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Writing College Essays about Mental Health in the Context of the Pandemic

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Vanessa Garrido Glogower College Coach

Written by Vanessa Garridoon July 7th, 2022

My career has been dedicated to education and educational access. After graduating from Reed College, I joined the admissions team at my alma mater. I then became Director of Multicultural Recruitment at Reed, reading applications from students of color from every state in the U.S., and organizing and hosting visit programs for our prospective students of color. After working in admissions, I decided to pursue a career in teaching. I completed the New York City Teaching Fellows program and became a high school English and special education teacher in the Bronx, and, later, in Brooklyn. In those roles, I supported the college counseling offices at each school, working with students from a variety of different backgrounds and learning abilities as they navigated the college admissions process. I then taught at an alternative school in Walla Walla, WA, where I helped students meet their high school graduation requirements and explore their educational futures. I have also worked as an independent tutor and college counselor, helping students carve out their unique educational paths to college or vocational programs. I have experience as a creative writer and editor, and I love working with students on their college essays.
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by Vanessa Garrido, former admissions officer at Reed College This fall, college admissions officers will be entering their third year of reading applications from students who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stating that we’ve all been impacted by the pandemic is obvious. What’s perhaps less apparent is the way this shared human experience has created a collective sense of vulnerability and loss among high school students. Young people have been shaped by the consequences of the pandemic in harsh and multifaceted ways. Students continue to be affected in a slew of contexts: their social, academic, and extracurricular realities have been narrowed, rearranged, and restructured. The pandemic has also had a profound impact on the mental health of young people overall. The upward trend in teenage mental health illness has dramatically increased over the past decade. Research links this trend to technology-related activities such as doomscrolling and social media addiction. The pandemic has only exacerbated mental health issues for teens, as noted in various pieces such as this WHO article, this media release by the CDC, and this Surgeon General Advisory from the US Department of Health and Human Services. A recent Ken Burns PBS documentary called The Storm takes a deep dive into these issues as well. Hence, it’s unsurprising that mental health-related topics (directly influenced by the pandemic or not) have appeared more frequently in college admission essays. Anecdotally, one of my colleagues who reviewed applications for the University of California San Diego last admissions cycle estimated that about one in five of the essays she read related to depression or other mental health struggles. Essays that touch on mental health have become much more commonplace, resulting in a de-stigmatization of these topics. So, in the context of COVID-19 and beyond, when is it a good choice to write about one’s mental health (if ever)? As my colleague Mary Sue Youn has written about in her post, Should I Talk about My Mental Illness in My Application?, the decision about whether or not to write about your mental health is a personal choice. These considerations may be helpful as you navigate your decision:
  • Weigh your pros and cons, which may look something like:
    • Pro: You are providing the admission office and student services with a fuller picture of your needs and circumstances as they relate to your mental health. If a college doesn’t feel it can support you, the school is not going to be a great fit for you.
    • Con: Reducing your mental health challenges down to a 650-word essay is not likely to capture the full complexity of your experience. Your essay will only reveal a sliver of this facet of your life and may be misread or misinterpreted.
  • Ask yourself these questions if you’re considering writing about your mental health:
    • Are you currently in the midst of your mental health challenges? The personal statement is intended to give you an opportunity to shine light on your growth. If you’re managing something as complex as depression or an eating disorder, it can be challenging to focus on the growth. Your college essay might not be the ideal place to process the relevant feelings and issues. You may want to explore a different topic and address your mental health through journaling, talk therapy, etc.
    • What positive personal qualities do you want to highlight, and is this topic the best way to let these traits shine? Remember, this is the one story about you most admission officers will have access to. Is this the one story you want to share?
    • What is your perspective? How might you share a story that will be a vibrant, authentic take on something that is affecting a large swath of the population?
    • How have you changed? How has this experienced helped you become the person you are today? What do you want your readers to take away?
Regardless of the topic you select for your personal statement, I encourage you to prioritize your wellbeing during the application process and check out this insightful post about ways to integrate mindfulness into your experience of applying to college. You’ll also want to be sure to check out the counseling services and student support resources available at each of the colleges on your list. You can explore these mental health resources as well: Mental Health Resources

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