Maybe you’ve seen some stories in the news recently where students who are so amazing with perfect test scores and activities get rejected from top schools. You may be wondering how something like that can happen. In this blog, we’ll talk about one way this story can happen. In other words, a kiss of death for your college application.
What to Avoid in Your College Application
A couple of years ago, a Columbia University Professor of Music named Robert Isaacs came out with an opinion piece in Salon. In the piece, Isaacs discusses an incident that took place when he was helping review applications at Cornell. At Cornell, when the office reviews applications they pull in faculty members to help read the applications. Isaacs said he agreed with the admission’s person he was partnered with for the most part. But in one particular instance, he was taken aback. One student wrote an essay about his struggles with depression. The essay was elegant and insightful, but Cornell said they couldn’t admit this student.
Isaacs goes on to explain that Cornell’s Admissions Department had an informal policy of rejecting any applicants who discuss their struggle with mental health. This is why mental health is not only a dangerous essay topic, it is also a potential kiss of death on an otherwise perfect application.
It’s Okay, You Are Not Alone
First of all, we want to stress that if you are someone who struggles with mental health, you’re not alone. In a recent CDC survey, 37% of US high school students reported mental health struggles, including anxiety or depression. Other people in your high school class are dealing with this as well. This does not mean that if you struggle with mental health, then you’re not going to college. You can absolutely get into an awesome college. And if you need someone to talk to, we encourage you to find someone. This could be a school counselor, a friend or family member, or professional, outside help.
Please see the bottom of the blog for mental health resources. Talking to someone is a good way to deal with the internal struggles that you have. Mental health is important, and it should be something that is less taboo. We’re not saying that colleges are right for nixing applications like this. Unfortunately, college applications aren’t a safe place to talk about mental illness. However, that doesn’t mean if you’re depressed you can’t get into college. We just recommend that you don’t talk about it on your application.
How to Spin Your Challenges to Positives
That being said, if you struggle with mental illness, you can still write about your mental challenges. One student Brooke worked with in the past wrote about the struggles of separating herself from a friend group that was a bad influence on her. She wrote about how she had to endure the social pressure and the mockery of separating herself from this group, so she could get better grades. She knew she had to make a choice, and cut off a part of herself. It was sad, and difficult, but she did it. However, her essay was also bubbly, effusive, and full of love.
You can still have mental challenges, and if you’ve overcome those struggles you should be proud of the progress you’ve made. If you write about a mental challenge, the voice in your essay should be tough, and the theme should be how you overcame this struggle. Paint a picture of how mentally tough your circumstances are. Another example would be if a serious athlete told the story of their anxiety-causing schedule and competition. In the essay, they would focus on what they endured, and their crazy long schedule from morning to night. Focus on this instead of the anxiety.
Issues That Must Be Addressed
With all of this being said, there are still some times where you need to address something. For example, if you’ve taken a long absence from school because you were in a program or seeking treatment. In these situations, say something about how you were absent for school during this period because you had a health issue, and that health issue is now resolved. You don’t have to discuss the details.
However, if there’s a situation like your grades dropping during a certain period, you may need to address something. Tread lightly in this case. You still don’t want to make mental health the topic of any of your main essays. However, you can sneak it into additional information if you feel it is absolutely necessary. You want to be a person apart from that struggle. Although mental health may be a part of your story, it’s not the type of story you lead with when you’ve just met someone. You don’t want admissions to think that your conditions may get worse while you’re at college, and as a result you fail out or don’t graduate on time. It’s a coin flip whether you finish your degree in America in six years or less. About half of students make it out of college with a bachelors degree.
Mental Health Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Crisis Hotline: 800-854-771
Crisis text line: 741-741
Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
CA Mental Health Line: 855-845-7415 (limited hours/warm line)