Adviser Pushes Students to put Life Stories on Paper

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When the time comes for Evan Forster to help young people who participate in the College Bound program at Chess-in-the-Schools to craft their college application essays, he goes out of his way to avoid having them write about chess.

“That is the easy default,” said Forster, founder and owner of Forster-Thomas Inc., an educational and career consulting firm, and Essay Busters, a nonprofit.

“But chess is already all over their candidacies,” said Forster, who has served as a college adviser at Chess-in-the-Schools for 12 years.

“So their personal statement should add something new, get into the student’s soul,” Forster explained. “Otherwise, our kids begin to cancel one another out, telling the same story about how chess changed their lives.

“We want them all to get in, not just the few with the most compelling chess stories.”

Forster said themes of overcoming tough times always work.

“People love stories about an underdog,” Forster said. “Admissions officers are people.”

Sarah Pitari Hugo, vice president of school programs at Chess-in-the-Schools, added that many of the students’ essays go beyond the “underdog” theme.

“They are actually about leadership, learning, or resilience,” Hugo said. “We do have students who occasionally write about chess, but there is always a much richer story behind it. It is about showing admissions officers how you think about topics. That is what will set their essays apart.”

Eddie McBride, 18, who began classes this fall at Niagara University, credits Forster with helping him secure more financial aid than he would have otherwise. He shared a financial aid appeal letter with Youth Todaythat he sent to Niagara University in order to get university officials to reduce his Expected Family Contribution toward the cost of his college education.

In the letter, which McBride wrote upon Forster’s urging, McBride told Niagara University he had previously held back certain information about his family because he was “too embarrassed to reveal the full truth of my circumstances,” which include using his paycheck from being a tournament director and coach for Chess-in-the-Schools to help support his five siblings, nephew and his mother, who all live in his grandmother’s small apartment in The Bronx.

Wrote McBride: “I love my family with all my heart, so it is embarrassing, but the truth is that … no one in my household works. My grandmother is on her own, and my paycheck from Chess-in-the Schools goes toward supporting everyone in the house. But I am telling you this now because I want to be honest: After speaking with Evan Forster, my college advisor at Chess-in-the Schools, I realize that putting my whole story on the table is the best approach. I very much want to go to Niagara University, and I want — for the first time in my life — to have the opportunity to devote my full attention to school without worrying about how I will eat.

“I have developed leadership skills in my work at Chess-in-the-Schools, and I want to apply them to Niagara’s student-run organizations, study groups, and initiatives that I can’t even imagine right now. I want to leave this struggle behind and move on to bigger and better things, without forgetting where and what I came from.

“So, to start my path to becoming my own man, I’m writing to see if there is any way to reduce the $6,455 personal contribution. Since my family cannot provide a penny of this money, I will have to raise it myself. Even an extra thousand or two in aid will take a huge burden off my having to raise the money myself by working while attending school.

“I need the help.”

Hugo said McBride’s appeal letter ultimately paid off and helped secure $5,000 in additional funding.

“The squeaky wheel gets the money,” Hugo said. “Students need to speak up and let schools know what they need in order to attend their college.

“It is important to state how much you want to go to a particular school, so that the financial aid office and admissions counselors see how serious you are,” Hugo continued. “Advocating on your behalf is an important skill for students to learn.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.His work has appeared in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.