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Are You Oversharing In Your College Admissions Essay?

Crafting a personal essay for college applications can be tricky, especially when trying to strike the right balance between authentic storytelling and oversharing. On one hand, students are encouraged to introspect and share candid reflections about their core selves, which might involve recalling traumatic, tragic, or highly personal experiences. However, it's important to remember that the essay is a professional piece, intended for strangers who will decide the applicant’s admission status, not close friends over a casual meal.

With the free time summer break provides, many rising juniors will start working on their personal essays. This piece of writing offers students the chance to communicate with admissions committees in their own voice, standing out from thousands of other applicants through their unique stories and personalities. Essay prompts often ask students to describe their backgrounds, identities, beliefs, unique qualities, and experiences that have shaped or challenged them. In their quest to create a compelling essay and present their authentic selves, many students unintentionally fall into the trap of "trauma dumping."

The distinction becomes more complex given the highly competitive nature of elite admissions. Students might wonder, "If I don’t have a story of overcoming significant trauma, how will my essay ever stand out?"

Navigating Personal Stories

Despite the pressure to bare their souls, students should be cautious about how they approach potentially triggering subjects. They can craft insightful and engaging essays 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?

Considerations for Sharing Trauma

1. Why are you sharing?

First, students should reflect on their reasons for including a particular traumatic experience. The essay should convey an experience that has shaped the student’s motivations and identity. For example, a student who has faced racism, homophobia, bullying, or family hardship might find their experience relevant to questions about overcoming challenges or having their beliefs tested. Before including such a story, they should ask themselves if it constructively reveals something meaningful about their core values. Students should avoid sharing sad or harrowing stories solely for shock value or emotional impact. A strong essay is forward-thinking and deliberate, showing admissions committees who the student is and what they will contribute to the college community. The personal essay should establish the pillars of a student’s character, and if a story of hardship does not genuinely convey that, it should not be included just for its traumatic nature.

2. How are you sharing?

If a student decides to share a story of hardship, they should be careful about how they present it. Discussing trauma can easily become an attempt to justify one’s response or seek empathy from the reader. However, admissions committees want to see that an applicant has evolved through their challenges. This does not mean students must have completely worked through their trauma to apply to college. Instead, they should only tell a story if they can do so from an appropriate emotional distance, reflecting on it in a way that shows they have come to terms with its impact on their identity and worldview.

3. With whom are you sharing this?

A strong essay is written with its audience in mind. Given that students have never met the admissions committees reading their essays, it can be challenging to remember that the committee is made up of real people evaluating an applicant’s candidacy. Admissions officers must sift through thousands of essays each cycle, a task that is arduous and tiring. When sharing a story of trauma, students should consider the potential impact on readers. Is the essay written so that people from various backgrounds can relate to its message? Could the story negatively affect its readers? Will the reader get a clear sense of the student’s personality, character, and purpose? Understanding that the essay is one component of the application, meant to support and enrich other materials, can help students determine if their story is contextual, appropriate, and effective.

Crafting a Thoughtful and Genuine Essay

Approaching the personal essay with a clear sense of self, understanding its purpose, and being mindful of its impact on readers will help students avoid oversharing or trauma dumping. By keeping these considerations in mind and making deliberate choices about the subject matter, students can craft genuine stories that accurately reflect their character and values to admissions readers.



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