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Editorials

College Essays and the Trauma Sweetspot

The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 86 Brattle Street in Radcliffe Yard.
The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 86 Brattle Street in Radcliffe Yard. By Meimei Xu
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. Discuss a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. If all else fails, explore a background, identity, interest, or talent so profound that not doing so would leave our idea of you fundamentally incomplete.

Exactly the sort of small talk you want to make with strangers.

American college essays — frequently structured around prompts like the above — ask us to interrogate who we are, who we want to be, and what the most formative experiences of our then-short lives are. To tell a story, to reveal ourselves and our identity in its entirety to the curious gaze of admissions officers — all in a succinct 650 words.

Last Thursday, The Crimson published “Rewriting Our Admissions Essays,” an intimate reflection by six Crimson editors on the personal statements that got them into Harvard. Our takeaway from this exercise is that our current essay-generating ethos — the topics we choose or are made to choose, the style and emphasis we apply — is imperfect at best, when not actively harmful.

The American admissions process rightly grants students broad latitude to write about whatever they choose, with prompts that emphasize personal experience, adversity, discovery, and identity — features often distort student narratives and pressure students to present themselves in light of their most difficult experiences.

When it comes to writing, freedom is good — great even! The personal statement can be a powerful vehicle to convey an aspect of one’s identity, and students who feel inclined to do so should take advantage of the opportunity to write deeply and candidly about their lives; the variety of prompts, including the possibility to craft your own, facilitate that. We have no doubt that some of our peers had already pondered, or even lived in the shadow of, the difficult questions posed by the most recurrent essay prompts; and we know the essay to be a fundamental part of the holistic, inclusive admissions system we so fervently cherish. Writing one’s college essay, while stressful, can ultimately prove cathartic to some and revealing to others, a helpful exercise in introspection amid a much too busy reality.

Yet we would be blind not to notice the deep, dark nooks where the system that demands such introspection tends to lead us.

Both the college essay format — short but riveting, revealing but uplifting, insightful but not so self-centered that it will upset any potential admissions counselor — and the prompts that guide it push students towards an ethic of maximum emotional impact. With falling acceptance rates and a desperate need to stand out from tens of thousands of applicants, students frequently feel the need to supply the sort of attention-grabbing drama that might just push them through.

But joyful, restful days don’t make for great stories; there are few, if any, plot points in a stable, warm relationship with a living, healthy relative. Trauma, on the other hand — homophobic or racist encounters that leave one shaken, alcoholic parents, death, loss and scarring pain — makes for a good story. A Harvard-worthy story, even.

For students who have experienced genuine adversity, this pressure to package adversity into a palatable narrative can be toxic. The essay risks commodifying hardship, rendering genuinely soul-molding experiences like suffering recurrent homelessness or having orphaned grandparents into shiny narrative baubles to melt down into a Harvard degree. It can make applicants, accepted or not, feel like their admissions outcomes are tied to their most vulnerable experiences. The worst thing that ever happened to you was simply not enough, or alternatively, it was more than enough, and now you get to struggle with traumatized-imposter syndrome.

Moreover, students often feel compelled to end their essays about deep trauma with a statement of victory — a proclamation that they have overcome their problems and are “fit for admission.” Very few have figured life out by age 18. Trauma often sticks with people far longer, and this implicit obligation may make students feel like they “failed” if the pain of their trauma resurfaces during college. Not every bruise heals and not all damage can be undone — but no one wants to read a sob story without a redemption arc.

A similar dynamic is at play in terms of the intensity of the chosen experience: Students feeling for ridges of scars to tear up into prose must be careful to avoid cuts too deep or too shallow. Their trauma mustn’t appear too severe: No college, certainly not Harvard, wants to admit people who could trigger legal liabilities after a bad mental health episode. That is the essay’s twisted pain paradox — students’ trauma must be compelling but not too serious, shocking but not off-putting. Colleges seek the chic not-like-other-students sort of hurt; they want the fun, quirky pain that leaves the main character with a new refreshing perspective at the end of a lackluster indie film. Genuine wounds — the sort that don’t heal overnight or ever, the kind that don’t lead to an uplifting conclusion that ties in beautifully with your interest in Anthropology — are but lawsuits in the waiting.

For students who have not experienced such trauma, the personal essay can trap accuracy in a tug of war with appealing falsities. The desire to appear as a heroic problem-solver can incentivize students to exaggerate or misrepresent details to compete with the compelling stories of others.

We emphatically reject these unspoken premises. Students from marginalized communities don’t owe college admissions offices an inspirational story of nicely packaged drama. They should not bear a disproportionate burden in proving their worthiness.

Why, then, do these pressures exist? How can we account for the multitude of challenging experiences people have without reductionist commodification? How do you value the sharing of deeply personal struggles without incentivizing every acceptance-hungry applicant to offer an adjective-ridden, six-paragraph attempt at psychoanalyzing their terrible childhood?

We don’t have a quick fix, but we must seek a system that preserves openness and mitigates perverse pressures. Other admissions systems around the world, such as the United Kingdom’s UCAS personal statement, tend to emphasize intellectual interest in tandem with personal experience. The Rhodes Scholarship, citing an excessive focus on the “heroic self” in the essays it receives, recently overhauled its prompts to focus more broadly on the themes “self/others/world.” We should pay attention to the nature of the essays that these prompts inspire and see, in time, if their models are worth replicating.

In the meantime, students should understand that neither their hurt nor their college essay defines them — and there are many ways to stand out to admissions officers. If it feels right to write about deeply difficult experiences, do so with the knowledge that they have far more to contribute to a college campus than adversity and hardship.

The issue is not what people can or should write about in their personal statements. Rather, it’s how what admissions officers expect of their applicants distorts the essays they receive, and how the structure of American college admissions can push toward garment-rending oversharing. We must strive for an admissions culture in which students feel truly free to express their identity — to tell a story they want to share, not one their admissions officers want them to. A system where students can feel comfortable that any specific essay topic — devastating or cheerful — will not place them slightly ahead or behind in the mad, mad race toward that cherished acceptance letter.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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