Should I write my college essay on OCD?

I’m an international student on a path to applying to the US, I am still to take my ACT (due to the pandemic) and I have come to what seems to be a difficult stage in the application process, the common app essay. OCD has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve read that many people believe mental illness to be a rather touchy topic when it comes to common app essays. I feel like I’ve completely overcome my OCD and have done so simply through grit, I believe it shows that OCD was a major obstacle that I was able to pass. I believed that by overcoming it I gained a true sense of independence and determination. Should I still avoid it as a topic?

I think that, as with many topics, it depends on how you write about it. Congratulations on your “grit” in overcoming this. Without continuing therapy, is there any chance that schools might think stress could rekindle your OCD?

Be aware that you can also write briefly about this in the supplementary essay that asks you to write about what you feel is not covered in the rest of the application.

Hi there, thanks for the reply. I believe that If I were to write my essay on this topic I would, as you’ve stated, have to write about it in a specific way. I’m simply worried that they might see it as using a mental illness to persuade them into accepting me into their school.

@rtrengo If you essay is written in a manner which either seems to be aimed at garnering sympathy or if it conforms to the “how I suffered adversity, but overcame it”. You essay is where you tell the college why you are a great addition. Every third essay or so will be on the topic of How I Overcame Adversity.

For you, your struggles and battles are huge and central to your life. You really suffered, your really struggled, and you really brought your OCD under control. However, for the AO who has 10 minutes to read your entire application, they are one more story, which, to them, is much like 30 that they have already read that day.

Moreover, universities are risk-adverse, and telling them that you suffer from a chronic condition which needs to be monitored and treated on a constant basis, which could decrease your chances of succeeding, could hurt your chances of admissions.

As unfair and unequitable as it seems, I generally do not recommend that students with any chronic conditions, mental or physical, which could potentially deteriorate, talk about their conditions in their applications.

In general, you should, of course, think long and hard about how your OCD could affect you during your studied and add that to your calculations as to you list of potential colleges.

Don’t think that I am, in any way, diminishing your struggles and triumphs. You have already dealt with a lot more than a person your age should, and you did really well, and you have a lot to be proud of.

So good luck and all the best!


@MWolf’s response is excellent, so I will just push one small part of it a little farther. The job of the Admissions team at the selective universities that you seem to be interested in (from your other post) is to build a class of students who collectively will add to the overall campus community and individually will have a successful academic experience that will lead to a fulfilling life path.

Your job is to create an application that as a whole tells the story of a student who will help meet the unis institutional goals, who is a good ‘fit’ (for both the uni and the particular class), and who is likely to be academically successful. Your stats (test scores, grades) and LoRs will tell the Admissions Committee whether you are academically qualified; your ECs will give them some ideas as to what sort of member of the community you could be; and your LoRs and Essays paint a picture of who you are and where you are going. Your essays are your chance to connect the dots, to create the narrative of who this person is.

So: even though navigating your OCD has been a central part of your life, and figuring out how to manage it a genuine achievement, it is only one part of your story. Think about the other parts of your story- present and future. Where do they fit into the narrative arc of your application?

Two final points:

  1. If you decide to write about coping with your OCD, remember that the challenge in writing about something so close to you is having the perspective to pull out the outcomes without getting lost in the telling. The ‘telling’ part should be such a small part of the essay that you could substitute some other big challenge and the core of the essay would still stand. It if doesn’t, your focus is too much on the OCD and not enough on you.

  2. It is great that you feel you have “completely overcome” your OCD, and I have no standing to make any judgement on the accuracy of your statement. However, be aware that -right or wrong!- the AOs may make some judgements: the general view of OCD is that it is treatable but not curable and that it can wax and wane, and they may or may not be as convinced as you are that it will never be an issue during your college years.

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Thank you once again for an amazing reply. Both your reply to this question and my other question, in regard to economics as a competitive major, have been amazing.

I think writing about our overcoming OCD would work well in a brief supplementary essay, which can actually be very short. My kid that about a medical condition, which my kid did not want to define them but needed to mention.

I agree that many will view OCD as waxing and waning and that the transition to college could perhaps trigger it a little. I didn’t want to say that in case it was discouraging, and it may not be the case at all with you, but others may think about that.

Are you just your OCD, or is there more to you?

My advice on this will never change: there’s almost always something better to write about. Not all colleges will automatically reject you for writing about this, but…why? Sorry, but I just don’t think it’s interesting. And hardly any students have enough skill to write about such topics in a way that makes for good reading while also managing to reveal something positive about the student.

As @MWolf said, these types of essays are so common. To you, it was your life, but that doesn’t mean others want to read about it. I’m not trying to be harsh, just realistic.