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How to Write Your College Essay About A Difficult Topic

by Jocelyn Johnson, on Nov 19, 2014 12:27:00 PM

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Jamie,* a  student in my college essay writing course, pulled me to the side. “So I think I know what I want to write about now, but I’m not sure,” she said. “What’s your idea?” I asked. She looked around the room and whispered, “Sophomore year I got addicted to diet pills, but can I tell that story?”

Every year students ask us how personal should they get in their college essay, especially when it comes to the first Common App prompt. When you have a story so central to your identity but it’s about a really personal topic, it can be hard to decide whether or not to write about it. Before you get started, try telling your story out loud in front of a mirror first. Do you feel comfortable telling this story?

Remember, admissions officers want to get to know you—the real you. So if you are ready to share your story, go for it! Use these four guidelines that we've learned from coaching over 14,00 students.

1)    Focus on specific moments versus the entire experience

Focus on one or two specific moments within the experience and describe them in depth in your authentic voice—meaning, in a way that only you can.  

Jamie walked me through her experience. She was bullied throughout her childhood because of her weight. By 10th grade she had started ordering diet pills online. After experiencing some serious side effects, she sought help from people she could trust. But instead of trying to cover all of these events in just 650 words, she focused her essay on two specific moments: founding a club and planning an assembly.

2)    Keep your actions as the focus of the story

Focus on what you have done that makes the story so central to who you are and use those actions to show how you changed, learned something, or grew as a person.

Jamie’s essay focused entirely on her actions. It began with her introducing a speaker at a school-wide assembly on nutrition. Then flashed back to junior year as she, now diet pill free, worked with her school counselor to found a new club at her school, an all-girls support group that met over lunch. She reflected on how her perspective changed through founding the club and coordinating the assembly. Jamie concluded her essay preparing the lunch order and agenda for the next meeting.

3)    Present the facts – without a lot of excess emotion

Use detail, dialogue, and description to depict what happened in as straightforward language as possible, without any excess judgment or emotions.

Dominique’s* essay is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. She began, “I woke up on the kitchen floor, surrounded by shards of glass from the empty vodka bottle that was broken over my head.” It showed her incredible strength and perseverance caring for her mother and younger siblings while living with an abusive, alcoholic father. Yet, she never once used the words "strength,” “perseverance,” alcoholic,” or “abusive" in her essay.

4)   A loose end is still an end

You don't need to end your essay with a “happily ever after” conclusion. Keep your reader engaged with an ending that makes them want to learn more about you.

You know how Shonda Rhimes’ thrilling, cliff hanger endings keep Scandal viewers yearning for more? College essays are no different. Raina* wrote about overcoming her struggle with depression and anxiety through the lens of a newfound passion in therapy and social work. She ended her essay picturing herself sitting in Psychology 101 on her first day of classes as a freshman.

Do you need help finding your story or finishing your essay? Use Story2, our interactive online platform, to get your essays done. Use our proven admissions strategy, developed by a Princeton PhD, to gain scholarships and admission to your top choice college.

*Names and identities have been changed to protect students’ privacy.  

Topics:college admission