College Essays and the Trauma Sweetspot | Opinion
Tell about a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. Think about a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. Discuss a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. If all else fails, explore a background, identity, interest, or talent so deep that not to do so would leave our idea of you fundamentally incomplete.
Exactly the kind of small talk you want to have with strangers.
American College Essays – often structured around prompts such as what precedes – ask us to question who we are, who we want to be and what are the most formative experiences of our then short lives. Telling a story, revealing ourselves and our identity in full to the curious gaze of admissions officers – all in 650 succinct words.
Last Thursday, The Crimson published “Rewriting of our admission essays,an intimate reflection from six Crimson editors on the personal statements that brought them to Harvard. What we take away from this exercise is that our current philosophy of generating essays – the topics we choose or are led to choose, the style and emphasis we apply – is flawed at best, when it is not actively harmful.
The American admissions process rightly gives students wide latitude to write about anything they choose, with prompts that emphasize personal experience, adversity, discovery, and identity – characteristics often distort student narratives and cause students to present themselves in light of their most challenging experiences.
When it comes to writing, freedom is good, it’s good even! The personal statement can be a powerful vehicle for conveying some aspect of one’s identity, and students who feel inclined to do so should take the opportunity to write deeply and candidly about their lives; the variety of prompts, including the ability to create your own, makes this easy. We have no doubt that some of our peers had already pondered, or even lived in the shadows, the difficult questions posed by the most recurring dissertation prompts; and we know that the essay is a fundamental part of the holistic and inclusive admissions system that we have so many cherish fervently. Writing your college essay, while stressful, can ultimately prove cathartic for some and eye-opening for others, a useful exercise in introspection in the midst of an overly charged reality.
Yet we would be blind not to notice the deep, dark recesses where the system that demands such introspection tends to lead us.
The format of the college essay – short but gripping, revealing but uplifting, insightful but not so self-centered that it will upset any would-be admissions counselor – and the prompts that guide it nudge students toward an ethic of maximum emotional impact. With declining acceptance rates and a desperate need to stand out from tens of thousands of applicants, students often feel the need to provide the kind of eye-catching drama that just might push them through.
But happy, restful days don’t make for great stories; there are few, if any, plot points in a stable, warm relationship with a living, healthy parent. Trauma, on the other hand – homophobic or racist encounters that leave one shaken, alcoholic parents, death, loss and scarring pain – makes for a good story. A story worthy of Harvard, even.
For students who have experienced real adversity, this pressure to package adversity into a palatable narrative can be toxic. The trial runs the risk of commodifying the difficulties, truly making soul shaping experiences like suffering from recurrent homelessness or having orphaned grandparents in brilliant narrative trinkets to blend in with a Harvard degree. This can give applicants, whether accepted or not, the impression that their admissions outcomes are tied to their most vulnerable experiences. The worst thing that ever happened to you just wasn’t enough, or alternatively, it was more than enough, and now you have to struggle with traumatized impostor syndrome.
Additionally, students often feel compelled to end their deep trauma essays with a declaration of victory—a proclamation that they have overcome their problems and are “fit for admission.” Very few understood life before the age of 18. The trauma often remains much longer, and this implied obligation can make students feel like they have “failed” if the pain of their trauma resurfaces during college. Not all bruises heal and not all damage can be repaired – but no one wants to read a bloody story without a redemption arc.
A similar dynamic is at play in terms of the intensity of the chosen experience: Students who experience tearing scar ridges in prose should be careful to avoid cuts that are too deep or too shallow. Their trauma should not seem too serious: no university, and certainly not Harvard, wants to admit people likely to take legal action after a bad mental health episode. This is the twisted pain paradox of the essay – the students’ trauma must be compelling but not overly severe, shocking but not off-putting. Colleges are looking for the classy kind of injury not like other students; they want the fun, quirky pain that leaves the main character with a refreshing new perspective at the end of a lackluster indie film. The real wounds – the ones that don’t heal overnight, the ones that don’t lead to an uplifting conclusion that fits perfectly with your interest in anthropology – are just trial pending.
For students who have not experienced such trauma, the personal essay can trap accuracy in a tussle with appealing falsehoods. The desire to appear as one heroic problem solver may encourage students to exaggerate or distort details to compete with the compelling stories of others.
We categorically reject these tacit premises. Students from marginalized communities don’t owe college admissions offices an inspiring story of tightly wrapped drama. They should not bear a disproportionate burden to prove their merit.
Why then do these pressures exist? How can we account for the myriad of difficult experiences people have without reductionist commodification? How do you enjoy sharing deeply personal struggles without prompting each candidate eager for acceptance to offer a six-paragraph, adjectival-filled attempt to psychoanalyze their terrible childhood?
We don’t have a silver bullet, but we have to look for a system that preserves openness and mitigates perverse pressures. Other admissions systems around the world, such as the UK’s UCAS Personal Statement, tend to emphasize intellectual interest in tandem with personal experience. The Rhodes Scholarship, citing an excessive focus on the “heroic self” in the essays it receives, recently overhauled it invites us to focus more broadly on the themes “self/others/the world”. We need to pay attention to the nature of the trials these incentives inspire and see, over time, whether their models are worth replicating.
In the meantime, students need to understand that neither their injury nor their college dissertation defines them — and there are plenty of ways to stand out to admissions officers. If it feels right to write about deeply difficult experiences, do so knowing that they have much more to contribute to a college campus than adversity and hardship.
The question is not what people can or should write about in their personal statements. Rather, it’s how what admissions officials expect of their applicants distorts the essays they receive, and how the admissions structure at American universities can push toward excessive garment sharing. We must strive for an admissions culture where students feel truly free to express their identity – to tell a story they want to share, not one their admissions officers want them to tell. A system where students can feel comfortable that a specific essay topic — devastating or joyous — won’t put them slightly ahead or behind in the wild, mad dash to that cherished acceptance letter.
This staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Crimson editorial board only. It is the result of discussions during the regular meetings of the editorial board. To ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to voice their opinions and vote at these meetings are not involved in reporting stories on similar topics.