While social-emotional health and the normalizing of mental health and learning disabilities have been a focus for educators and families, whether it's wise to share deeply personal struggles with college admissions remains in question.
It’s a messy, emotionally charged issue for sure, one that flies in the face of the good, hard work students do to persevere through their struggles. We teach kids to understand and embrace who they are. We celebrate weaknesses becoming strengths. We hope these kids will enter college and adulthood with greater compassion, resilience, and humanity than the generation before them.
And yet, each year I meet with increasing numbers of college essay writers and parents riddled with questions:
Will I seem too vulnerable?
Will I weaken my application?
Will they want me?
We ask teenagers to write about something meaningful and authentic, to capture who they are in a narrative only they can tell. But too often, they get the message that a big piece of who they are is “too dangerous” to be shared.
It’s important to keep in mind the point of the college essay: to give admissions insight to the applicant beyond the data listed on the application. They want to hear a unique voice and perspective, to be pulled into the student’s specific world, to imagine the applicant on campus; and, yes, to assess whether the student has the tools and potential to succeed, academically, socially, and emotionally. The latter is no easy task.
There are ways to share a struggle in an authentic, successful essay: in the context of growth, as opportunities for connection, discovery, and perseverance. If that's the direction your child's essay is headed, encourage them to try it out.
Below are basic checks I offer my students who worry about sharing their personal struggles via their college essays.
Is my struggle the headline of the essay? Yes? Rethink essay.
Will the essay define me by my struggle? Yes? Rethink essay.
Is the essay a long excuse, explanation, or complaint? Yes? Rethink essay.
Will the essay make admissions question my ability to succeed? Yes? Rethink essay.
Does the essay explore how my struggle has been an OPPORTUNITY for personal growth? Yes? Share essay!
Will the essay show admissions my vulnerability, strengths, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, or understanding of self? Yes? Share essay!
And My Favorite:
7. What does a college admissions officer now know about me that’s not already on my application?
If the answer is, “I struggle with depression.” Then don’t share. If the answer is, “I’m proud of my mission to form knitting circles in local middle and high schools to help kids work though their struggles the way I have. I understand who I am, and I'm ready and excited to take on the world.”
Then share. Please share.