This fall, many high school seniors will be staring at a blank computer screen with the same question on their minds: What should I write about in my college application essay?
For seniors who experienced a mental health challenge while in high school, this question takes on another dimension. Should they talk about how they coped with say, depression, or any other mental health condition? Should they refer to it only in passing? Should they avoid mentioning it at all?
It’s a complicated topic — yet the college planning experts I talked with all offered similar advice.
Before thinking about whether or not you should write about mental health on your college essay, you should remember what the essay — or the “personal statement" in the parlance of the Common Application — is all about in the first place.
No matter which prompt they select, for all high school seniors, those with or without mental health challenges, the essay is the only part of the application in which colleges will hear their voices. The rest of the application contains numbers, statistics, and comments from teachers and counselors.
This is why the personal statement, as college planning experts concur, is where you should share part of your true self in the most positive light. Think about what a college wants to know about you as a person, or what a university would gain by having you become a part of the campus community.
Your essay is what brings your college application to life, and you should strive for it to represent you in an authentic yet optimistic way. As one former reader of applications at a top university’s admission office asked me, “Does your essay pass the midnight test"?
Picture an exhausted admissions officer with a stack of unread application files on her desk. She is reading yours at midnight at the end of a 16-hour day. Does your essay draw the officer in and make her eager to read until the end of your essay to learn more about you? Will she be eager enough for her to conclude that, yes, we want this student on our campus next fall?
That is the purpose of your essay: to take its reader beyond the numbers into who you are as a real live human being.
All counselors interviewed for this piece agreed that students’ college essays should not be about their struggles with mental health. Wendy Kahn, a Chicago-based college planner, and Anna Seltz, of Higher Ed U, a college consulting organization in Philadelphia, both spoke about how a student should try to talk about herself in a positive light instead, taking the opportunity to showcase one of her many other qualities, like her intellectual curiosity, personal growth, or maturity.
A couple of the counselors — Bruce Vinik of Vinik Educational Services and Marsha Shaines of College Strategies in Kensington, Maryland — said that the only case in which a student should consider writing about her mental health challenges is if the struggle truly defines her as a person. Even then, both counselors saw this as the rare exception, and suggest that instead, most students should take advantage of the opportunity to explore one of the many other attributes that makes them unique. Vinik says that mental health problems should only be shared in the essay if the college would not be able to understand the applicant without knowing about this part of her. Generally, he discourages selecting this as a primary topic.
All of the college planners mentioned above agree that if your mental health struggle in high school clearly impacted your performance, then you should mention it in the “Additional Information" portion of the Common Application — but only in a factual manner. If you missed three months of your sophomore year to deal with a mental health condition, you should explain that you spent those months dealing with a “health challenge," overcame it, and are now on back on track, advises Vinik.
The three other college counselors generally agreed with this sentiment. All expressed that if the mental health challenges have made an impact on your grades, involvement in class, attendance, or ability to participate in school activities, you should provide a short, factual summary (no more than two paragraphs) for background purposes, always emphasizing your recovery after these difficult moments and your preparedness for a college environment.
Seltz suggests that talking about this in your admissions interview may be another route applicants can explore. Seltz recommends taking an approach like the one outlined for personal statements above: Briefly explain how the challenge affected your grades and focus mostly on the fact that those problems are now under control.
All of the college planners suggest that you talk with your high school counselor to ensure that what you are saying about mental illness in the college application is consistent with what the counselor may or may not say in her own counselor recommendation. Or, if you’d prefer that the counselor not address your mental health issues, request that as well.
Being told that you cannot share a part of yourself that may have had a large impact on your life can be difficult to hear. Unfortunately, mental health is a stigmatized topic, and it’s difficult to explore its nuances and complexities in the short and streamlined format of a college application.
The fact that you are not writing about it on your application doesn’t mean that colleges don’t want the "real" you, or that you will be unable to succeed. A mental health condition does not disqualify you from having an excellent collegiate experience. As you explore your college options, be sure to look for campuses that are particularly mental-health friendly, and focus on finding resources you can rely on as a student. From counseling services to wellness organizations, many campuses make student mental health a priority, and selecting this kind of college will help you embrace your challenges and thrive in a new environment.
If you are worried that your problems are not yet under control — and that college may exacerbate them — you may want to consider taking a gap year and working with a local counselor to prepare for the big transition.
Be personal in your college application essay — but do so in an optimistic and positive way. The purpose of the essay is to convince its reader to want you to be on her campus next fall. Don’t leave the admission person reviewing your application with any unanswered questions or red flags about you.
If there are circumstances that need to be explained — such as time off, a drop in grades or diminished participation in extracurricular activities, do so in a factual and concise manner in the “Additional Information" section.
Yes, you may have experienced a mental health challenge and/or you may be going to college with mental illness. But don’t let that singularly define you as a person. You offer much more to a college than your diagnosis. And the personal statement essay is the place to show the college who you are as an individual, why you are ready for college, and what strong and special qualities you will bring to the campus community if accepted.