Writing About Trauma in College Essays

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A recent TEDx talk by Tina Young entitled: The Rise of the “Trauma Essay” in College Applications caught my attention, as many of the points she raises are ones we have discussed with our students, especially those in our Laurel Scholars program, which seeks to help the otherwise underprivileged in their college applications. 

She raises some important points, but we want to discuss the phenomenon of trauma essays in a slightly different light, and explore why colleges want to hear about your struggles. We’ll seek to contextualize this need in the application process, and explore how you can share it with colleges without making it the core of your identity or application process. 

Why Colleges Care About Trauma

The truth underlying the TEDx talk is simple: trauma essays often work, and are successful in helping students get into college. This leads to many students, both those who have experienced trauma and those who haven’t, feeling like they need to discuss challenges they’ve faced and overcome in their essays to have a shot at getting into college. This is not the case. 

Essays about overcoming challenges often work because they function well as college essays. A good college essay tells admissions officers who the applicant is, what their values are, and tells an interesting narrative to convey this information. Stories about overcoming challenges are often narratively compelling (just look at most popular TV shows and movies, and see how many challenges those characters face). While this is far from the only way to write a strong college essay, it is easy to see why some students feel compelled to write one.

That said, colleges do care about struggles you may have faced which have impacted your educational progress. This is because all students are analyzed in context, and their achievements are measured against the opportunities they were presented with. To show how this works, let’s compare two fictional students. 

Students A and B have the same grades and test scores, though student A has taken far more advanced courses in math and science. Student A has also interned at several labs, and has their name on a number of research papers. Student B has some extracurriculars, but for the most part has not done much outside of school beyond some part-time employment. 

Here is where context matters. Student A attends a top private school, one with extensive support for extracurriculars and advanced academic opportunities, including support for independent research and help finding internships. Student B, on the other hand, attended a poorly funded public school, one without the budget for arts, much less advanced options. They had to help take care of siblings after school, and worked part time to help their parents pay bills.

In light of this context, which student’s academic achievement means more? Does this explain the extracurricular gap?

While students should not feel forced to devote their essays to discussing past hardships, nor are those the only topics they can write about in essays. That said, admissions officers only know what you tell them, and this kind of context about challenges you have faced can and does substantially impact your chances of acceptance.

How to Write About Trauma

So what to do, if you have context you want to provide, but are hesitant (understandably so) to delve into past bad experiences in so personal a way as the best essays require?

In these cases, we recommend using the Common App’s additional information section, which exists for this purpose explicitly. The additional information section is not an essay, but is instead a place to factually describe any circumstances or challenges you have faced, personally or educationally. You may or may not have overcome these challenges; that is not at issue. Rather, colleges want to understand who you are, and the situation you’ve come from.

Generally, the additional info section is used to discuss the following: 

  • Additional activities or extracurriculars that did not fit elsewhere
  • Medical issues which have impacted your education
  • Extenuating or remarkable circumstances
  • Learning differences which have impacted your education

Note that you do not have to include an additional information section if you do not wish to, and you do not have to divulge personal information outside your comfort zone. The goal is to provide information to allow admissions officers to evaluate your accomplishments in the light of what you have done.

Here are some examples of extenuating or remarkable circumstances which students can describe in this section. This is not an exhaustive list, but serves to show the kinds of situations students have discussed before: 

  • How a parent’s death, illness, or injury impacted them, and what additional responsibilities they had to take on within their household because of it.
  • What responsibilities you had within your household normally, above and beyond normal chores, including things like caring for siblings or taking care of major household responsibilities, such as meal preparation.
  • If you were unable to participate in extracurriculars due to familial or other responsibilities, or monetary constraints. 
  • If language barriers or cultural clash were a barrier to your education, due to your immigration status.
  • If your education suffered disruptions due to circumstances outside of your control.

Again, this section is not an essay, but instead a place to simply and factually explain your circumstances, and how they affected you. There does not need to be an excess of detail, or descriptions of how you overcame an issue if you did not. That said, if you have worked to address or overcome a challenge, you may include that as well.

The Trouble With Trauma Essays

In the TEDx talk, the presenter rightly points out that requiring students to discuss and unpack their trauma in college essays can be harmful. It produces false expectations for what their essays should be, and places an undue burden on students to discuss topics they may not be comfortable with. She also rightly points out that not all challenges are overcome, and not all of them can be neatly tied up with a bow and presented in the form of an essay for admissions officers.

These are legitimate concerns, but we do believe there is also a need for students to share some of their struggles with admissions officers. While we do strive to give students equal opportunities to succeed, the truth is that not all schools have the same level of funding and resources, and not all of them are able to offer the same opportunities to their students.

On top of this, each student has their own unique struggles, some far more than others. The circumstances of your life do not need to define you, but they can shape the opportunities you are provided. The relative weight of an accomplishment must be judged based on the resources of the student doing it.

Admissions officers are only humans, but there is a push to make college admissions more fair. Part of the difficulty in this is trying to judge the relative accomplishments of students. The more information they have about you, and what you’ve gone through, the better they will be able to evaluate your accomplishments, and evaluate you in the proper context. 

Final Thoughts

There is sadly no easy way to resolve the problem of trauma essays in college admissions. While students should not feel the need to recount every challenge they have faced, there is a legitimate need to provide context for your accomplishments to admissions officers, especially if your life circumstances have impacted your academic or extracurricular involvement. Even if they haven’t, your achievements are made more impressive by what you have dealt with in accomplishing them.

While college applications are difficult for students regardless of background, we do know that some students have better access to resources than others, or have unique concerns that impact their applications. If you want to discuss your own concerns with us, schedule a free consultation today. If you aren’t sure about that, consider checking out our pro bono offering: Laurel Scholars. In either case, we look forward to hearing from you, and helping you with your collegiate dreams.

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