How to Discuss Mental Health in a College Essay

Colleges are getting more sensitive to mental health because they need to be. Amidst the stress and social pressure, suicide rates and incidences of mental health issues are not low. Incoming freshmen at any institution should, first and foremost, be aware of that. Even if you haven’t dealt with mental health issues in the past, college, leaving home, a new social circumstance, and all of the other exciting changes associated with university can also spur new feelings. We recommend students come up with a plan. Wherever you go to school, plan to learn about the mental health services available to you, and if needed, take advantage of them.

Stress and anxiety aren’t just issues on college campuses. These issues, among other mental health issues, have become increasingly pervasive amongst high school-aged kids, too. If you’re someone for whom that rings true, colleges want to know about you. In fact, there is a section on the Common App that is pretty much for students who have gone through a significant mental health hurdle, or some other roadblock, in high school. That’s the additional information section.

We want to be clear about one thing: the common app essay is not the place to discuss your mental health issues. While mental health issues may be a part of your life, they do not necessarily define who you are, and the Common App essay is all about showing the admissions committee who you are. You can have multiple sides. The additional information section, however, was created just for reasons like these.  

While the Common App essay is not the place to talk about mental health issues, students are provided enough space in the additional info. section to tell a story. There’s a 650 word-limit, the same as the common app essay. Students who have faced mental health hurdles that affected their performance in high school should tell a story, just like they would in a standard application essay. We are of the belief that there are myriad ways to talk about any one thing, evening the tough stuff. The way you should consider approaching it is by writing an explanatory piece.  Like any other essay we encourage our kids to write, it should have a beginning, middle, and end. We want to put a particular emphasis on the end part. We understand that mental health issues are often ongoing. The thing is, there’s a lot of stigma about mental health. We wish that weren’t the case, but students applying to schools should be aware of that and should be conscious about ending their explanatory piece with an upswing. That’s the story structure.  

It doesn’t need to be a lie either like, “I was hurting and now I’m fine.” Mental health issues are hard, and that’s ok. You just need to demonstrate some sort of progress. You’re not telling colleges about your issue because you want to be transparent. The point of the “additional info.” exercise is to provide context, in case your academic performance was affected for an external reason.

We’ve worked with tons of students who suffer from depression and anxiety, and many who have mood disorders, or other suffer from other challenges, and we’ve learned that there’s no reason a kid who has struggled shouldn’t be able to get into Harvard. Being honest about your legitimate challenges shouldn’t be what gets in the way. The trick is to frame what you’ve dealt with as a vehicle for growth and a learning experience. It tends to turn out well.


Need help filling out your additional information section? Reach out to us here. We’re great at helping students with special circumstances write compelling essays.