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Should I include sexual abuse/mental health issues in college essay?

screenname2727screenname2727 2 replies3 threads New Member
I will be discussing sexual abuse, child abuse, mental illness and other sensitive topics. Please do not read if this could trigger unwanted feelings or memories. Thank you.


I would like to know if I should include this info in my college essay. I will be applying to UPenn (Wharton), USC (Marshall), UC Berkeley (Haas), MIT (Sloan) & more. I am a Canadian rising senior (Class of 2020). I am also a female.

First and foremost, I've read many different perspectives on the inclusion of sensitive topics in essays. I will not be going into the details surrounding the abuse, nor would I like it to evoke feelings of pity. Some say that it is a terrible idea, others say that it can be a powerful essay. Additionally, the police know everything. Let me know what you think:

My father abused my 2 sisters and I as children and teens, as well as my mother throughout their marriage. They got divorced when I was 6 and shared custody ensued. While I recognized that he was physically, emotionally and verbally abusive, I did not realize that it was sexual until the night before my first exam in grade 10. I freaked out and did not do very well. I left his house and completely stopped going to school for the next 5 months. I became extremely depressed, anxious and suicidal. I lost my will to live. During this time, my older sister developed extreme mental health issues. She was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD and other illnesses. She became extremely abusive due to her illnesses. Because of this, I stopped my healing process and began co-parenting with my mother. I learned to coach my sisters, my mother, and those around me. At the end of grade 10, I went back to school for a bit and finished up. I received a much lower average than I would have liked because of these issues (I am Canadian - we do not use GPAs). This average was a 91%. I did not plan on going back to school whatsoever. A week before the 2018-2019 school year (a week before the start of grade 11), I forced myself to attend an interview for an extremely competitive private school. I am so fortunate that I was accepted, as my education has completely saved my life. It gave me the motivation to start living again and without it, I truly would not be here today. I began participating in numerous EC's, creating relationships with teachers and students, and working extremely hard. Today I am the president of 4 teams/clubs (of which I've designed individual training programs for each), the founder and president of 1 club, have won numerous awards, have the highest grades in my class, and was accepted into a competitive pre-college Wharton program. More importantly, I wrote 2 articles on the importance of mental health education in schools, both published by very prominent newspapers in my country (Canada). I also developed a mental health program, of which I won an Innovation Technology award for. I'm meeting with school board execs to discuss the implementation of a mental health program, and am looking to create opportunities for battered women living in shelters this summer (for example, a fundraising fashion show centred on helping these women feel beautiful and comfortable in their own skin again & a lot more). When I come home each day, I am still presented with these struggles. They are an integral part of my life as they've made me who I am today. If not for them, I would not be pursuing mental health initiatives or have discovered such a deep appreciation for education. As much as my experiences have hurt me, I've grown into someone that I'm proud of, and a young woman who is no longer just a victim.

I understand that these are controversial subjects. Therefore please let me know if I should omit some parts (such as the sexual abuse) or just not talk about it at all. Keep in mind that I do believe that this is an essential part of my story and my life. I appreciate all the different POVs that will be shared.

Thank you all in advance :)
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Replies to: Should I include sexual abuse/mental health issues in college essay?

  • momofsenior1momofsenior1 10194 replies119 threads Senior Member
    Ordinarily I would say ‘no’ and have your GC mention that there were struggles in the LOR. But, if you can focus 99% of the essay on your passion to help others, your writings, and your EC work, I think it could work. 1-2 sentences max that this stems from personal experiences and the rest about the person you are now and how that passion will translate into work on a college campus.

    Word of caution, the schools you listed are high reaches for all applicants, Especially for international students. Have solid match and safety schools. You may also want to consider schools like Notre Dame that have a strong emphasis on helping others.
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  • gardenstategalgardenstategal 6672 replies10 threads Senior Member
    If you talk about your take on something and it's influenced by how you see the world, it's fine. Something you realized about yourself while helping others, how you chose to put your strength into something. It sounds like your healing process has involved helping others. Something in that story could be very powerful - perhaps it's the personal part of what you tell a schoolboard.. What is important is that the story makes the AO think "this person would be a great addition to this community". It sounds like you have the fodder for that. And make sure it shows who you are. So the story of trusting a teacher to help you (vs being the helper), the story of helping a friend with a problem that was huge to them (and perhaps trivial compared to abuse) because you could relate to someone experiencing pain, the transition from school as distraction to passion. Remember the essay is short, and you want the reader to come away feeling like you are awesome. You don't see yourself as a victim- don't let them either!

    One other thing... You should ask your CC or one of your recommenders to write about this as it's a defining part of who you are.
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  • collegemom3717collegemom3717 7900 replies84 threads Senior Member
    edited June 2019
    Start with base principles:: your goal with the essay is to give Admission Committees reasons to choose your application. It adds depth to the dry facts of your stats, and shows something about what you bring to the university. It is read in conjunction with your LoRs. It is valuable real estate, so you have to use your very limited word count carefully.

    So: principle #1: figure out the things you want them to know about you and what ways you have to get that information across all the parts of your application. In this case, I'm guessing that part of the goal is to explain less than perfect marks in your high school record. That part should be addressed by your GC: "screenname2727 overcame some serious health and family issues in the Grades X & Y to become a stand out member of her class in our school....".

    Principle #2: where you are going should get more words than where you have been. The blow-by-blow of 'this happened, and then this and then this' will use up your word count before you got to what you are doing and what you want to do next. So even though these experiences are intensely important to you it is likely to get you farther to collapse a lot of it into a sentence or two: "a childhood of abuse and family disruption culminated in missing part of grades 9 & 10. Testing into New School provided a lifeline in which I have thrived and have been able to develop (innovation Tech award program), etc. etc..

    Principle #3: where you can do it *naturally* drop in things that are what you what you want to do next that align with the things that you will be including in your 'why us' essays.

    Abuse is not controversial in itself- writing about it in college application essays is. When colleges say they want to know about you they mean it in the context of what you bring to the college community. As another CC poster has said a few times in response to similar questions (sadly, there are a lot of students who ask variants of this question): it's not therapy.

    Deeply personal topics are hard to write about, harder to write about well, and really hard to write well about when you don't have the perspective of time.

    A question and an observation:

    1) do you have unlimited funds for university? if not, take UCB off your list.
    2) you talk about mental health initiatives, but are applying to super-selective business schools- make sure you connect the dots in your essays

    edited June 2019
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  • doschicosdoschicos 26679 replies268 threads Senior Member
    Since you mention attending a competitive private school, I would assume you have some decent or better college counseling there. Do they know about your background and family history? I would suggest asking your college counselor the very question you are asking here (if you feel comfortable discussing it with him/her) and ask for their advice on how to best approach it in context with your entire application and academic record.
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