Pros, Cons of Writing About Challenges in Your College Application Essay

College application essay prompts often ask students to offer an example of a challenge they’ve faced, followed by a description of what they’ve learned from that experience. However, candidates often struggle to answer these types of essay questions. Those who have suffered a trauma may have trouble writing about their past because it evokes painful memories. Meanwhile, a person who hasn’t endured serious misfortunes might be unsure that any life obstacle they have overcome is substantial enough to be worthy of a college essay.

Undergraduate admissions experts say that one common misconception among college applicants is the idea that they need to write about a tragedy in their college essay in order to become a competitive candidate for a highly selective college.

“First off, it’s important for students and parents to remember that college admissions committees aren’t holding a competition for who experienced the biggest challenge,” said Shirag Shemmassian, an admissions consultant and the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting based in San Diego, via email. “In other words, simply having experienced a significant challenge isn’t reason enough to write about adversity in a college essay. Conversely, experiencing a moderate challenge may serve as the foundation for a great essay.”

[See: 10 Tips to Inspire College Essays.]

Experts also note that adversity-themed college essays are rarely mandatory. In a situation where an essay prompt about personal challenges is one of multiple options, college applicants who’d prefer not to discuss personal difficulties in their application essays can write about something else.

In instances where an essay about overcoming adversity is required, perhaps as a school-specific supplemental college essay that complements the primary college application essay, experts advise thinking broadly about what counts as personal difficulties.

“Adversity is in the eye of the beholder,” said Chris Hooker-Haring, the interim vice president for enrollment at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, via email. “For some students, it might be a truly traumatic experience such as the death of a close relative or friend. For other students, it might be the struggle to find a summer job, or the struggle to achieve some important goal — understand calculus, win a role in the play [or] complete an ambitious service project.”

According to Hooker-Haring, the key to success in a hardship-focused college essay is the same as for any other type of college essay: authenticity. “Sincerity, effort and thoughtful self-reflection will usually win the day in whatever subject a student chooses for the college essay.”

Account for the Severity of the Challenges You’ve Faced

Experts urge students mentioning a relatively minor difficulty, such as moving and going to a new school, in an adversity-focused college essay to acknowledge that the magnitude of their difficulty was small in comparison to more serious calamities, such as homelessness.

“I always steer students away from exaggerating the weight of the problems in their lives,” said Stacey Brook, the founder and chief advisor at College Essay Advisors, an education consulting company, via email.

Joseph Adegboyega-Edun, a Maryland-based high school counselor, suggests that applicants who have faced enormous obstacles strongly consider using that experience as fodder for a college essay. “I would recommend that students write on this topic if they have overcome unique personal hardships that make anyone ask, ‘How could a teenager have overcome this?'” he says.

Colette Coleman, the founder of the Coleman Strategy education business consulting firm who earned her bachelor’s degree at Yale University, says that her college application would have been incomplete if she had not mentioned her upbringing with a single mother in a disadvantaged New York City neighborhood.

“My college essays did talk about the challenges I had faced because they were a big part of who I was; the goal of the personal statement was to allow the admissions teams to get to know me, so omitting my adverse circumstances would’ve been disingenuous,” Coleman said via email. “My candor and focus on the solutions to my challenges got me accepted into multiple Ivy League schools.”

[See: Infographic: What Makes a Strong College Essay.]

Think Twice Before Writing About an Unresolved Life Crisis

Sarah Fischer, the director of admissions at Grinnell College in Iowa, says that students should only write their essay about adversity if they are prepared to discuss the ways that they overcame that challenge.

“If they are not at a place with this event or circumstance where they can showcase personal growth, I would not recommend writing about it,” Fischer said via email.

Deena Maerowitz, a partner and principal with The Bertram Group educational consulting firm in Connecticut, recommends that students struggling with an eating disorder, addiction or mental illness for which they are currently receiving inpatient treatment take caution before discussing the topic in their essay. “There’s more to you than this one experience, and I want the colleges to know that about you,” says Maerowitz, who has a master’s degree in social work.

On the other hand, college hopefuls who have made a meaningful recovery from either of these three health ailments should feel free to discuss that recovery in the essay, assuming that they have been in stable health for a significant period of time, Maerowitz says.

Andrew Belasco, the CEO of College Transitions, an Atlanta-based admissions consulting firm, says that college essays about mental health issues can impress admissions officers. “I think those really personal issues can provide for really compelling essays, but provided that students can articulate why their condition or illness has made them a better applicant and potentially a better student,” he says. Students who have struggled with mental health may be able to powerfully convey in their essay how their battle has made them a more sensitive, thoughtful and resilient person. After all, discussing mental health in a college admissions essay requires an admirable amount of courage and “a willingness to be vulnerable,” which some college admissions officers will greatly appreciate, he says.

Belasco adds that some students with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder write contrarian college essays about how their unique way of thinking actually helps them with academics. “In many contexts, having these conditions can be an asset,” he says. “It’s not that… struggles don’t come along with it, but there are certain types of majors, fields [and] occupational pathways where being a little obsessive, being a little compulsive can really bring out the best in someone [and] can really be an advantage.”

Still, it’s important to consider whether writing about a personal hardship will be anxiety-inducing. Coleman notes that there was one childhood incident she found too upsetting to write a college essay about — the sudden death of her father when she was seven years old. She advises college applicants to steer clear of writing about problems that make them feel overwhelmed and emotional. “If the requirement is just [to] write about an adverse experience or a challenging situation, and they’re still processing their grief or their trauma over that situation, I would not write about that actually,” she says.

Reveal Something Authentic About Your Character

Laura Stratton, director of admission at Scripps College in Claremont, California, says that one common mistake college applicants make in essays about adversity is that they solely focus on recounting the incident and forget to convey their personality.

“As with any essay topic, the student should always ask: What do I want the readers to know about ME when they finish reading this?” Stratton wrote via email. “Then, work backwards to write the essay. Excessive attention to detail or a play-by-play timeline isn’t necessary — instead, an applicant should remember that we want to get to know them as a person — the personal essay is often a great way to do this.”

Stratton says that applicants who are writing about a misfortune that affected a friend or family member, such as a tragic illness, should remember that their essay needs to not only include an interesting description of their loved one, but also provide a compelling self-portrait. She says that one of the best essays about adversity she’s read was an essay written by a female college applicant whose single parent was sent to prison. The applicant wrote about what she learned from this painful experience. “There are a few essays that stay with you and that’s one of the ones,” Stratton says.

[Read: How to Write a College Essay.]

“Insight and maturity gained from a difficult life experience is more important to highlight than ‘I have it all figured out now,'” Stratton wrote via email. “We don’t expect a student to be perfect — we just want to get to know them through the personal essay.”

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Pros, Cons of Writing About Challenges in Your College Application Essay originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 09/14/18: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Wheaton College.