Applying for college is a rigorous process that can be overwhelming for many prospective students. But it can be particularly stressful for students who have experienced trauma or other hardships in the years leading up to sending out applications.
Embedded into many college applications is an essay often requiring students to extensively describe hardships they've have to overcome in order to be academically successful. The Common App, a widely-used platform that allows students to send applications to multiple schools, doesn't directly ask prospective students to share their deeply personal stories. But often, students who think their grades are inadequate or that they bring nothing else to the table may feel that describing their trauma will make them stand out.
Prepping for college essay writing starts in high schools. High school teachers should not expect or encourage students to choose some of the most difficult moments of their lives and write about them in an effort to gain the attention of college admissions boards. While it seems like an easy route to develop content for an essay, it opens the door for colleges to tokenize students.
Character expectations for potential students should not be hinged of the trauma they’ve experienced — or lack thereof. Trauma, whether it be an eating disorder, self-mutilation or drug addiction, should not be expected in college applications, unless that's what a student wishes to share. It shouldn't be the expectation.
Most universities require an essay component in their applications, in addition to a high school transcript and extracurricular information. The University of Minnesota - Twin Cities doesn't require an essay or letters of recommendation. Eliminating that aspect of the application process allows for students to be admitted to school based on their academic merit and extracurriculars, rather than taking into account traumatic life events.
This is even an issue at the graduate level. Deena ElGenaidi, a writer and editor from Brooklyn, recounted her experience applying to graduate school where was told by an adviser to “play up” her experiences. She felt that saying she was a person of color was not enough, and she was concerned that colleges were looking for students who fit into a certain stereotype. But she resisted her adviser's suggestion, feeling that, as a minority, she shouldn't be required to show off issues she had faced.
The point is not for colleges to ignore these experiences. Dealing with any traumatic issue has an impact on your education and overall life experience. But that does not mean students want to be reduced to their adverse experiences while they are in school figuring out who they are and what they want to be. Students should be fostering their own success stories. High schools and colleges should not be the ones writing that narrative.