Content warning: I do not plan to go in-depth on any particular topic, but I will be addressing many, many topics by name that may be inherently difficult to read about in this piece.
Other warning: My intent for this piece is to provide what I believe to be a critical message in as clear and logical format as possible. My intent is not to come off as cold or nasty, but I am willing to risk that to ensure those reading this understand how strongly I feel about this subject.
Third warning: My opinions below are entirely related to the college application process and in no way reflect my feelings on overall teen mental health or well-being in any way.
Bonus fourth warning: (DMs are also fine!) I fully invite/encourage students to ask about other topics in the comments below. I will happily edit this post to assign them wherever I see fit. But as a general rule, if you are not sure whether a certain topic is appropriate for a college essay or not, my answer is “go with something else.”
Here is a complete list of topics I do not believe you should write about in a college application for any reason. I would resign and refund a student’s money before I would let him or her submit an application containing discussion of:
Anxiety (Be careful about this one. It leaks through)
Any other form of mental illness
Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or other medications related to mental health
Stays in mental health facilities or any other sort of involuntary hold
Rage, wrath, or wishing revenge
Interest in guns, explosives, or other weapons capable of mass-homicide
Sexual, mental, or physical abuse
Substance abuse in any way
Acts of extreme violence, either to or by you
The following list are topics I do not recommend except for certain edge cases as described below:
Any topic from the above list, but as it pertains to someone else experiencing it and you supporting them
Meaning I don’t recommend essays about your sister’s drug addiction or mom’s mental health. This is mainly because such topics make it very difficult to write about yourself. If you can make it about yourself, these topics are not inherently off-limits.
In the case that a learning disorder was discovered while in high school, was treated, and your grades improved as a result, it is fair to address this topic in the Additional Information Box, while including a note that you plan to continue to work on your condition and plan to succeed in college.
In all other circumstances, I’m against including it. I understand the hypocrisy of such a statement.
Former or ongoing tragedy/illness/death/other forms of extreme hardship unrelated to topics above, mostly death of a loved one.
When it comes to such tragedies, I tend to take an “if it comes up, it comes up” approach to the situation. I’m more likely to have it come up if the event happened while the student was in high school and the loss was substantial. That does not mean I ever base an essay around it. Instead, it tends to come briefly early on in a piece, which further directs the “real” story.
If such hardship caused your grades or ECs to suffer, it is fair to explain what happened/is happening in the Additional Information Box. Be objective but detached while explaining the circumstances and how they’ve negatively affected your circumstances. Then be equally objective on steps you’re taking to heal from the incident and how you plan to remain effective in college.
Anything from the list above, but as an explanation for weaknesses in your application.
Additional Info Box again. You do not need to go in-depth on the issue itself. I would recommend you leave the situation vague, using some term like “personal issues” in lieu of bringing up the topic. Then explain how you’re improving on these issues (be less vague here) and that you plan to continue to work on your condition and plan to succeed in college.
This is the one I’m least sure about and would be happy to hear other’s opinion.
The following are pretty much fine and can be quite effective. But they do have caveats:
Forms of hardship that stems from sociopolitical or economic factors beyond your control
This includes topics such as poverty, racism, crime, sexism, war, and homelessness. These topics can be effective, but only when handled with extreme care during the writing process. Generally, they work best when partnered with an analysis on how you plan to use your college experience to rectify the type of oppression that still faces you and those like you.
I don’t have a problem with it. But I encourage you to make sure your sexuality/identity is not the primary reason a school should be accepting you.
If you are involved with organizations that tackle any such issue
Totally fine. If you work for, like, RAINN, you are allowed to explain what they do and how the topic had affected you, if only on a theoretical level. That being said, if your reasons for joining involve at one point being a victim of similar abuse or condition, you really don’t need to mention that. Pick any of the other many reasons the program matters to you and go with that.
That’s all you really need to take from this piece. If you just want to, “ok got it” and off you go, that’s 100% fine with me. The following 2,098 words are merely a somewhat ordered list of every reason I believe that mentioning such “hard” topics is not a good idea.
Here is a hypothetical scenario I explain to students that I have found to be a successful way to explain my rationale.
Colleges have a very real crisis on their hands. Two, really. The first is students being unable to handle the newfound pressures that college brings. In many such cases, the student fails or drops out. In more severe cases, the student takes his or her own life.
The second is that colleges are terrified of being the host site to the next publicized sexual assault, murder, or mass-casualty event.
With that knowledge, pretend you are an admissions officer. You have thousands of files to get through this year, and not one of them directly impacts your future in any way. You stumble upon a student who seems like an easy accept. Stats are clean. Strong music ECs. Seems like a solid student. But then you reach a paragraph in her supplements where she mentions a history of depression. You are suddenly faced with three options:
Ignore the depression part and present the rest of her application to other AOs as if nothing ever happened
Bring up the depression to the committee and celebrate whatever positive attributes she reflected upon facing it
Quietly slip her into the no pile and never think about it again
I’ve never been an AO, but my breakdown would likely be 30/0/70. The middle 0 is because I’d want to get my student in, and I don’t think it would help my case. But I would honestly resent that 30% most for putting me in that situation. The reason is I wouldn’t be able to shake a worry that if that 30% student went on to do something tragic that tarnished the school, that those in charge wouldn’t start looking for ways to pass the buck. And what might happen if they go back into the admission archives and see that someone learned about her condition ahead of time and didn’t say or do something about it?
I’m down to 10/0/90 just writing that.
Writing about such topics the wrong way is the single easiest way to have your overall application chances completely plummet
I spend some time over at r/collegeresults. What I’m looking for are outliers. 85% of students I see there succeed at roughly the rate I’d expect given my knowledge base. There’s some variance, but this ain’t no lottery.
But then I’ll see a student who just gets **destroyed—**destroyed in a way that does not make sense given my understanding of this process.
In the limited times I have gotten a chance to see that student’s application, I have found that their mistake was writing about one or more of the issues mentioned above in a way that sunk his or her application. It’s super sad and feels so avoidable. Yes, there are ways to make any topic work. But seeing the potential punishment for doing it wrong is what makes me so indignant to turn this into a black/white issue as opposed to giving the standard, “well maybe if it’s really important to you and you can show how you grew…” response that other adults pass off because they don’t want to come off like a dick.
It’s not what schools want
I blame “Essays that worked.” You go check those out and every other one is about a student overcoming some unbelievable period of adversity. But that’s not the game. I promise you that top schools aren’t lining the freshman class with sob stories. They can’t do that. Instead, every year a few such students do get in, but they are very much the exception and not the rule. I would further argue that those that do fall into the “hardship that stems from sociopolitical factors beyond your control” camp. In those cases, it is the student’s improbable story itself that is what sells them. Not necessarily the values they learned through it. Them making it here at all is the draw.
Schools want perky, optimistic, brilliant kids that love learning and then doing stuff with what they’ve learned. At top levels, they want idealistic prodigies who will go on to do something great. Essays on mental health and otherwise do not point to that future.
It’s super not what AOs want
I could just link like 30 “NO PLEASE NO MORE” pieces from AOs here. But this one seems to be pretty much what we’re talking about:
You are not the only one applying to schools. And at some point, I don’t recommend these topics for the same reason I don’t recommend writing about sports or video games. They’re simply done quite often by students and are a bummer to read. Do you really want your AO seeing your essay and going, “Ah Christ, another one”?
Every essay you spend writing about a hard issue is an essay you don’t spend writing about something else
You get around 1,000 words per school to explain your everything to them. And what you must understand is that this really is what they use to define their understanding of you. Those 1,000 words are precious, and you must pick the topic for them carefully. It does not pay to expect AO’s to read between the lines and attribute to you characteristics that are not patently spelled out to them.
It goes into theming an application. Like it or not, any topic you bring up into your application goes into your overall brand. A student who writes about solving Rubiks Cubes and then also raising pet goldfish is pretty much defined by those two things like that’s his entire personality. But replace goldfish with overcoming an eating disorder, and now that’s your brand. It just is… Because that’s what you wrote about.
Think of the opportunity cost on any such essay you plan on writing. What gives you a better chance for success? That, or whatever else you could be writing that you think gives you the best shot?
You don’t owe these schools shit
College admissions are not a confessional. There’s no priest and no redemption. This is a creative writing exam submitted to a team of 10 people you’ll never know who then decide if your family gets to buy their product or not.
As such, you are under no order to tell them anything about your life, good or bad. You have to tell the truth! But the way you present that truth is entirely up to you. Often quiet omission is the best practice. You just….don’t bring it up. Then everything else is exactly as you remember it, just without the part you’re not bringing up.
College applications are just modified versions of job applications
Your essays are your cover letter + interviews. Your ECs+stats are your resume. And on and on.
I do some career/entrepreneur consulting on the side. I get through to those I’m advising that companies/clients don’t care about how they can make your life better. That’s what the money’s for. Instead, hirers want to know what’s in it for them and how you will be the best possible candidate for the job + not cause any problems along the way.
Think about how insane it would be to talk about a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or anything else in a job interview—-especially at one for a high-end position.
Any positive values gained from overcoming hardship can better be attributed to another story from your life
This is the theoretical gain from such essays. It’s not that you hope writing about depression will interest AOs but instead that your positive characteristics will shine through in your discussion of overcoming those challenges.
And to that, I say, who needs the depression part??? If you want AOs to know you’re resilient or driven, or any other trait, that’s totally fine. But attribute those characteristics to something else you did. I hope that if you were able to rely on such traits to face your darkest demons, you’ll also have relied on them to, like, win a debate tournament or something.
You can even soften your issues into a still-true-but-less-chaotic story. I had a student write about overcoming insomnia. Another changing her diet to keep her energy levels up while performing. Those essays both covered for a larger issue they faced and…well neither essay was that great tbh but that 4th UC essay rarely is and they both got in just fine.
Speaking of UCs..
That “Most Significant Challenge” UC prompt doesn’t have to be taken literally.
Hey, guys, could you fix this one for 2021? You decided to not take test scores halfway through last season, so I like to think you also have the ability to modify one of your prompts to stop conditioning teens into thinking they need to relive trauma to get into Riverside.
It doesn’t make for a very good essay
In my first year, I had students write about mental health. I decided not to have them submit any of them less because of the bigger realities I know now and more because I thought they were bad and kind of boring essays.
The essays I like have a twist to them. That a student accomplished their goals in a way that only they could have thanks to their talents and brilliance. On the opposite end is the “I got an A” essay. That’s any essay that follows the plot, “I was bad at something -> I did exactly what you’d expect to improve -> I improved.”
The problem with overcoming mental health and other hard issues is that there is no trick. No brilliant maneuver to jump the line and achieve your goals. Instead, the way out is slow, predictable, and frustrating. It tends to involve a lot of therapy, and time, and support from friends and family, and time, and medication, and time.
Such essays tend to end up sounding very, very familiar in the end. They also lack personal agency. It’s hard to be the hero of your story when it comes to getting help. That’s the point of getting help to begin with.
Hard issues don’t just “go away”
My legs itch as I write this. It’s because it’s summer again, and I have no choice but to turn the AC on. The air swirls up dust in my apartment and causes me to break out in hives.
By my count, I could classify seven of the issues I mentioned as ones that I have personally dealt with. The ironic part is I didn’t really cover “chronic illness” because I don’t actually know if that one’s kosher or not.
Many of these issues started back when I was in high school and have come and gone at their own pace for the past 15 years. I don’t write much about addiction, depression, illness, or otherwise because a top goal of mine when writing is to get the words out, so I never have to think about them again. There is an endlessness to such topics that makes any observation or advice regarding them seem foolish and outdated almost immediately.
I’m afraid to be the bearer of bad news here that most dark, heavy, very real problems you face today as a teenager will either stick with you or one day return. No one told you at the time, but you became an adult like eighteen months ago, and this is pretty much what being an adult is like. Sucks, I know.
But there’s hope in that message. You don’t have to solve every damn issue you face right here and now or else. Instead, understand that there’s a lot of life out there waiting for you. And the best way to tackle it is to not just gather support to end crises as they arise but instead be willing to reach out for help before you need it. Take advantage of the free mental health services your future school will provide you and any other form of moral or emotional support that enables you to live the life you want to live.
Just don’t write about any of that in your essays, OK?