The Dos and Don'ts of Discussing Sensitive Topics in Essays

on August 29, 2017

Don’t Preach or Proselytize 


Even if you feel strongly about your political or religious convictions, it's best to avoid discussing them in detail in your college essay. Though colleges value opinionated applicants who are bold enough to express their beliefs, they're looking for students who know they don't know everything and are excited about learning from other viewpoints. Expressing too much conviction or pride can come across as conceited or superior. If you want to discuss politics, religion or another controversial subject in your essay, consider framing that discussion within a narrative of personal reflection, growth or triumph. Alternatively, consider listing the details of your involvement in political or religious organizations elsewhere on your application. 


Don’t Wallow in Your Misfortune or Privilege


Contrary to popular belief, writing about personal tragedy or hardship does not automatically make for a winning college essay. Most young college applicants haven't experienced serious personal tragedy or hardship, and there's nothing wrong with that — but if you're a privileged individual, don't admit it in your essay. Doing so can come across as disingenuous and entitled. Try to write about an experience that opened your mind or made you passionate about something. 


If you have experienced genuine tragedy or hardship, proceed with caution if you choose to write about it. Even the best writers have difficulty writing about death, illness, poverty and other heavy topics. Often, applications will ask about difficult personal circumstances separately. If you do decide to write about a personal tragedy, try not to dwell on it: State what happened and talk about why you're a different person, using specific examples. 


Don’t Discuss Illegal or Illicit Activities


For obvious reasons, avoid discussing alcohol, drugs and other illicit behaviors. Even if you manage to spin topics like addiction or legal struggles in a positive light, essays about these topics can raise red flags and work against you in the long run. 


Do Talk About Yourself Honestly


If you've read the tips above and still want to write about a sensitive topic, be sure to do so honestly. Essays that simply discuss tragedies and hardships often come across as pitiful. Frame an experience as a turning point, highlighting how you triumphed, matured or moved on. Talk about what you learned in the process and provide specific examples of how you changed.


Do Present Yourself as Mature and Reflective


Admissions officers love to read about your personal growth. Self-aware applicants will be perceived as more desirable students. Frame sensitive subjects around personal growth.

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