This Is Not a Personal Statement
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Admission meets American Panda in this propulsive, poignant YA contemporary novel about a teen who, after getting rejected from her dream college, forges her own acceptance and commits to living a lie. Perfect for fans of Mary H.K. Choi!
At sixteen, Perla is the youngest graduating senior of the hypercompetitive Monte Verde High. Praised—and not-so-quietly bashed—as “Perfect Perlie Perez,” Perla knows all the late nights, social isolation, and crushing stress will be worth it when she gets into the college of her (and her parents’) dreams: Delmont University.
Then Perla doesn’t get in, and her meticulously planned future shatters. In a panic, she forges her own acceptance letter, and next thing she knows, she’s heading to Delmont for real, acceptance or not. Soon, Perla is breaking into dorm rooms, crashing classes, and dodging questions from new friends about her lack of a student ID. Her plan? Gather on-the-ground intel to beef up her application and reapply spring semester before she’s caught.
But as her guilty conscience grows and campus security looms large, Perla starts to wonder if her plan will really succeed—and if this dream she’s worked for her entire life is something she even wants.
From rising star Tracy Badua comes a gripping, incisive tale of acceptance, self-discovery, and the infinite possibilities that await when we embrace our imperfections.
Release date: January 17, 2023
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Print pages: 347
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This Is Not a Personal Statement
A low current of joy and despair from the latest college admittances and rejections hums through Monte Verde High.
Once the last bell rings, the entire senior class whips out their phones for news. Conversations crackle around me on the parking lot curb. I pretend to focus on spotting Dad’s Lexus among the dozen other luxury cars in the distance, but it’s hard not to react to the bursts of happiness and heartbreak around me.
Two other seniors, Edie Anderson from my PE class and Camilla Kang-Jansen, the daughter of one of Dad’s law firm partners, pause near me on their way to their cars.
“Did you hear? Wendy got into Stanford, but Gabriel didn’t. You think they’ll break up over this?”
Hard-earned futures are being made and broken this very second, and people chatter about them like they’re reality show bombshells.
I adjust my backpack straps as an excuse to angle toward the murmured conversation. Edie and Camilla don’t seem to notice or, if they do, care. Being the lone sixteen-year-old senior at Monte Verde and a tad well-known for my overachievement—my mom sent a press release to the local paper when I started high school at twelve—means that I’m blocked out of the social scene and its related whisper networks. But I do like to stay informed.
At most schools, gossip would center around who’s dating whom, who has the most expensive this, the flashiest that. At Monte Verde High? 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.
Everyone talks about the record-shattering achievements of the Monte Verde student body.
No one talks about the intense competition, the unhealthy lack of sleep, the grueling lineup of forced extracurriculars, the expensive standardized test prep classes, or the underground market of cheat sheets and pills.
But I don’t care about any of those right now: they’re as much a fixture in my school life as my creaky locker and my wobbly chair in AP Comp Sci. I don’t even really care about Wendy or Gabriel.
I care about which schools’ acceptances are out.
Three others join the girls chatting a few feet away from me. I’m in at least one class with each person in that group, but they barely acknowledge my proximity. Through Dad, I’ve
known Camilla for ages. Aside from the way our parents seem to play us against each other to make us work harder, we tend to get along outside of school. She’s often the one friendly face at firm picnics and award dinners, but she keeps her distance on campus and I don’t force it.
At least I don’t have to hide my eavesdropping if I’m functionally invisible here.
I peer at them through the curtain of long, straight black hair on either side of my face and act like I’m scrolling through the latest PicLine posts on my phone. The group compares notes. Two people in my physics class got their MIT acceptances today. Tennis star Arnell eyes Columbia: eir first choice, but not eir parents’. Oscar faked a rejection to Duke just so he wouldn’t have to explain to his parents that his dream school is here in California. Edie dabs at her teary blue eyes as she gripes to her friends that she’s wait-listed at two Ivy Leagues.
I try not to roll my eyes as Camilla comforts her. Edie is the debate team captain who introduced some of the seniors to her sister’s Adderall-prescription-happy doctor friend in exchange for a hefty, under-the-table referral fee. I’ve been cut enough by Monte Verde’s ruthless streak to recognize that Edie’s tears are a cover for her rage. She must be livid that underground Adderall went to those same kids who likely edged her out of those Ivies’ incoming classes.
“What about Little Miss Perfect? Where do you think she’s going?” Edie’s voice drifts over to me, a hint of amusement in her voice, like the mere mention of me is a joke. My body tenses. My thumb continues to mindlessly scroll so I can keep up the ruse that I don’t hear them.
A harsh shush from Camilla. “Edie, quit it. She’s right there.”
A snort from Edie. “So?”
So they do know that I’m standing right here, listening. They just ignore it, like they ignored me for the past four years. I barely feel the pinch of sadness about it now. Perfect Perlie Perez—a nickname that I obviously didn’t come up with myself and haven’t managed to fight off—is better than this. Better than them and their pettiness.
I only have to endure a couple more months of high school before I can escape with my diploma. Then it’s on to Delmont University, the shining light at the end of the tunnel. It’s number one on the list of universities curated by my parents and me. That list is the first page of Perlie’s Academic Plan, a dog-eared red plastic binder crammed full of report cards, standardized test scores, articles about college prep, and everything needed to click my PhD path into place. The plan serves as a road map for the life my parents and I have planned.
It helps that we all want the same thing: for me to graduate from this prestigious university, attend a top med school, and go on to be successful and scandal-free. Be as perfect as the world sees me. The goal may reek of elitism to some, but there’s generations’ worth of trauma alive and well in the fact
that we hold certain professions as the mark of success and belonging.
A brown woman? The table’s full, sorry.
A brown woman wielding a PhD from an illustrious school? We’ll find an extra chair, ma’am.
My parents and their parents left friends, family, and livelihoods to cross the ocean and settle in Monte Verde. Calling this place home didn’t come easily. They found themselves separated from others here by their faces, their tongues, their skin. For them, making a home was trickier than just finding shelter and sustenance: it was proving that they belonged here.
And I’m supposed to be part of that proof.
Sometimes, with all this pressure on me, I think of myself as a tree growing on the side of a cliff. People say a seed should’ve never landed, taken root, and thrived there all by itself. But I found a way. I grew sideways to get my share of the sun, letting my roots claw into the unwelcoming rock.
Withering is not an option.
The familiar silver glint in the distance is a beacon through this storm of social awkwardness. Dad’s car approaches. He’s speaking, his black eyebrows as furrowed as they can get with all the filler Mom injects him with. His youthful appearance is part our Filipino heritage, part religious sunscreen usage, and part perk of Mom’s boutique aesthetic clinic. He shakes his head at something, and his neatly gelled black hair doesn’t even move. He must still be on a work call.
I step closer toward the curb, ready to leap into the car when Dad stops.
I’ve had enough of the other seniors whispering and staring at me. They must have the same idea, because Camilla suddenly shrieks, waving her phone in the air.
“I just got a text from my mom. The UC’s admissions portals are up! And I’ve got mail from Delmont too. We’re going to check it all together when I get home.”
The mention of Delmont hits me straight in the chest.
“Delmont did actual paper letters?” Edie asks.
Camilla isn’t fazed by the incredulous note in Edie’s voice. “Still old-fashioned, I guess. They opted out of electronic notifications entirely. Paper’s prettier for PicLine pics though.”
I bite back a smile. My ticket out of this dreadful, hypercompetitive high school and into my bright future might be burning a hole in our mailbox as we speak. I wonder if Camilla has the same big envelope, stuffed with welcome materials and deposit deadlines, and how long it will take for our parents to compare.
I try to shake the nerves off, but it’s hard to unload stress that’s been riding on my shoulders for sixteen whole years. In accordance with Perlie’s Academic Plan, I applied to nine schools, and half already sent me their boilerplate regret-to-inform-you rejections. My parents chalked it up to me being on the younger side of the applying class, but I doubt the admissions people had my birth certificate next to my personal statement. When my second-grade teacher hinted that I was
advanced academically enough to skip a grade or two, my parents were initially thrilled at the suggestion. So was I, because this external proof that I am exceptional brought a whirlwind of praise and an impromptu ice cream stop. But then my parents and school administrators questioned whether I was mature enough to handle this leap forward. The thought of going back to being a regular, ice-creamless second grader left a bitter taste in my mouth. I pleaded with them that I was ready, and because I truly am exceptional, I won.
Now, every day that I bring home a stellar test grade or a compliment on an assignment, I prove that being the youngest isn’t holding me back academically at all. These college rejections aren’t helping my case, but they hadn’t stung much; those weren’t the schools I was destined for anyway.
Delmont is where I’m headed. It features one of the most highly rated undergraduate premed programs among all American universities and therefore serves as one of the best feeders into the top medical schools in the nation. It’s an almost-guaranteed ticket into a successful career, a lifetime of respectability, and my name being whispered with a hint of awe when strangers meet my parents.
Dad’s car slows to a stop in front of me.
I slide in as he’s saying his goodbyes to whoever’s on the phone. He taps a button on his steering wheel, hanging up the call, before turning to me with his usual greeting.
“How was school?”
I open my mouth to reply, only to be interrupted by a racking sob from Edie on the sidewalk. Camilla rubs her back. Edie must’ve gotten another rejection. My stomach flutters as I imagine the Delmont acceptance letter in our mailbox.
“Good.” My usual answer, if you forget about the strained group project in Spanish class and mispronunciation of my name by the physics substitute. I know not to bring up the not-so-perfect details with him and Mom. They’d accuse me of complaining, of being ungrateful after all they’ve done to get me to where I am.
All that aside, today actually was a good day.
And I have a feeling it’s about to get even better.
Dad glances into his side mirror before sending the car gliding out of the school parking lot.
“Was that Camilla?” he asks, his eyes on the road. “I wasn’t sure because of the haircut.” A lie. She and I have both had our black hair waist-length since freshman year.
I fish my water bottle out of my backpack to delay an answer. I sense a trap. My parents rarely ask about Camilla unless it’s to make some pointed comparison between us. Dad and one of Camilla’s moms, Jan Kang, jockeyed for top spots at their law school together and impose that sense of rivalry on their children.
Camilla and I live in the same pressure cooker: a suffocating mix of aggressive parents, intellectually elite classmates, and microscope-eyed college admissions staff. Comparison to her has been inescapable all my life. You’d think it’d be enough that I’m keeping up with her academically even though I’m two years younger, but that doesn’t stop my parents from reminding me of her many, many accomplishments.
“Yeah, it was,” I reply, letting him slide. Sometimes it’s easier to let a little lie hang in the air than to reach for it and shake up trouble.
“You know, Ms. Kang told me the other day that Camilla’s heading for NYU in the fall.”
My shoulders tense despite Dad’s tone staying as easy as if he’d been talking about the weather. I know where Dad’s line of thinking is headed.
“That’s great for Camilla. She works really hard. I’m sure she earned it.” And I mean it. Not because she and I actually get along every once in a while and she’s the only person who can beat me at Mario Kart. The sheer fact that we’re academic rivals means she must work her tail off like I do.
I leave the Mario Kart compliment out of the conversation with Dad. I’ve loved video games since I could first swipe open an app on an unattended phone. I learned history through The Oregon Trail, soared daringly over dark alleys and rooftops as a superhero, reinvited myself in iteration after iteration of The Sims. When most of my week is spent in regimented academia and extracurriculars, games provide me a thrilling escape I can’t get elsewhere.
But for all the joy it brings me, my parents don’t see “the point” of it. To them, video games are not a serious academic pursuit, and they won’t make me money or win the admiration of friends and family, so why waste time? As long as I earn As, though, I get to keep this guilty pleasure hobby. Mom changed
the password on my Origin and Steam accounts the last time I brought home a B-plus on a progress report.
I try to steer this conversation in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Hollywood-style spotlight on Camilla. “NYU wasn’t on our college list, remember?”
Dad purses his lips and lets out a short breath through his nose. He does this whenever he’s trying to keep in words that he worries will hurt my feelings, but I hear the disappointment in his exhale. He tries to cover it with a quick smile. “But why wasn’t it, again? It’s a great school.”
I shift in my seat, fighting back the tears that flow into my eyes whenever someone implies that I and all my efforts aren’t enough. I can’t cry now. Dad asked a simple, albeit loaded, question. My parents would judge the tears as a sign of my supposed emotional immaturity and not being ready for “the world,” which is not the case. I can’t control the direct line between my brain, heart, and tear ducts.
I untwist my water bottle cap—I’m even perfect at staying hydrated—and take a swig to buy myself a minute to stop the emotional spiral. “You’re the one with premium access to that college database. We even highlighted the rates of graduates specifically going to medical schools. Delmont’s at the top.”
I had dedicated extra time and effort on the Delmont application. This notoriously hard-to-get-into (and therefore more prestigious) university doesn’t use the Common App like almost all the other top schools. It demands your individual awe and attention the way an Oscar winner does on the red carpet. My parents had paid a recent Delmont grad to act as my application coach, and they took turns proofreading the personal statement that swore Delmont and I were a match made in premed heaven. It was smart, mature, Delmont-worthy.
“Ah, right. It would’ve been nice to have that NYU acceptance though.”
“And waste that time and application fee? Come on, Dad.”
My joking appeal to Dad’s priorities—time and money—makes him smile, almost dissipating the tension. The ring of his phone blares through the speakers in the car and cuts our talk short, which I’m perfectly fine with. I know he and Mom are just trying to push me to excel, but the moments immediately after a long day at school and before a draining night of homework are not my favorite times to have big, analytical discussions about my future. He puts a single finger up to shush me, then fumbles for his headset and starts talking to someone else about a big filing due today.
Dad adjusts his work hours as best he can to accommodate my school and extracurricular schedule, but there’s only so much generosity his hungrier law partners extend to him. He works from home or leaves the office early to be both my chauffeur and taskmaster. That time out of the office has cut into the career he thought he should have by now. We don’t talk much about the lucrative time-intensive business opportunities he’s had to pass along to another person at the firm just so he can maintain that flexibility to shuttle me from school to SAT class to volunteering at the church. I know better than to interrupt him right now.
I pull up PicLine and scroll, looking for connection but finding only content. I am more than ready to leave Monte Verde behind and start fresh.
Dad’s still on his call when we pull into the garage. He heads inside to continue his negotiations, away from the noise of lawn mowers and children and cars whizzing by way above the twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. I beeline for the mailbox.
I know I got in, but anxiety swirls in my stomach as I pad across our immaculate lawn anyway. I wipe my clammy hands off on my jeans and tug the metal mailbox door open with a creak. I pull out a handful of envelopes. Bill, bill, credit card offer, Delmont. My heart stumbles over its next beat.
The envelope is thin.
I blink to make sure I’d read the return address right. Yes, it’s there in neat, printed text, and yes, that’s the blue-and-green Delmont seal printed in the upper left. I bite my lip.
Why is the envelope so thin?
I don’t have any frame of reference for paper acceptances. Maybe Delmont’s envelope is supposed to look like this. Delmont might have decided to save some trees by referring accepted students to materials online.
That must be it. H
ow very eco-friendly of them.
My hands shaking, I reassemble the stack of mail and head inside. Dad nods, cell phone held up flush against his ear, when I plop the rest of the mail down on the already-mail-cluttered kitchen table. I poise to sprint up to my room when he lays his hand on my arm. We’re the same shade of not-enough-time-in-the-sun brown, thanks to us spending all day indoors. Even our limited free time together is movie theaters and restaurants rather than beaches and hiking trails.
His dark brown eyes fix on the Delmont envelope in my hand.
He squeezes my arm, flashes me a grin, then refocuses on his phone call.
My heartbeat erratic, I take the stairs two at a time up to my room. I nearly trip on the top step I’d crossed thousands of times before.
Backpack down, door shut, envelope in hand. I launch myself onto the bed, ruffling the light pink pillowcases, sheets, comforter, and two stuffed bears—Bip and Bop—perched on top. Other than the laptop on my desk, my room hasn’t changed in years. It’s the room of a bright-eyed eleven-year-old who picked out a daisy rug because it looked like something she’d seen on TV.
I tuck my legs underneath me and grip the envelope. I turn it over and slide my finger under the seam, earning myself a paper cut as I rip it open.
I ignore the smart of the fresh cut and unfold the paper. There it is, the Delmont seal in all its glory at the top, then
Dear Ms. Perez, we regret to inform you that . . .
No. No. No.
. . . we are unable to offer you a place in our fall class.
The oxygen disappears from the room. I feel like I’ve been flung into space: breathless, unanchored.
The words on the page blur as the tears start to burn in my eyes. Unable to offer me a place? That can’t be what it says.
Because I’m supposed to get accepted into Delmont. I get in. That’s what’s written in blotchy blue ink in Perlie’s Academic Plan in the bookcase downstairs, what’s tattooed on my soul. Delmont is the next big stepping-stone in my heavily mapped-out future. I get in.
This damn letter is telling me otherwise.
I read the lines over and over again, as if a hidden acceptance lies behind it, if only I am smart enough to decipher it. Trembling, I fold the paper back up along its neat creases, covering the words like they never existed. But the truth of those ground-shaking words sears into my brain.
I didn’t get into my dream school. My parents’ dream school. They’ll be more than angry: they’ll be ashamed. All that money spent on tutors, coaches, and prep classes, all that time wasted whisking me from activity to activity, all those comments to friends and family about how intelligent and impressive their daughter is? All for nothing.
Everyone at school will find out, and, worse than their ignoring me, they’ll side-eye me with those pitying looks. They’ll shake their heads and whisper about that Perlie Perez kid who kept to herself because she thought she was better than everyone; then they’ll be the ones going off to their dream colleges. They’ll be the ones proving how much worthier they are.
And what does this say about me? I, Perfect Perlie Perez, am not good enough for the future I’d been tailoring myself for all my life. Something in me wilts. I’d prepared for acceptance, a first year at a prestigious school, killer finals, new social crises.
I hadn’t prepared for rejection.
A tear hits the paper and soaks in.
Dad has seen the envelope, so there’s no hiding this. Once he’s off his phone call, he’s going to come up here and ask me about the letter. Judging by the heat on my face and the heaviness on my chest, I don’t think I can tell him about the rejection without full-out sobbing. And the crying will reaffirm his erroneous belief that I’m still only a child, one who is not emotionally mature enough for any of this college business. One whose life still has to be carefully crafted and controlled by her tough but well-meaning parents because clearly she can’t be trusted to handle even the slightest thing on her own.
I rub my palms against my eyes; then my gaze lands on the quote above my desk. The words, in rich navy blue, pop against the white background: one of the few non-pink bits of decor in my room. We had found the print and its gilded frame
in an antique store back in eighth grade, and it’s been hanging above my head ever since.
Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.
An actual genius: a parent-approved role model for a sixteen-year-old.
My eyes narrow in on a few words, the rest fading.
Attempt the absurd.
An idea ignites in my brain, one so wild—so absurd—that my heart thumps that extra beat it’d missed earlier, when I’d seen the thinness of the Delmont envelope.
I’m at my desk, one hand on the laptop keyboard, the other on the mouse, before my brain registers that I’ve moved.
I can fix this.
I will fix this.
I unfold the letter, purposely averting my eyes from the evil we regret to inform you. I place it into the feed of the four-in-one printer my parents moved into my room from their office so I could print and proofread my essays without disturbing them. The scan button flashes bright yellow, and the hum of the scanner soothes my jagged, jittery nerves.
I open up the image in Photoshop, and it’s quick work to splice out the letterhead and pull sample acceptance language from the internet. I throw in a line about welcome materials being available online, to explain the shamefully tiny envelope. I match the font type, the size, even the graininess. I didn’t get an A-plus in digital arts for nothing.
Footsteps thud against the wooden stairs. Dad’s done with his call, and he’s coming up.
I hit print and stretch for the ripped envelope on the worn carpet. ...
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