Overcoming Depression College Essay

Question: My question is about my son’s Common Application essay. In it he discloses being diagnosed with depression a little over a year ago. I think it’s a touching, optimistic piece of writing, but it has my husband worried. Would this be a deal-killer for colleges?

You and your husband can call a tie here. I’m asked this question—or similar ones—fairly often, and my standard reply is that I like to review each case individually. In some instances, I feel that an essay that discloses depression (or other mental health concerns) is worthwhile, but in many situations, I recommend that the student should stay mum. Here are some of the factors that go into the advising process:

–Will there be any “flags” on the student’s transcript or elsewhere in his application which suggest that something is amiss? For instance, are grades erratic? Was there one atypically weak semester or year? Was the student frequently absent? Will recommendation letters from the school counselor or teachers refer, even vaguely, to frequent absences, missed assignments, erratic performance, or “personal problems”?

–How much is the depression likely to affect the student’s adjustment to—and performance in—college?

–Will the student be receiving ongoing therapy once in college? If so, will this be happening at or near home? In the same city/community where the college is located? On the college campus itself through the school’s health services?

–Does the essay state or imply that the depression had made the student angry at others or likely to harm himself? The latter includes not only possible suicide attempts but also other types of damaging behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse (or refusing to take prescribed medications), eating disorders, etc.

–Is the applicant a strong candidate for the college in question or a more borderline one?

Of all of the considerations listed above, the first one is really the biggie. If colleges are going to know (or at least guess) that a candidate experienced some sort of problem during high school, it makes sense to explain what that problem was or is. Ideally, however, the explanation should also include assurances that the problem is either over or is sufficiently under control so that the student can succeed in college and will not be a threat to himself or to others.

Although colleges are not allowed to discriminate against applicants with disabilities, the Virginia Tech tragedy definitely served as turning point on most campuses. Administrators (including admission officials) became more worried that students who struggle with mental-health issues of any sort can be dangerous to the school community. Although colleges certainly didn’t stop accepting applicants who had been treated for mental-health concerns, they definitely scrutinized those applications more carefully, and I’m sure that some candidates who might have been admitted in an earlier era were ultimately denied.

Thus, if there will be no signs in the application that the candidate has suffered from depression, I usually suggest to students and their parents that this NOT be mentioned in the essay (or anywhere). Some admission officials will not be at all prejudiced against candidates who self-disclose, but some will … so why take that chance?

Well, actually, there are good reasons for taking that chance. In some cases, the candidate says, “This is me, and if a college won’t accept me for who I am, another college will.” This approach is understandable and honorable but can indeed impact admission outcomes. Yet in those situations where a student will need significant support, it often makes sense to be candid during the admission process. This can help the student to end up at a place where appropriate services are available.

Another thought: If your son does decide to submit his depression essay, he might want to consider using it for “Additional Information” rather than as his primary personal statement. He can then write his main essay about something unrelated … perhaps an interest, talent, etc. This sends a message to admission officials that proclaims, “Yes, I have battled depression, but it doesn’t define who I am.”

If your son is on the fence about his essay, he can find many posts on College Confidential that discuss this concern. This thread, below, stems from a U.S. News Article which actually focuses on a former counseling client of mine who did decide to reveal her depression in her essays. See: http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/college-admissions/503071-usnews-should-i-mention-depression-my-college-application.html

As confusing and even capricious as it can seem, I often find that the crazy admission process leads to a meant-to-be conclusion. So, whichever path your son chooses when it comes to sending the depression essay or not, you may find that it takes him to exactly where he was supposed to end up all along. Best wishes to all of you as you continue to navigate this maze.

(posted 11/07/10)

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Did you know 20% of teenagers experience depression before reaching adulthood? It is also during this time that college applicants have to answer the most intimate question in order to gain acceptance at their dream school. What defines you?

While it may feel extremely vulnerable to talk about your experience with depression, don’t let that immediately deter you from choosing it as your personal statement essay topic. Here are 5 examples that may help you approach the topic in an essay:


UC Irvine ‘17

Throughout the past few years, I have gone through depression. The inability to focus not only in school, but also in life, is something I have struggled to overcome. The majority of the time, I am able to successfully distinguish my emotions from my academics because of my overly organized tendencies. At other times, the feelings that come with depression are inevitable. Depression, for me, is hopelessness. My biggest struggle with depression is not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel; therefore, this way of thinking has caused me to feel unmotivated, alone, and frightened. Because of this, I have spent endless nights contemplating my life till 4 or 5 in the morning, I have no motivation to wake up in the mornings, and I feel pain and grief on a daily basis. Keep reading.


UC Berkeley ‘19

On a warm August morning I sat shivering and shaking in the waiting room to my doctor’s office. I had my mother make the appointment but didn’t give her the reason; I’m not even sure I really knew the reason. I just knew something was wrong. The past five years had been all uphill - outwardly, at least. I was doing increasingly well in school, growing more independent, and had greater opportunities at my feet. Inwardly, however, was an entirely different story. Those five years felt like an upbeat movie I was watching while in my own personal prison. I was happy for the characters, even excited for their accomplishments. The problem was that my outward self was a character entirely distinct from the internal me. View full essay.


Williams College ‘19

Perhaps the greatest blessing my parents have ever granted me was the move from our apartment in the Bronx to a two-family home in Queens, two blocks away from a public library. The library had all the boons my young heart could desire: bounties of books, air conditioning in the summer, and sweet solace from a dwelling teeming with the cries of an infant sister, a concept I couldn’t yet fathom. Read more.


Vassar ‘19

When I was younger, people chided me for being pessimistic. It was my sincere belief that there were no rewards to be reaped from a life here on earth. I was bored, unhappy, and apathetic. War, injustice, environmental collapse, the mean thing X said to me the other day-it all made me see the world as a tumultuous and unpleasant place. Continue reading. 


NYU ‘18

Dish soap, pepper, a toothpick, and an empty pie tin. The first materials I ever used to perform a simple experiment in grade school. Looking back that would be the moment I fell in love with science. I can still feel the excitement I felt as I watched as the pepper dart off to the edges of the pie tin as I touched the water with the end of a soap coated toothpick. Though I didn’t have to question how or why the reaction happened, I never stopped wondering. It was then that a passion for science ignited in me. It was a fire in my soul that could never die out. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I grew older, the fire within me began to dim and in the year 2012, it became extinguished; the world as I knew it had ended. View full profile.

Applying to college?

View the app files and essays of accepted students.


While this essay topic helped these students gain acceptances to UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, Williams, Vassar and NYU, it doesn’t mean it will work in the exact same way for you. Brainstorm and think carefully about what you want to write in your personal statement and how you want to share your own, unique story. For more inspiration, AdmitSee has a database of 60,000+ successful college applications files waiting for you! 

About The Author

Frances Wong

Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.


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