13 Reasons Why It’s OK to Write About Trauma in your College Applications — And How to Do So (a joint post by AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions) — Admissions Mom

Hi everyone. This post is written by me, AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions, TOGETHER. It’s a subject we both care about. We (your dynamic college-co Content warning: discussion of traumatic subjects: suicide, sexual abuse, trauma, self-harm nsultant duo) took up pens together to write what we believe is the first collaborative advice post in the sub’s history. Yay! Enjoy and thanks for reading.

There is always a debate about what topics should be avoided at all cost on college essays. The short-list always boils down to a familiar crew of traumatic or “difficult” subjects. These include, but are not limited to, essays discussing severe depression, self-harm, eating disorders, experiences with sexual violence, family abuse, and experiences with the loss of a close relative or loved one.

First and foremost, you do NOT have to write about anything that makes you uncomfortable or that you don’t want to share. This isn’t the Overcoming Obstacles Olympics. Don’t feel pressure to tell any story that you don’t want to share. It is your story and if you don’t want to write about it, don’t. Period.

BUT, in our view, ruling out all essays that deal with trauma is wrong for two big reasons.

The first is that there is no actual, empirical evidence that essays that deal with trauma are less successful than those that don’t. The view that essays dealing with trauma correlate with lower admissions rates is based on counselor speculation and anecdotal evidence from students who applied, weren’t admitted, then tried to find a justification and decided it was their essays.

Both of us reflected on this. Here’s what we had to say.

  • AdmissionsMom: I work with lots of students who have suffered from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. They nearly always have to address their issues because of school disruption, and I have to say that their acceptances have remained right in range with the rest of my students.

The other big reason is that traumas, while complex, can be sources of deep meaning, and therefore are potentially the exact sort of thing you want to consider. Traumatic experiences are often life-shaping, for better or for worse. So are the ways that we respond to and adapt in the face of trauma. The struggle to adapt and move forward after a traumatic experience may be one of the most important and meaningful things you’ve ever done. So a blanket prohibition on traumatic topics is equivalent, for many, to a blanket prohibition on writing an essay that feels personally meaningful and rewarding.

Categorically ruling out trauma stories also conflicts directly with the core lesson that most college consultants and counselors (including ours truly) are trying to advocate. That is, write a story that matters to you. This is a piece of corny but non-bullshit advice. As it turns out, it’s a rare moment (in a process that can be somewhat cynical) where meaning and strategy overlap. AOs want to read good essays. Good essays are good when they’re written about things that matter. You can attempt to hack together a good essay on a topic you don’t care about, but good luck.

So there are a few big intersecting threads about why you MIGHT want to write about your experience with trauma. First, there is no empirical evidence to recommend against it. Second, traumatic experiences are huge sources of personal meaning and significance, and it would be sad if you couldn’t use your writing as a tool for processing your experience. Third, meaningful essays = good essays = stronger applications.

So for anyone out there who wants to talk about their experience but who is struggling with how to do it, here are some things we want to say:

  1. You ARE allowed to talk about trauma in college apps.

Now, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to write an essay about a challenging or traumatic subject.

13 Reasons Why It’s OK to Write About Trauma in your College Applications — How to Do So

  1. Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for real humans. Real Humans are flawed and have had flawed experiences. Some of our most compelling stories are the ones that open with showing our lives and experiences in less than favorable light. Throw in your lessons learned or what you have done to repair yourself and grow, and you have the makings of a compelling overcoming — or even redemption — story.

If you can do this, go for it. When done well, these types of narratives are the most impactful. Do remember you are seeking admission into a community for which the admissions officer is the gatekeeper. They need to know that, if admitted, not only will you be okay but your fellow students will be okay as well.” from Chad-Henry Galler-Sojourner ( www.bearingwitnessadmissions.com )

  1. Remember what’s really important: Sometimes the processing of your trauma can be more important than the college acceptances — and that’s ok. If a college doesn’t accept you because you mention mental health issues, sexual assault, or traumatic life experiences, in my opinion, they don’t deserve to have anyone on their campus, much less survivors. Take your hard-earned lived experiences elsewhere. The stigma of being assaulted, abused, or having mental health issues, is a blight on our society. That said, be aware of any potential legal issues as admissions readers are mandated reporters in some states.

Putting some other aspect of who you are first in your main essay and putting trauma, addiction, mental health issues, or disability in the Add’l Info Essay is a way to reinforce that those negative experiences in your life don’t define you, and that your recovery or your learning to accommodate for it has relegated that aspect of their experience to a secondary part of who you are.

  1. You CAN use your Common App essay if you want: IF you feel like recovery from the trauma or learning to handle your circumstances define you, then there is no reason you can’t put that aspect of who you are forward in the main personal essay. If the growth that stemmed from the crisis is central to your narrative, then it can be a recovery, or an “overcoming” story. It’s a positive look at your strengths and how you achieved them. If you want to place your recovery story front and center in the primary essay, that’s an appropriate choice.

A framework for writing well about trauma and difficulty: “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes”

Here’s a framework that we think you could apply to any essay topic about a traumatic experience or challenge. This is not a one-size-fits-all framework, but it should help you avoid the biggest pitfalls in writing about challenging topics.

The framework is called “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes.” The metaphor actually comes from one of our parents who used to be active on A2C back when her kid was applying to college; she took it down in her notes at a Wellesley info session. In short, however, the idea is to pare down the “ashes” (the really hard details about the situation, past or present) to focus on who you’ve become as a result.

  1. Address your issue or circumstance BRIEFLY and be straightforward. Don’t dwell on it.

Use that checklist / framework to read back through your essay. In particular, do a spot check with the 80/20 phoenix/ashes rule. Make sure to focus on growth!

Good luck and happy writing,

AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions (www.McNeilAdmissions.com)

Originally published at https://admissionsmom.college on September 6, 2021.



College Admissions Consultant. Mindfulness in College Admissions. Author: Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. www.admissionsmom.college

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College Admissions Consultant. Mindfulness in College Admissions. Author: Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. www.admissionsmom.college