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Note, January 2022: This post was written in 2018, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, many things have changed since then, not least the amount of psychological pressure that many high school students have experienced. Clearly, some of the boundaries and expectations surrounding acceptable/advisable topics for admissions essays have shifted, and applicants undoubtedly have more leeway in discussing mental-health issues than they did in the past. That said, I would still caution against making this subject the exclusive focus of your essay(s). If it happens to be relevant—and it very well might be, given the events of the last couple of years— then you should focus on discussing it in a mature way that conveys qualities such as empathy and resilience, and that demonstrates your ability to reflect insightfully on what may have been very difficult situations.
As regular readers of my blog may know, I periodically trawl the forums over at College Confidential to see what’s trending. Recently, I’ve noticed a concerning uptick in the number of students asking whether it’s appropriate for them to write about mental health issues, most frequently ADD and/or anxiety, in their college applications.
So the short answer: don’t do it.
The slightly longer version:
If you’re concerned about a drop in grades or an inconsistent transcript, talk to your guidance counselor. If these types of issues are addressed, the GC’s letter is the most appropriate place for them. If, for any reason, the GC is unable/unwilling to discuss them and the issues had a significant impact on your performance in school that unequivocally requires explanation, you can put a brief, matter of fact note in the “is there any additional information you’d like us to know?” section, but think very carefully about how you present it. Do not write your main essay about the issue.
The full version:
To understand why these topics should generally be avoided, you need to understand what information colleges are actually seeking to gain from the personal statement. Although it is technically a personal narrative, it is, in a sense, also a persuasive essay: its purpose is to convey what sets you apart from the thousands of others with equally good grades and scores, and to suggest whether you have qualities that make you more likely to thrive at university x than the other 10 or 15 or even 20 applicants clamoring for that spot.
Now, whether such thing can actually be determined from 650 words (with which some students receive significant help) is of course questionable; however, the bottom line is that, adcoms are looking for students who will be successful in college. Discussing one’s inability to focus or intense aversion to social situations does not exactly inspire confidence, even if a student insists those problems have been overcome. Leaving home, dealing with professors and roommates and more challenging classes… Those are all major stressors. There is a tacit understanding that of course some students will flame out, have breakdowns, etc., but adcoms are understandably hesitant to admit anyone who is already at a higher risk for those issues. You want them to be excited about the prospect of admitting you, not debate whether you’ll really be able to handle college. (In fact, I had multiple students with various issues who were not truly ready for college and who did flame out — colleges have good reason to take these things seriously.)
This concern goes beyond any particular student’s well-being: graduation rates get factored into rankings, and every student who doesn’t make it through drags that statistic just a little bit lower. If a student does develop serious problems while on campus, there are also potential legal/liability issues involved, and no school wants to deliberately court those.
Besides, if your grades are iffy, it is extremely difficult not to sound as if you are making excuses. You are much better off talking about an experience or interest that will make them look past the transcript and think, “Hey, I really like this kid.” And the reality is that if your grades are that iffy, you’re probably not a competitive candidate at super-selective colleges anyway. These schools are looking for applicants who are on the way to fulfilling their potential, not for ones who need to explain away chronic underachievement.
In addition, one thing applicants — and sometimes their parents — have difficulty wrapping their heads around is the sheer number of applications the average admissions officer has encountered. Situations that may seem extreme and dramatic to adolescents who have recently confronted them may in fact have already been experienced — and written about — by thousands of other applicants. A 17-year old may believe that describing their anxiety in morbid detail will make them seem complex and introspective, but more likely it will only come off as overwrought and trite.
I know that might sound harsh, but please remember that admissions officers are coming at this process with no pre-existing knowledge of you as a person, only a few minutes to spend on your essay, and hundreds of other applications to get through. They are also under intense pressure to ensure that the appropriate demographics targets are being met and all the various institutional constituencies (coaches, development office, orchestra conductor) are being satisfied. They’re not ogres, and they’ll try to give you the benefit of the doubt, but if yours is the fifth essay about overcoming anxiety they’ve seen in the last 48 hours, they will look at it and reflexively think, “oh, another one of these.” That is not a first impression you want to make.
Now, are there exceptions? Yes, of course, but they are rare. In all the time I did college admissions work, I had exactly one student successfully discuss anxiety in an essay. It was, however, introduced in the context of a family tragedy that had profoundly shaped the student’s life; given that background, the discussion seemed natural and matter of fact rather than overdramatized. Even so, I made the student take a good week to think about whether that topic was truly the one they wanted to write about.
Ultimately, of course, the decision is yours, and the choice depends on the larger story you want to tell as well as your ability as a writer, but these topics are so difficult to pull off well that you are best off avoiding them if you can (particularly if you don’t have access to someone with a lot of admissions experience who can review your essay). Find another topic/ experience that you enjoy writing about (and that others are likely to enjoy reading about); that presents you as someone interesting and thoughtful; and that suggest you are ready to thrive in college.
If you really are concerned about your ability to function in college, most schools have plenty of resources for you to take advantage of (academic support, counseling center, etc.). But those are things to investigate after you get admitted. Before that, don’t go out of your way to fly red flags where none are warranted.