The Problem With Personal Statements

Private trauma as public commodity.

In 2018, UPenn admissions officers read a touching essay about an applicant’s recently deceased mother. Moved by the story, the admissions office accepted the student. But when a school representative happened to call his home, his mother, very much alive, was the one who answered the phone. This anecdote illustrates a troubling trend in our college application culture. College essays were once a place to display a student’s highlights, but in recent years they have morphed into a place to exhibit a student’s trauma — whether real or fabricated.

Many personal statements are predictable stories of triumph over hardship. A familiar example is the “sports injury story”: a narrative featuring a student who suffers a “devastating” injury, yet comes back stronger. Through extraordinary perseverance, they learn important lessons about recovery, themselves, and the world.

But why are students fixated on trauma in their college apps?

Students have internalized the notion that trauma is what gives them an edge. After all, the college application process is getting more selective; students with stellar grades and extensive extracurriculars are now a dime a dozen. In some twisted fashion, the way we portray our individual suffering has become how we judge our essays, and therefore our chances of getting into college.

It is important to recognize that trauma is specifically defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). Trauma is not just any negative experience. The DSM-5 definition requires “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Although writing about negative experiences can create an effective personal statement, students should not feel pressured to divulge their trauma.

Of course, I can’t know for sure what portion of students are writing about trauma (a quick poll of twenty-five people on The Messenger’s Instagram found that 40% of the respondents write about trauma) or why some students feel that writing about their trauma is a go-to avenue to get into college. However, the utilization of trauma in this way whittles it down into a palatable anecdote that is viewed as a net positive. While people assert that overcoming trauma made them stronger in the end, real-world trauma hinders peoples’ ability to function in daily life. In fact, trauma may decrease a student’s ability to perform well in college.

Furthermore, in the short span of 650 words, students don’t have time to meaningfully reflect on their trauma. Instead, they are forced to oversimplify. A typical essay begins with a harsh, vivid description of the most difficult event in a student’s life. It leads to how that student overcame their struggle. And of course, it would not be complete without ending in a nice little bow of implications, tying up how the author is a great candidate for college.

While trauma can be an intrinsic part of someone’s identity, and consequently a powerful thing to write about, we should not consider trauma to simply be a strength. All too often, our society views trauma as an asset and a marker of identity, disregarding the deeply personal and horrendous aspects. Especially in the context of an impersonal college application, students should not feel pressured to disclose their trauma. Trauma should be for us to process, not college admissions offices.