The Struggle Is Real: How to Discuss Overcoming Adversity in Your Essay

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Hi There,
Allison from College Essay Success here.

For students who have faced extreme challenges, pulling from these experiences can make for a powerful college admissions essay. However, these events can be so personal that students are unsure how to write about them. These formative experiences may leave physical or emotional scars that serve as undeniable proof of our ability to overcome challenges we never imagined we would face, and that resilience is something that colleges want to see in your essay.

For me, this subject is especially personal. During winter break of my junior year of high school, I discovered that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. Growing up, I remember seeing bald kids on TV who had cancer, but never once did I think I would be one of them. When you are sixteen and a doctor tells you that you have cancer, your entire world changes.

Treatment for my cancer diagnosis required that I undergo chemotherapy every three weeks. For each chemotherapy session, I stayed in the hospital for three days straight while nurses poured toxic yet lifesaving chemotherapy into my body intravenously. The drugs I needed to save my life also had the power to kill me. They destroyed parts of my body and life I had previously taken for granted. The chemotherapy decimated my immune system so that I could not attend school or go anywhere with large groups of people.

Consequently, I missed the second half of my junior year, you know, the “make-or-break” year for college applications? Good times, right? Not! The honors classes, AP exams, piano lessons, choir rehearsals, volunteering, church fellowship, and time with friends at school – many of the activities which gave me joy and meaning were taken away from me. Besides demolishing my immune system, I lost all of my hair, experienced extreme nausea and depression, and feared that my life might end before I even graduated from high school.

At this point, my story could go in two directions. I could either continue writing about the horrors of cancer treatment, or I could describe the strength I gained from my experience. I know many of you have encountered unfathomable heartbreak, struggle, or pain. With all respect, if you choose to write your personal statement about a sensitive topic (and even if you are still in the middle of the challenge), you must show that you have learned something profound from the adversity.

However, you certainly don’t need to say that the experience was “worth it” because you gained a personal strength from the experience. In my case, I wouldn’t wish cancer on myself, or anyone, ever! And yet, my experience taught me that I can still push myself to excel in life without placing my self-worth in things that don’t really matter such as my GPA, AP scores, etc. I also learned to balance my drive to succeed with an unwavering commitment to appreciate every moment because life drastically can change at any second. The strength I gained from this experience gave me skills that made me a valuable asset to any college.

Please remember, if you choose to write a personal statement about a struggle or challenge, you may need to use discretion in describing the situation. Sometimes our struggles are extremely personal in nature, and although details help bring the reader into your experience, using overly graphic details may overwhelm the reader or undermine your credibility. We have a few tips below, but if you would like more help writing about sensitive topics, I highly recommend our comprehensive video series with accompanying worksheets to help you effectively weave your story into your personal statement.

Tips for writing about adversity:

1) Begin with a specific moment in your story – In my case, I might begin with something like: “Allison, you have cancer.” From the moment I heard those words, I knew my life would never be the same.

2) Use details to bring the reader into your story – Include sensory details (what you heard, saw, touched, etc.), emotions, direct quotes, etc.

3) Use discretion in describing your story – Sometimes less is more; don’t overwhelm the reader with tragic or offensive details.

4) Include a personal strength you gained because of your experience – identify the lessons you’ve learned or strengths of character you’ve acquired through this experience.

5) Show how this strength will help you in college and beyond – describe how these strengths will contribute to your college experience and beyond.

P.S.  If you’d like more help, CLICK HERE.