The long, grueling college application season is finally coming to an end. Seniors around the country are scrambling to put final touches on any last personal essays they still need to submit. Deciding what story to tell about yourself can feel incredibly high-stakes, because students know these essays can help determine their fates in the fall and their futures.
So what happens if you want to write about mental health challenges? As more and more of us are opening up about, say, struggling with depression, applicants are making tough judgment calls on what to share in their admissions essays.
YR Media spoke with a 19-year-old named Lizzie, who has applied to college twice: first two years ago, when she was in high school, and again this year as a transfer student. Lizzie asked that we not use her last name due to the same concerns she reflects on in our conversation: Can being too open about mental health issues hurt our chances to get into school?
Why write about your mental health struggles?
Lizzie: It’s an important part of my development as a person. I've had anxiety since I was a kid — like, bad anxiety. When I was in middle school, I started to realize no one had anxiety like me. I got super depressed and self-conscious.
What snapped me out of that cycle and worrying constantly about being different was realizing I’m not alone [and] forcing myself to confront my fears — my anxieties — head-on. What snapped me out of being so sad was focusing on the fact that I can move on and accept it. So much of my personality and how I communicate and talk to people and have relationships comes from that experience in my life.
How did you write about mental health when you applied in high school?
L: So the first time [I applied to college in high school], I talked about [my mental health] in a direct way. My first essay was really focused on trying to get a broad understanding of who I was as a person. I wrote in the style of little vignettes about important moments in my life, whether I was either not doing well or I had something really good happen to me.
I was admitting my flaws, my neuroses and how I grew from it. I don't know if it was the best essay to reflect who I was. I thought: “I'm going to apply and be as real as possible. So if they don't accept the real me then, why would I go to that school?”
How did you approach it when you applied as a college student?
L: The second time I wrote my essays, I really focused on the part of myself that I was most proud of or most comfortable with. I wrote about [my mental health] way more indirectly the second time, because my attitude towards how I should convey my mental illness in a public way has changed.
I've always been a super direct person. I’ve been very willing to talk about it and tell people what I'm going through. And I changed, because I realized, [while] it's an important part of my story and who I am, it's not something I can explain in the word-count I have. And … people have their biases. They might think that I'm not as capable of dealing with a more difficult curriculum because I have anxiety. Whereas for me, I feel the exact opposite. I'm over-prepared constantly because I am always doing more assignments weeks in advance and preparing fastidiously.
And I realized I can still be true to who I am without being so direct and use language that has better connotations than the language I was using before. Because even though I might be comfortable using that language, being more indirect can still be truthful to who I am. Like not saying I have anxiety but instead saying, “that sinking feeling.”
What did people suggest you write about in your college essay?
L: When I applied to college in high school, I was so worried about the whole college personal statement aspect of applying. Before starting, I got as much advice as I could. Everyone was telling me to write in-depth about one thing — a traumatic event or leadership experience.
The second time I applied, I did seek out advice from other students I knew who transferred to different schools. I read their essays. And then, I really thought critically about why I made the decisions I did the first time, and if those decisions had actually served me or benefited me. So I really dropped down the gritty realness and was a lot more kind to myself than I was before.
How did other people you know react to you writing about your mental health?
L: I purposely didn’t let my parents read any of my college essays. My parents very much believe that there are things in your life that should be private and mental illness is one. So I point-blank didn’t show them.
Back when I decided to write my first essay the way I did, people wanted me to write about the things I was facing — like the difficulties. But they didn’t want me to include mental health. I was really upset about that, because I felt like it was cheapening the complexity of my experience as a person who goes through this. And to make my experience all pretty felt wrong to me.
What advice do you have for students who decided to write about mental health?
L: It's not worth reliving trauma or putting yourself through trauma for this college essay. If writing this college essay is not going to help you emotionally or not going to help you in your application, just don't do it. Because you are not your mental illness. It can be a huge part of your life, but you are not your mental illness. So you don't have to force yourself to be your mental illness in your college essay, if that's what you think will get you in, or if that's what everyone's telling you to talk about. You are more than that.
Just be comfortable with what you want to say. Be honest. But don't be unkind to yourself. Focus on how that part of your life makes you someone who's going to be great on their campus.