Myth 1 of Top 5 Series: Lies Applicants Tell Themselves about College Admissions Essays

I have to write about a traumatic event or my life event is too tragic to write about.

These are flipsides of the same false coin.

From supplemental questions asked by private colleges to question options on the Common Application or short essay prompts issued by a collegiate school system such as the University of California, students want to stand out in a way that favorably reflects on them.  This makes sense, but there are countless ways to reach that destination.  Some teenagers have not experienced a life event that they consider tragic or if it was, they did not live through it in a way that shocked, rocked or fundamentally altered their external life or internal reality. 

Applicants then convince themselves that they have nothing to say that will be worth reading.  Others feel their best bet is to falsify elements of a life occurrence in a way that “makes” it into a catastrophe.  The former belief isn’t true and the latter action isn’t necessary.  Those in admissions read a slew of well authored and poorly written personal tragedies.  Of course they make an impression, but like anyone else, these readers appreciate variety.  You, dear applicant, have something to say and it doesn’t have to come couched in a tragedy.  Unearthing epiphanies and other miracles of thought or learning to accept something profound about who you are, if written about in a genuine and compelling manner, also resonates.  You must dig deep, but you don’t have to do so in an emotional graveyard.

Conversely, many individuals can pinpoint an event or experience that ripped their lives open or traumatized them to a severe degree. Many continue to grapple with this life event as they pursue their education. And while this occurrence or series of happenings may be all they want (and maybe even need) to write about, they still hesitate to do so.  I ask you this – what comprises that hesitation? It can stem from legitimate reasons to not disclose in the college application forum and its accompanying essay format.  There could also be legal, fiscal or other ramifications that make it unwise to write about it for even the most selective audience.  HOWEVER (I apply all caps because this is a huge “however”), if the only reason a student won’t disclose and detail a transformative experience of misfortune or horror is because they feel it will “read” as too exaggerated or unsettling, they should go ahead and do the work of writing it.  Students live inside their own heads and would be surprised to know what failures, humiliations, and general tales of woe have been shared in the thousands of essays that pour into admissions offices from throughout the country and around the world.  Also, plenty of college application prompts want to know what lies at a student’s core and what it takes to alter his, her or their worldview.  If applicants believe their lives have been defined, derailed or at least heavily influenced by a tragedy that they are also eager and willing to disclose, I have three words: GO FOR IT. 

Any student should keep in mind that not being accepted to a given college – if that happens – is 1) contingent on many factors and 2) not a rejection of the truth shared in an essay.

If a student is still on the cusp of indecision, s/he should write about the event and see how she feels once it is “out there” on paper.  Most know in their heart of hearts what they want to say about themselves, but in their head of heads, they are strategizing if it will make enough of an impact.  Scores or perhaps hundreds of essay “coaches” (I’m excluding the ones who actually write the students’ essays rather than helping them write it themselves) will provide theories on how an essay will “play”.  Honesty plays best.  Always.

And, finally dear applicants, consider this: if any school doesn’t want the real version of you, it’s not your school.  This will be true of jobs that may not want you, internships that may pass on you or even potential life partners that may turn out to be anything but.  When you select a college, job, or person that is right for you, they select you as well.


Happy writing,

Leslie Diane Poston

Writing Triage