Recently, the discussion made the rounds about how students of color feel forced to discuss their trauma to receive admission or financial aid or some other form of access to higher education. Most of us have a general sense that we have to discuss something bad in our history to show why we’re “worthy” of admittance. It seems to be a trend in higher Ed to have to show your grit, which almost always comes from some negative experience. It’s bogus to have to reveal such personal and troubling histories to strangers and if you have to do it frequently (scholarship apps, different applications, etc) it can take a toll on you. It can also feel like a betrayal to discuss things your parents or family experienced. We’re literally putting out our dirty laundry for strangers to see and it just feels bad. For those that struggle with re-living trauma (and who doesn’t) it can even become a hindrance in applying. So yes, it is difficult to decide what you share and how you expose yourself. But I’m here to tell you that you can create a strong essay without focusing on experiences that impact your mental health.
First, it’s important to remember that when schools talk about getting into higher Ed and what prospective students need to show–almost always the students they are envisioning are white students living in comfortable socioeconomic brackets. Obviously people in those groups have struggles and strife, but they also live at a level of comfort where they aren’t being targeted by systems of power. So when admissions asks for proof that you can persevere they may be envisioning that they’re asking this of a group that does not face trauma as frequently as we do. A group that may have to dig deep to find something worth discussing. In contrast, we may have many experiences to discuss, but those experiences may make us feel sad, angry, ashamed, or unsettled when we share them.
Figuring out what to share and what to keep private can absolutely feel like yet another system of power asking us to bare ourselves in a gross and vulnerable way. But keep in mind that most admissions/application reviewers don’t really, truly need to see a “sob story.” Rather what they want to see is a strong essay. What makes a strong essay? A strong essay is not a sob story. Trauma does not get you in the door–even for essay prompts that ask for proof of your ability to persevere.
Instead, most law schools want to see that you are a leader, a strong writer, and that you have a purpose for attending their school. Here, I recommend discussing the catalyst that motivated you to attend law school, which can stem from a positive or a negative. If you focus on the “why,” it will help admissions see you have a real interest in the justice system. Of course, for many of us the push to go to law school stems from the injustices that we see inflicted on our families and communities–so it’s hard to avoid talking about trauma. But my point is that you can pick what you’re most comfortable disclosing and use that as your main focus.
In my case, I experienced a lot of inter-family violence and the trauma of poverty growing up, but I opted to write about my work with the immigrant community in Indianapolis and how that pushed me to get my degree. Even though I didn’t discuss personal trauma, my essay showed that I had a reason for going to law school, a passion for the legal system, and experience with a marginalized community that needed help accessing justice.
(This may go without saying, but regardless of what you decide to share make sure your grammar is perfect and that you “show your work”–meaning that you back up why you want to go to law school with soft factors that prove you are willing to take on leadership roles).
Ultimately, it is difficult to avoid sharing details about bad experiences because that is often how we can show our ability to grow from adversity. But don’t force yourself to be vulnerable or put yourself in uncomfortable positions just because you think that’s what they want to hear. Remember that you are able to craft a strong, powerful essay within the boundaries of your comfort and still gain admission.