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Tough Topics: Tips to Writing about Defining Life Events

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 28, 2021 2:51:42 PM

During my webinar last week, students and parents asked how to write about painful life experiencesillness, poverty, traumain their college application essays. These questions come up a lot: Can I write about depression in my college application? Should my college essay talk about my father's death? Is it too much to write about being homeless?

There are no absolute rules about writing about painful experience, and each person needs to decide for him or herself. However, here are three guidelines to help you explore those defining life events and decide how much you want to share in your college application.

1. Break down the “painful life experience” into a series of moments.

“Painful life experience” is a cliche. What actually happened to you? Take the time to explore each of the turning points in that experience, from start to finish. Were there moments you almost gave up but didn’t? Where there moments that you couldn’t control at all? What made those particular moments pivotal for you?

Try writing about a few of those Defining Moments from the inside, focusing on actions, dialogue, and description.

2. Explore what you have done differently as a result of your experience.

How you have been an actora person who takes actionin response to personal challenges? Perhaps you struggled with depression yourself and then stayed up all night helping a friend who was considering suicide get help. Or you are the first person in your family going to college, and already you are helping others prepare for college. Or you came out to your parents and they kicked you out of their house, and you are writing your college essay by hand, some nights in a shelter and some on a friend’s couch. These are all true stories, and ones that we’ve seen succeed in college admissions.

It takes time and patience to slice and dice your experience, and to explore it from different perspectives. The time transforming your experience from a script that anyone can say to your own specific story is the key to connecting powerfully with college admissions officers.

3. Ask yourself, “Is this the most important thing I want colleges to know about me?”

I am convincedfrom my own experience and that of our studentsthat you will need to write out your experiences before you can decide whether you want to share them in your college application. This is a personal decision. No one else can make it for you. When the time comes you will know which stories to include in your college application.

You definitely do not have to create high drama in your application essays to be admitted to a great college; actually, TMI is usually exactly that. On the other hand, you don’t need to have life all figured out and present the picture of a perfect student in your admissions essays either. Admissions officers are people. And people like people with quirky curves and crazy moments. As the Train song says, “These bruises make for better conversation...everybody loses; we’ve all got bruises.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE at Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram! 

Topics:college admissionscollege essaysessay writing tips