Two years ago I took a trip to visit College Possible in Minnesota, and one of their assignments still informs what I do and how I think.
College Possible asks all their students to write a "special circumstances essay," which is a short explanation of the challenges they face as high school students. For example, I read one student's essay about his family's immigration experience. His grandparents fled Vietnam during the war and settled in Thailand. But his parents ended up fleeing Thailand and coming to the United States. So national and cultural identity is a complicated thing for this Vietnamese-Thai-American teenager. Another student wrote about her father's suicide after losing his job and feeling shame for not supporting his family. Another wrote about the complexity of growing up biracial in suburban America. College Possible knows that these essays, or at least parts of them, might wind up being part of an application essay in the 12th grade. But they want the students to write the whole essay, in the 11th grade, even before any application asks about it. They want their students grounded in thinking about themselves, their challenges, and their successes. Everyone applying to college, or even thinking about college, can take this same step, because self knowledge is the best knowledge.
Even if you aren't part of a low-income family or a first generation college student, you've got your own special circumstances, and they're worth thinking about. Let's be clear here: the point isn't to write a "sob story" that makes people feel sorry for you and want to give you special treatment for your special circumstances. This isn't about victimhood; quite the opposite. The point is to acknowledge to yourself—and be able to explain to others—the challenges and frictions that make you who you are. It's about celebrating how far you've come and the skills you've acquired. When colleges ask about your special circumstances, and not all of them ask, it's not about feeling sorry. It's about understanding what kind of resilience you have and how you got it. Nobody makes it out of high school and into college without friction and resilience, so it's okay to think about your own. There are plenty of ways to think about your special challenges.
Physical. Do you have any physical disabilities, chronic conditions, or life-changing injuries that make your mobility different than most?
Mental. Do you have any learning disabilities that make traditional education less suited to you? Do you deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issues that make your day-to-day life more difficult?
Economic. Do you live near or below the poverty line? Has your family or community been through a major change in economic circumstances?
Legal. Are you and/or your parents undocumented immigrants? Do you have a criminal record that needs explaining? Is your family involved in litigation that affects your economic or emotional well-being?
Identity. Does your sexual, ethnic, racial, gender, religious, or cultural identity make you feel not-normal? Do you face discrimination because of your identity?
Academic. Did you have to take time off from school for any reason? Have you been to a large number of schools over the years? Did you attend an especially ineffective--or especially outstanding--school? Have you got large fluctuations in your academic record that need explaining?
Maybe you don't really think any of this applies. I hear that fairly often: "I'm just a happy white kid from a middle-class family." That's fine. Better than fine. If you've made it this far without having to overcome any major obstacles, feel grateful. You've got a lot of promise. But don't fall into the paradoxical trap of feeling like having no disadvantages is in itself a disadvantage. There's no evidence that colleges--even those looking to increase diversity--are going to hold it against you that you're a happy, well-adjusted, middle-class student.
Thinking about special circumstances, one of the most common questions I get from students working on their college application essays is "Is it okay to write about...?"
Is it okay to write about my depression? Is it okay to write about coming out as queer? Is it okay to write about how I used to be a really bad student? Is it okay to write about being an abuse survivor? Is it okay to talk about being bullied? Is it okay to talk about the time I was a bully?
Yes, it is okay. Nobody is asking you to hide any part of yourself, to feel shame, or feel unworthy. In many cases, it would literally be illegal for an admissions officer to discriminate against you based simply on the topic your essay. They ask you to write essays to make sure your writing skills are sufficient, yes, but also to get to know you as a person.
That being said, it's important to think about why you would write about that. Whatever specific narrative or example you give, you want your essay to illustrate personal qualities or traits that aren't already demonstrated in your transcript and that show your readiness to do well in college.
Battling depression, or being gay, or having suffered academic setbacks doesn't make you any less able to do well in college. But it doesn't necessarily make you any more able to do well in college, either. So decide what personal qualities this particular issue might highlight as evidence.
So, for example, your essay isn't about the incredible difficulty of coming out to your family, it's about how you've learned to have difficult or contentious conversations without falling apart. Coming out is the example you give, not the main idea.
For example, your essay isn't about your diagnosis as bipolar, it's about how self-knowledge has made you a stronger person and better thinker. Working through your bipolar diagnosis is your example, not the main idea.
The main idea is this: the difficult thing you want to talk about but aren't sure you should talk about? Go ahead and talk about it. But it's not your thesis, it's your concrete evidence.
I don't say that to diminish the importance of your identity or the reality of your struggle, just to make sure you keep your eye on the key parts of your essay. Always begin with asking yourself: what about me makes me likely to do well in college, and how do I best show that?
Once you know it's perfectly fine to be yourself, however you define that, go back to focusing on how to write the best essay.
If you haven't yet decided that it's fine to be yourself, if you haven't yet got help or had a real discussion about something you need help with or need to discuss, there are people out there who care and who want to help. Please find them and take care of yourself.
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