The college admissions process might be the most stressful experience in a high school student’s life. We expect heroic feats from these kids. Choose your destiny amongst thousands of schools, navigate applications and deadlines, prove your merit with extracurriculars, ace the SAT, maintain perfect grades, write your life story in 500 words, and dazzle strangers in interviews. Don’t forget, your future depends on success, and your odds of getting in are daunting even if you do everything right. No pressure!
As counselors, advisors, and parents, we should do everything we can to support the well-being of our college-bound seniors, and make sure we’re not adding to their stress.
Mental Health on Campus
A staggering number of college kids struggle with anxiety and depression. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports that 82% of college freshmen feel at least somewhat distressed about mental health. According to a study by Kiera Louise Adams at Oxford, nearly a third of students start college with moderate to severe depression. First-year college students must navigate a new world far from the support of family and friends. Counselors and parents should actively encourage kids to identify mental health resources at college to support their well-being. Don’t wait for a crisis to look for help.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 in the US, or chat at 988lifeline.org
Discussing Mental Health on College Applications
The disruption of the pandemic thrust mental health into the center of the conversation. Anxiety and depression are increasingly accepted as part of the human experience. Kids are talking about mental health on TikTok and YouTube. Therapy and self-care are now just a part of our weekly to-do lists.
Talking openly about mental health is becoming normalized. But should students address these challenges on their college application? The answer is a big “it depends.” We believe mental health should be part of everyday conversation. But admissions officers are people, and people have implicit biases that are hard to shake. So let’s start with some reasons a student might not want to disclose mental health issues on their application.
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Discretion May Be the Safest Approach
First off, it’s none of their business. Schools won’t ask about mental health for legal reasons. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against people with psychiatric disabilities. The ADA applies to colleges. But in the highly selective admissions process, who’s to say why one student gets in and another doesn’t. Discriminating against students with mental health issues may be illegal, but unfortunatey, it still happens.
Admissions officers are the gatekeepers of their institutions. They want to accept the students most likely to graduate successfully. A student identifying themselves as struggling with mental illness could raise doubts. Again, it’s not necessarily fair or even legal, but there is little transparency in admissions decisions.
It is important for students to select colleges and universities that fully support them. If a school is not supportive of a student’s mental health, it may not be the right-fit school for the student. The family must also set up resources outside of the school if they feel the school does not support their student’s mental health.
Share Your Truth, Show Your Strength
Conventional wisdom would caution students against discussing mental health issues in their applications. College essay consultants have discouraged students choosing it as a topic in the past. However, we also encourage students to be bold, speak their truth, and stand out from the crowd. It may be time to question the belief that mental illness is a taboo topic.
Here’s one of the essay prompts from 2022-2023 Common App:
“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
This prompt could certainly lead a student to discuss how a mental health crisis has shaped their experience. The key is to focus on the second part of the question: What did you learn from the experience? Spend less time on the crisis, and concentrate on the positive gains. How did struggling with social anxiety, for example, lead to resilience, self-reflection, and growth? These are qualities that will help the student succeed in college.
Another reason a student may feel compelled to disclose a mental health challenge is to explain a dip in their academics or time out of school. This is a tricky situation, and addressing it in their personal statement may not be the best strategy. The COVID supplement, additional information section or a letter from a trusted counselor or teacher is a good way to provide additional context for the admissions office. Ideally the student’s essay should champion their strengths and show their vision, not only identify and explain their setbacks.
A student is only going to write a truly great essay if it addresses a meaningful and personal experience. There are some valid reasons not to address mental health challenges on a college application. But the student may still feel their mental health is a critical part of the story they want to share. In this case, we’d rather see a bold statement that shows who they really are, than a sanitized version of what we think admissions officers want to see. Ultimately, truth is more powerful than fear of judgment.