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Are You Oversharing In Your College Admissions Essay?

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Are You Oversharing In Your College Admissions Essay?

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With the free time afforded by summer break, many rising juniors will begin the process of crafting their personal essays for college applications. This piece of writing offers students the opportunity to speak to the admissions committee in their own voice and distinguish themselves from thousands of other applicants through their unique story and personality. Essay prompts ask students to describe their backgrounds, identities, personal beliefs, unique qualities, and experiences that have shaped or challenged them. As they respond to these prompts while seeking to craft a compelling essay and convey their authentic selves to admissions officers, many students unintentionally fall into the trap of “trauma dumping.”

The line between authentic storytelling and oversharing can be challenging to distinguish—on the one hand, students are expected to introspect and provide a candid reflection on who they are at their core. This may bring up memories or formative experiences that were traumatic, tragic, or highly personal. At the same time, the essay is nonetheless a professional exercise, submitted to strangers deciding an applicants’ admission status rather than close friends sharing a meal. The distinction is made all the more complex due to the highly competitive nature of elite admissions—If I don’t have a story of overcoming some significant trauma, students may wonder, how will my essay ever stand out?

Despite the pressure students may feel to bare their souls before an admissions committee, they should be cautious about how they approach potentially triggering subject matter and rest assured that their essay can be insightful and engaging without sharing their most intimate hardships. But how can students know when to share stories of trauma or when to hold back? And what is an appropriate way to share particularly tragic or difficult experiences without trauma dumping?

When thinking about whether to write about their own trauma, students should consider the following questions:

1. Why are you sharing?

First and foremost, students should reflect on their reasons for including a particular traumatic experience in their essay. Ultimately, the essay should convey an experience that has forged the student’s motivations and identity. A student who has faced a distressing circumstance such as racism, homophobia, bullying, or family hardship may feel that their experience is relevant when responding to questions about a challenge an applicant has overcome or a time their beliefs were challenged. As they consider whether they wish to include the story, they should ask themselves whether it can be used constructively to show the committee something meaningful about the student’s core values. Students should not tell a sad or harrowing story simply for the sake of its shock value or emotional impact—a strong essay is forward-thinking and deliberate, showing admissions committees who a student is and what they will contribute to the college’s campus. While the supplemental essays will dive more into the details of an applicant’s candidacy for the specific schools they are applying to, the personal essay should lay the foundation by establishing the pillars of a students’ character. A story of hardship and suffering may genuinely convey that—but if not, students should not share such a story simply for the sake of including something traumatic in their essay.

2. How are you sharing?

If a student chooses to tell a story of hardship or distress, they should be cautious about the way in which they present the narrative to the admissions committee. When discussing trauma one has faced, it is easy to get lost in the narrative as a means of justifying one’s response or seeking empathy and validation from the reader. However, admissions committees want to see that an applicant has evolved through the challenges they have experienced. This does not mean that students must have worked through all of their trauma or pain in order to apply to college—instead, it means that students should only tell a story in their application essay if they feel that they can do so from an appropriate emotional distance. Applicants should share an experience that they’re able to reflect back on in a way that is appropriately removed, and demonstrate that they have come to terms with its impact on their identity and worldview.

3. With whom are you sharing this?

Finally, a strong essay is one that is written with its audience in mind. Given that students have never met the admissions committees who will read their essays, it can be challenging to remember that the committee is made up of real people who are reading with the express purpose of evaluating an applicant’s candidacy for admission. In addition, admissions officers must sift through tens of thousands of essays during a given cycle—a task which is arduous and tiring. Particularly when sharing a story of trauma or hardship, students should think carefully about the potential impact of their story on its readers. Consider questions such as: Is the essay written in such a way that people from a variety of different backgrounds can relate to its overarching message? Could the way in which the story is told have a negative or triggering impact on its readers? Will the reader get a clear sense of the students’ personality, character, and purpose through the story? Will admissions officers be able to distinguish a clear continuity between the essay and other components of the student’s application? Understanding that the essay is one component of many in a student’s college application and should support and enrich their other materials can help students determine whether the story they have chosen to tell will be contextual, appropriate, and effective when it reaches the hands of admissions officers.

While the personal essay can be a daunting task for students, approaching the piece with a clear sense of self, an understanding of the essay’s purpose, and a sensitivity to its impact on the reader will help students avoid oversharing or trauma dumping as they write. Ultimately, if they keep these considerations in mind and make clear, deliberate choices about the subject matter in their personal essays, students can craft a genuine story that accurately reflects their character and values to admissions readers.

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