Although some high school seniors may moan that they “have nothing to write about” as they contemplate their college admission essay, plenty of other students have experienced a significant loss or history of hardship that might seem to be exactly the right stuff to recount.
But that may be a mistake.
College admissions officers rely on these essays – or personal statements – to bring the students behind the test scores, GPAs, and activities resumes to life. The best essays provide admissions officers with a glimpse of how the writers view the world, what they might be like as students and classmates, and what they might contribute to the campus if admitted.
If students write largely about their troubles and little about how they themselves resolved (or are resolving) them, they do not provide the admissions officer with any of that valuable insight.
This is not to say that students should avoid revealing a tumultuous family life or a traumatic experience; rather, how they approach the topic in their essay is key.
“Don’t tell me how hard your life is or was,” says Belinda Wilkerson, an Independent Educational Consultant in Fayetteville, NC. “Show me what you did in spite of it.”
Wilkerson says she encourages the disadvantaged youth she counsels through the college admission process to “give specific examples of the lessons learned from their circumstances, but to not dwell on those circumstances” as they write their essay.
“Show the struggle and how you dealt with it,” agrees David Venetianer, a veteran volunteer essay coach for the National Capital Region of College Summit, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting low-income youth to college.
The main caveat, cautions Venetianer, is that the story should still be about the student and not the other person or circumstance. “Let the personal story shine through,” he advocated to a past student who, determined to write about the difficult subject of her abusive childhood, strove to highlight her triumph over adversity (and, to her credit, was ultimately chosen as a Gates Millenial Scholar).
Another student, Mary Sullivan, an eighteen-year old northern Virginia high school senior who recently tackled her personal statement, knew that her story would be incomplete if she omitted the fact that her father had died when she was in middle school; his loss had shaped her teen years significantly. But she did not want to tell a tale of woe – and she also knew that her true story was the strong, resilient young woman she had become.
Ultimately, Mary decided to briefly acknowledge her struggle with grief, and then focused on her emerging worldview, career plans, and dreams of having a positive impact on the world. Her essay evoked images of her potential, not her past.
While Mary decided that being straightforward and brief was best, other students may choose to give more detail about the struggles they’ve faced.
The important point is that no matter how you choose to present your story, you must make yourself the main character and you must spotlight your strengths.
It may take more time and more thoughtfulness to achieve the right tone and approach, but if your college essay celebrates the person you are (no matter your struggles) you’ll end up enhancing your college admission possibilities.