had told me: that I’d gone to the hospital and residential treatment because I was bad, “attention-seeking,” someone who refused to choose to be well. Even entering foster care was portrayed as essentially my fault. There had been no court hearings, no judge, no investigation—though my mom was a hoarder who smelled like her house, mouse pee mixed with trash, she was white with a middle-class job and a cheerful, persuasive personality. My social worker, who specialized in teenage girls sick enough to be our own problems, had never even been past our front door.
As for why I had nowhere to sleep that night, I blamed myself for my poor planning, though my mentor, my doctor, and I had begged my mom all spring to call my social worker: One phone call would’ve gotten me a respite bed in a quiet house, where I could have worked on my essays all day every day with hot meals and showers. My mom had refused. But I didn’t feel like I could blame her: for years, everyone from therapists to my old foster parents had drilled into me that only I was responsible for my outcomes.
When security came to shut down the library, I sent off my drafts, hating myself for how bad they were, and drove around looking for a parking lot where I could sleep, somewhere quiet enough to get some rest, busy enough that no one would try to hurt me.
The next day, Dr. Kat called me. “What’s wrong that you can’t finish your essays?” The traffic outside my car fell away. It was just me and the terrifying woman on the phone, my only hope, who now seemed ready to drop me.
“Look. I’m sorry. I’m trying. I just had surgery, and now I don’t have anywhere to go, OK? I’ve been sleeping in my car.” I tried my hardest not to sob, but I did.
“What? What’s going on?” Her voice softened.
“I haven’t lived at home since I was 14, remember?” I sucked the snot back into my nose. “I ran out of places to go during break.”
She asked if I’d informed my school that I was homeless.
“No.” That never would have occurred to me. “Do I have to?”
“Yes. You do,” Dr. Kat said. “Go to a shelter. Call the guidance office right away from the shelter. Explain the situation. Tell them everything. You need to leave a trail.”
I shut my eyes and clenched my jaw: Dr. Kat wanted me to have a place to sleep, but she also wanted me to collect evidence. The last thing I wanted was for people to see me in this state, to witness the lowest moments of my life, record them, and trot them out later. But the documentation might make the difference between acceptance and rejection, a golden ticket out instead of more years struggling. Even as I headed to the shelter, the idea made me so upset that I trembled.
Dr. Kat rejected my self-blaming drafts of the letter explaining my circumstances, seeming annoyed and confused. She wanted me to say things that no adult had put so baldly: that my mom was a hoarder with mental health issues, that her home was uninhabitable, and that as a result, I was homeless. “It’s complicated,” I protested. Anything that negated my agency, that framed me as a helpless child tossed on the rough seas of neglectful parenting and the child welfare system, felt like a lie, or like I was refusing to acknowledge that others had it worse. And despite everything, my mom was still my mom, who had picked me up from my foster parents’ McMansion and taken me to figure drawing classes; when we sang in the car, we harmonized effortlessly. I didn’t want to cast her as the villain.
“Look, if I don’t understand, there’s no way colleges are going to,” Dr. Kat explained, meaning that if they didn’t understand, I wouldn’t get in. My chance at upward mobility relied on depicting myself as someone who had triumphed over adversity. Without framing, my credentials were good but not spectacular. But creating that framing required distance I lacked. No one besides my mom had ever narrativized my life for me; when she’d found a crumpled-up draft of my Letter of Extenuating Circumstances that fell out of my backpack on my way to the bus station after the shelter, she’d taken the liberty of writing her own version, closing with the instruction, “Overcome victimhood.”
Was I doing the opposite? Letting victimhood overcome me? After all, I’d never been beaten. I’d never slept on the sidewalk. For years, adults had forced me to take responsibility for my problems. Now Kat was urging the opposite. She wanted me to explain my misfortunes as if they proved my fortitude and were, indeed, the forge for my tremendous character.
After I submitted my applications, admissions officers interrogated me in my nightmares.
“Does sleeping in your car really make you homeless? Isn’t it true your mother gave you a 1992 Corolla?”
“Why are you abusing Adderall? Why are you making yourself throw up?”
My interrogators asked me about everything I hadn’t told the schools. They called me to account for my imperfections, for the unhealthy coping mechanisms I clung to in a time of intense uncertainty. It seemed deeply unjust that I could omit the ways I’d fucked up when others could not. After an early rejection revealed that my time in treatment was a liability, I’d excised any mention of mental illness from my other applications. “Would you feel like you needed to disclose cancer?” Dr. Kat asked me. I said no, but it felt different. I was aware that I could have just as easily been funneled into the justice system and gotten a record I wouldn’t be able to scrub. I also assumed that the other applicants were completely forthcoming with their tribulations and rough patches. Otherwise, wouldn’t their parents tell on them somehow? The idea of adults shielding kids from their mistakes seemed bizarre.
I woke up in a clammy sweat, pulse throbbing in my wrist. The nocturnal admissions officers were right: I wasn’t the perfect overcomer I presented in my applications. I wasn’t the worst-off person in the world, and I was still affected by the tragedies I claimed I’d triumphed over. Those facts made me feel like a lie, a sham, undeserving of the security I craved most.
By mid-February, I fielded emails from colleges every day. Because I’d filed the federal financial aid forms as an independent student, they wanted to know if I was an orphan or a ward of the courts. Each individual school needed to verify my story. They wanted documentation I didn’t have; all my former social worker would provide was a bland write-up saying I was a good person. Just thinking about it made my mouth hot with bile.
Dr. Kat decided I needed more support. My mentor Annette, assigned to me by Hennepin County a few years before, wrote a letter, recounting my adolescence in her typically frank manner: “I have been in her mother’s house, and it is not possible for Margaret to sleep there. The place is filled to the top with garbage, and everything is covered with mouse and dog excrements. There is no bathroom, no warm water, and no central heat.”
Even if I’d had that level of perspective on my situation, I could never have been so blunt. The description would have sounded negative coming from me; burdened with the task of “overcoming,” I couldn’t have a bad attitude. No one required that from Annette. She was an objective outside observer who could sign at the end with her professional titles.
I grimaced reading what she wrote, its half-truths leaping out at me: My mom’s house was filled waist-high, not to the ceilings, with garbage; there was a bathroom, even if the tub was filled with junk that couldn’t be moved. But I sensed no one would pick apart Annette’s words for veracity. Her authority, her distance from the situation, earned her the right to get the gist across without obsessing over details.
When Annette sent the letter to schools, I was grateful, but I wondered if the support of a trustworthy, distinguished person would prove to be more important than anything I could say for myself.
On April 1, 2010, at 3:00 p.m., at a computer in the Seattle public library, I read the subject line: “Your application to Harvard College.”
My cursor shook as I clicked.
Dear Ms. Nietfeld
I am delighted to inform you …
I screamed. My voice echoed, bouncing against the glass walls. My chest filled with light. My legs took off, past the other disheveled patrons at computers, down the escalators, out into the drizzle, where I kept screaming, “Yes, yes, yes!”
In that moment, everything was worth it. Any lie, any omission would’ve been a small price for my new, unrecognizable future.
But in the years that followed, the simplified story I’d told loomed large. I felt like I’d cheated my way into the Ivy League. After I graduated, and the benefits of my alma mater accrued—a job at Google, an address in the West Village, a New York Times wedding announcement—so did the guilt. When it became too much to bear in my mid-20s, I began writing about what happened, ready to confess and atone for my sins, just as I’d endeavored to do in my first drafts. Yet as I reviewed documentation from my adolescence and began interviewing people, I found that in fact, the version of events that Dr. Kat helped me craft was the more accurate one. As a teenager, I’d had no way to know that Annette was filing maltreatment reports that went nowhere or that my medical records contained as much about my mom’s diagnoses as my own. Nearly a decade passed before my county faced a class-action lawsuit for violating children’s rights. The claims were eerily familiar: failing to investigate reports, making necessary interventions voluntary, neglecting to contact relatives that could’ve housed kids. Even with my newfound resources and the help of multiple attorneys, I was unable to access my foster care file, proving how hard it could be to locate the truth at all.
Adolescents in impossible situations are held to impossible standards. In high school, I couldn’t understand why most adults I knew were so punitive and Dr. Kat was so forgiving (though I suspected it had to do with her being rich and living in Manhattan), but without her I couldn’t have navigated the catch-22s that defined my predicament. The same problems I’d used to portray myself as victorious nearly hamstrung my ability to portray myself at all. Telling the committees the story of overcoming they wanted to hear was the only way to make that story true. I’m only a reliable narrator today because my narrative earned me the credentials that make me believable. And even now, I’m not immune—when I read about the latest child who has transcended poverty with sheer force of will, I assume she has no secrets, nothing unspeakable. Then I look closer at her face, chosen like mine once was, as that of someone who could one day slip into the elite. I wonder if we share the same silences.
This article is adapted with permission from the memoir Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld. Copyright © 2022 by Emi Nietfeld. Published by Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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