The rise of flickering cell phone screens, social media, and the insane competition of college admissions will define this era in history. Alongside the innovations and competition of the 21st Century is a rise of anxiety amongst all age groups, including, and perhaps especially, teenagers. Your anxiety is totally valid. It’s real and it is something that you should communicate to colleges, but you need to know where to send the message.
What Not to Do
The point of the Common App essay is to tell a compelling story about growth that gives the reader (the admissions committee) a broader view of who you are. Your scores and grades are really important, but they are largely one-dimensional figures. Your goal should be to connect with the person on the other side of the application. It’s natural for students to think talking about something deeply personal or a significant hurdle they’ve faced in high school achieves that goal. The instinct therein is right, but the approach is not.
Writing a personal essay for a college can be awkward. The audience is completely unparalleled from all others in our life. Readers aren’t quite our friends whom we’ve known for years and in whom we would confide our deepest fears, precious dreams, and insecurities. They’re not the kind of audience we perform for in school plays. And they’re also not our teachers who see us and mentor us every day. But we shouldn’t treat the readers like strangers, either. After all, we wouldn’t go up to a new barista and rattle off a list of our accomplishments from the year while ordering coffee. Just as you wouldn’t tell the barista you barely knew a deeply personal story of personal tragedy, you probably shouldn’t make that story your initial presentation to the admissions committee, either.
The reason is, first and foremost, that the Common App essay is meant to display a part of your personality that isn’t already apparent elsewhere on your application. Funny, great listener, strong leader. These are all traits that speak to who you really are and what you’re made of. They are the messages that transform you from a one-dimensional set of data attached to a resume into a real human being they want to get to know. Those traits, when told through the proper story, speak to who you are in your heart. Anxiety does not. So, if you talk about anxiety in your Common App essay, you’re missing an opportunity to show the admissions committee who you really are. That’s the whole point.
In addition to the idea that anxiety isn’t really a personality trait, there are other reasons the Common App essay is not really the place to discuss them. We don’t judge you for having anxiety. In fact, many of our students have struggled with and overcome a range of mental health issues. But the fact of the matter remains that there is a stigma around mental health. Colleges are not altruistic organizations. They are businesses and they must look out for their own bottom line and well-being. As such, they have to make sure applicants are going to flourish, graduate in four years, and be an asset instead of a liability. Your friends and family know that anxiety doesn’t define you. The general public mostly knows that, too. But to an admissions counselor who doesn’t know you at all outside of your application, highlighting your struggle could raise some questions for them. That’s something you want to avoid.
What to Do
While the Common App essay is not the place to talk about your struggle with anxiety, you should still disclose it to schools. The application has a space for “additional information” that was made just for issues like this one. The additional info. section is a place where anyone who has had some kind of issue that has disrupted their education or performance to explain themselves. So, if you’ve had an injury, death in the family, or an illness (including a mental health issue), this is the appropriate place to talk about it. Just be mindful to frame it as something that’s mostly been taken care of.
Need some help talking about mental health on your college application? Reach out to us. There’s no reason students with mental health challenges can’t get into the nation’s top schools.