Hi everyone. This post is written by me, AdmissionsMom and Alex McNeil from Sierra Admissions, TOGETHER. It’s a subject we both care about. We (your dynamic college-consultant duo) took up pens together to write what we believe is the first collaborative advice post in the sub’s history. Yay! Enjoy and thanks for reading. 


Content warning: discussion of traumatic subjects: suicide, sexual abuse, trauma, self-harm

There is always a debate about what topics should be avoided at all cost on college essays. The short-list always boils down to a familiar crew of traumatic or “difficult” subjects. These include, but are not limited to, essays discussing severe depression, self-harm, eating disorders, experiences with sexual violence, family abuse, and experiences with the loss of a close relative or loved one.

First and foremost, you do NOT have to write about anything that makes you uncomfortable or that you don’t want to share. This isn’t the Overcoming Obstacles Olympics. Don’t feel pressure to tell any story that you don’t want to share. It is your story and if you don’t want to write about it, don’t. Period.

BUT, in our view, ruling out all essays that deal with trauma is wrong for two big reasons.

The first is that there is no actual, empirical evidence that essays that deal with trauma are less successful than those that don’t. The view that essays dealing with trauma correlate with lower admissions rates is based on counselor speculation and anecdotal evidence from students who applied, weren’t admitted, then tried to find a justification and decided it was their essays.

Both of us reflected on this. Here’s what we had to say.

  • AdmissionsMom: I work with lots of students who have suffered from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. They nearly always have to address their issues because of school disruption, and I have to say that their acceptances have remained right in range with the rest of my students.
  • Alex McNeil: I counted, and I can provide more than 17 accounts about students of mine who have written about trauma and been admitted to T10 schools. I also asked a colleague of mine who is known as the “queen of Stanford admissions” and she said there was no trend among her students.

The other big reason is that traumas, while complex, can be sources of deep meaning, and therefore are potentially the exact sort of thing you want to consider. Traumatic experiences are often life-shaping, for better or for worse. So are the ways that we respond to and adapt in the face of trauma. The struggle to adapt and move forward after a traumatic experience may be one of the most important and meaningful things you’ve ever done. So a blanket prohibition on traumatic topics is equivalent, for many, to a blanket prohibition on writing an essay that feels personally meaningful and rewarding.

Categorically ruling out trauma stories also conflicts directly with the core lesson that most college consultants and counselors (including ours truly) are trying to advocate. That is, write a story that matters to you. This is a piece of corny but non-bullshit advice. As it turns out, it’s a rare moment (in a process that can be somewhat cynical) where meaning and strategy overlap. AOs want to read good essays. Good essays are good when they’re written about things that matter. You can attempt to hack together a good essay on a topic you don’t care about, but good luck.

So there are a few big intersecting threads about why you MIGHT want to write about your experience with trauma. First, there is no empirical evidence to recommend against it. Second, traumatic experiences are huge sources of personal meaning and significance, and it would be sad if you couldn’t use your writing as a tool for processing your experience. Third, meaningful essays = good essays = stronger applications.

So for anyone out there who wants to talk about their experience but who is struggling with how to do it, here are some things we want to say:

  1. You ARE allowed to talk about trauma in college apps.
  2. Your story is valid even if you haven’t turned your experience into a non-profit focused on preventing sexual assault, combating abuse, or eating disorders or done anything whatsoever to address the larger systemic issue. Your story and experience — your personal growth and lessons learned — are intrinsically valuable.

Now, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to write an essay about a challenging or traumatic subject.

13 Reasons Why It’s OK to Write About Trauma in your College Applications — And How to Do So

  1. Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for real humans. Real Humans are flawed and have had flawed experiences. Some of our most compelling stories are the ones that open with showing our lives and experiences in less than favorable light. Throw in your lessons learned or what you have done to repair yourself and grow, and you have the makings of a compelling overcoming — or even redemption — story.
  2. Write with pride: This is your real life. Sometimes you need to be able to explain the circumstances in your life — and colleges want to know about any hardships you’ve had. They want to understand the context of your application, so don’t worry about thinking you’re asking the colleges to feel sorry for you (we hear kids say that all the time). We recognize you for your immense strength and courage, and we encourage you to speak your truth if you want to share your story. Colleges can’t know about your challenges and obstacles unless you tell them. Be proud of yourself for making it through your challenges and moving on to pursue college — that’s an accomplishment on its own!
  3. Consider the position of the admissions officer:  “We’ve all had painful experiences. Many of these experiences are difficult to talk about, let alone write about. However, sometimes, if there is time, distance, and healing between you and the experience, you can not only revisit the experience but also articulate it as an example of how even the most painful of experiences can be reclaimed, transformed, and accepted for what they are, the building blocks of our unique identities.

If you can do this, go for it. When done well, these types of narratives are the most impactful. Do remember you are seeking admission into a community for which the admissions officer is the gatekeeper. They need to know that, if admitted, not only will you be okay but your fellow students will be okay as well.”  from Chad-Henry Galler-Sojourner (www.bearingwitnessadmissions.com)

  1. Remember what’s really important: Sometimes the processing of your trauma can be more important than the college acceptances — and that’s ok. If a college doesn’t accept you because you mention mental health issues, sexual assault, or traumatic life experiences, in my opinion, they don’t deserve to have anyone on their campus, much less survivors. Take your hard-earned lived experiences elsewhere. The stigma of being assaulted, abused, or having mental health issues, is a blight on our society. That said, be aware of any potential legal issues as admissions readers are mandated reporters in some states.
  2. Consider using the Additional Info Section: If you do decide you want to share your story — or you need to because of needing to explain grades, missed school, or another aspect of your application or transcript, don’t feel compelled to write about your trauma, disability, mental health, or addiction in the main personal essay. Instead, we encourage you to use the Additional Info Essay if you want to share (or if you need to share to explain the context of your application). Your main common app essay should be about something that is important to you and should reveal some aspect of who you are. To us (and many applicants), your trauma, disability, mental issues, or addiction doesn’t define you. It isn’t who you are and it isn’t a part you want to lead with.

Putting some other aspect of who you are first in your main essay and putting trauma, addiction, mental health issues, or disability in the Add’l Info Essay is a way to reinforce that those negative experiences in your life don’t define you, and that your recovery or your learning to accommodate for it has relegated that aspect of their experience to a secondary part of who you are.

  1. You CAN use your Common App essay if you want: IF you feel like recovery from the trauma or learning to handle your circumstances does define you, then there is no reason you can’t put that aspect of who you are forward in the main personal essay. If the growth that stemmed from the crisis is central to your narrative, then it can be a recovery, or an “overcoming” story. It’s a positive look at your strengths and how you achieved them. If you want to place your recovery story front and center in the primary essay, that’s an appropriate choice.
  2. Write from a place of healing: Some colleges fear liabilities. So, wherever you decide to put your essay in your application, make sure you are presenting your situation in a way that centers how you have dealt with it and moved forward. That doesn’t mean it’s over and everything is all better for you, but you need to write from a place of healing; in essence, “write from scars, not wounds.” (we can’t take credit for that metaphor, but we love it)
  3. Make sure your first draft is a free draft. With any topic, it can be hard to stare at a blank page and not feel pressure to write perfectly. This can be doubly true when addressing a tough topic. For your first draft, approach it as a free write. No pressure. No perfection. Just thoughts and feelings. Even if you don’t end up using your essay as a personal statement or in the additional info section, it can be useful to sit and write it out.
  4. Protect yourself when you’re writing: If you do decide to write about your trauma, be sure to follow a few simple rules to protect yourself and your feelings and emotions:
    1. Establish an anchor. Anything that makes you feel safe while you’re writing and exploring your thoughts and experiences. Have that nearby. It can be a candle, an image, a pet, a stuffed animal.
    2. Check-in with how you are feeling.
    3. Pay attention to your body and what it’s telling you.
    4. Take breaks
    5. Go for walk
    6. Talk to someone who makes you feel safe
    7. Remember this kind of essay is NOT a reflection of you. It is only part of your story.
      (Ashley Lipscomb & Ethan Sawyer, “Addressing Trauma in the College Essay,” NACAC 2021)
  5. Ask questions that guide your writing toward growth: Great college essays reflect growth and thoughtfulness. It can be helpful in any essay, but especially in one that deals with challenging subjects, to keep a few questions in mind to guide your writing. Here are a few that could get some gears turning.
    1. Who supported you in the aftermath of the experience? What did you appreciate about their support and what did you learn about how you would support others?
    2. Did your self-perception change after the experience? How has your self-perception evolved or grown since?
    3. How did you cultivate the strength to move through your experience?
    4. What about how you dealt with the experience makes you most proud?
  6. Remember that all writing is a two-way street and should serve you and the reader: All writing leaves an emotional impression or residue with the reader. This is especially true with personal essays. Good writers are able to look at their writing and understand how it can serve themselves (that sweet, sweet catharsis) while still meeting the reader halfway. This can be particularly challenging on the college essay, where your goal is to be both personally honest and to help an AO see why you would be a wonderful addition to their school’s student community. When you’re writing, be cognizant of your reader – tell your story
  7. Shield your writing itself from excessive negativity: When writing about difficult experiences, it can be easy for the writing itself (your phrasing, your diction) to become saturated with a tone of hardship and sorrow. This kind of writing can be hard to read and can get in the way of the underlying story about growth, maturity, or self-awareness. Push yourself to weed out any excessive “negativity” in your writing – look for more neutral ways of stating the facts of your situation. If you’re comfortable, ask a trusted reader to read your essay and point out the places where language seems too negative. Think of ways to rephrase or rewrite.
  8.  Think of your application — and therefore your essay — kind of like a job application. Sure, it’s more personal than a job occupation, but it’s not necessary to share every detail. Focus on the relevant information that validates the power of your journey and overcoming your challenges. Focus on the overcoming.

A framework for writing well about trauma and difficulty: “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes”

Here’s a framework that we think you could apply to any essay topic about a traumatic experience or challenge. This is not a one-size-fits-all framework, but it should help you avoid the biggest pitfalls in writing about challenging topics.

The framework is called “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes.” The metaphor actually comes from one of our parents who used to be active on A2C back when her kid was applying to college; she took it down in her notes at a Wellesley info session. In short, however, the idea is to pare down the “ashes” (the really hard details about the situation, past or present) to focus on who you’ve become as a result.

  1. Address your issue or circumstance BRIEFLY and be straightforward. Don’t dwell on it.
  2. Next, focus on what you did to take care of yourself and how you handled the situation. Describe how you’ve moved forward and what you learned from the experience.
  3. Then, write about how you will apply those lessons to your future college career and how you plan to help others with your self-knowledge as you continue to help yourself as you learn more and grow.
  4. Show them that, while you can’t control what happened in the past, you’ve taken steps to gain control over your life and you’re prepared to be the college student you can be.
  5. Remember to keep the focus on the positives and what you learned from your experiences.
  6. Make sure your essay is at least 80% phoenix, 20% ashes. Or another way to put this is, tell the gain, not the pain.
  7. The ending, overall impression should leave a positive feeling.
  8. Consider adding a “content warning or trigger warning” at the beginning of your essay, especially if it deals with sexual violence or suicide. You can simply say at the top: Content Warning: this essay discusses sexual violence (or discussion of suicide). This way the reader will know if they need to pass your essay along to someone else to read.

Use that checklist/framework to read back through your essay. In particular, do a spot check with the 80/20 phoenix/ashes rule. Make sure to focus on growth!

Good luck and happy writing,

AdmissionsMom and Alex McNeil (https://sierraadmissions.com)