Is a Personal Struggle an Appropriate Essay Topic?

By Kevin McMullin


Personal Struggle

College applicants often write essays about personal struggles. Sometimes, those stories provide great insight into the human being behind the grades and test scores, revealing strength, resilience, and the ability to overcome challenges, all of which are valuable traits that can help those students be happy and successful in college.

But in other cases, tales of personal struggle raise red flags to the point that an admissions officer is reluctant to offer the applicant a space in the class. How can students, parents, and counselors tell the difference between a personal struggle story that helps—and one that hurts— a student’s admissibility?

There is no irrefutable list of “OK” and “Not OK” topics. But the litmus test we use at Collegewise when students ask our opinion is, “Will this story give an admissions officer cause to worry about your health, stability, or safety if you joined their class?”

First, it’s important to remember that a college application—even one with essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews—is an imperfect instrument of measurement. You’re far more complex and interesting than any application can possibly communicate. And that’s exactly why it can be risky to mention some particular challenges.

For example, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, suicide attempts—these are very real challenges, and no admissions officer I’ve ever met will think you’re less worthy as a human being just because you’ve faced these types of demons.

But college can be a challenging adjustment for even the healthiest, best-supported students. And these stories can raise very real concerns for a reader who does not know you like your friends and family do.

Are you ready for the challenges of college life? Do they need to be concerned about your health and safety? Is there a chance you could be a danger to yourself or others?

It might seem unfair for an admissions officer to consider those questions, especially when you aren’t necessarily given the chance to offer a response. But that’s their job. They have a responsibility—to you and to the students who would be joining you in the campus community—to raise those concerns.

I would never tell a student not to write a story she felt strongly about sharing. But I think every applicant deserves to understand the risks of some particular topics.

If you’re a student (or the parent, or counselor of one) who is considering writing about a struggle like these, please consider including the following information.

Have you successfully overcome this challenge?

When mentioned in college essays, struggles like these are often less concerning when they’re followed by triumph. What evidence is there that you are happier and healthier today than you were before? Spend the appropriate time in your essay to show what life on the other side of this struggle looks like.

Are you offering, or will you be able to offer, support or guidance to other students who might be experiencing the same thing?

We once worked with a student who spent six months in a drug rehabilitation center, but her story (which she did discuss in the essay) included that she was not only two years sober, but that she also now worked in that same center counseling other teens who were in the throes of addiction. What once might have been seen as a liability now becomes a very real asset to her fellow students and to the college.

And finally, whatever story you choose to share—personal struggle or not—please don’t choose it based on what you think colleges want to hear. There’s a common admissions myth that hardship is inherently rewarded, causing many applicants to exaggerate or even manufacture it. There’s no such thing as admissions extra credit based on your essay topic. Choose a story that helps them get to know you in a way they could not have done by the application alone.

And most importantly, make sure that you’re proud of what you share and what your story says about you. If your story passes that test, the right colleges will appreciate it, too.