Preparing for College

Are Tell-All Admission Essays Risky or Advantageous?

Question: My nephew's father has serious medical and mental health problems. Will writing about these in his college essay give my nephew an edge in the admission process or is this topic too risky?

Writing a personal statement that is truly personal is far from risky these days. In fact, times have changed a lot since the typical application essay touted the triumphs of the debate society or the challenges of tackling AP French. Admission officers are more than accustomed to reading about family illnesses, divorces, substance abuse and other matters that used to stay behind tightly closed doors. Whatever the issue, if you’ve seen it on “Jerry Springer,” you can almost guarantee that an application essay has mentioned it as well.


That doesn’t mean that your nephew should shy away from discussing his own experiences and how they have affected him. What will give him an “edge,” however, is not what he says but the way he says it. Certainly his uncommon upbringing has the potential to provide better essay material than yet another “winning the big game” or “climbing the challenging mountain” offering, but the quality of the writing is always far more critical than the topic selected.

Essays on parental problems too often tend to be broad overviews that end with a string of platitudes (“I really admire my dad because he kept going in spite of all the hurdles he’s faced, and now I feel I can do anything I choose in life …”). Instead, urge your nephew to focus on one particular event or a specific aspect of his father’s situation (or of the father/son dynamic) with the “moral” of the story perhaps implied rather than stated. One excellent example of this approach came from a young woman whose mother suffered from multiple sclerosis. The essay, entitled “Moonlight Sonata,” was about the mother’s insistence on being able to play her favorite piano piece, even as her fingers increasingly failed her. The daughter explained how her mother was able—after abandoning the task many times—to finally recognize that she could accept different standards for herself in order to continue performing the piece.

The fact that this essay was beautifully crafted was the candidate’s greatest plus, but she also managed to present in that one anecdote a tremendous amount of information about her own values, her sense of humor, and her goals.

Thus, you should encourage your nephew to write about his father’s illnesses, if he feels comfortable doing so, but keep in mind that the subject alone will not make his essay stand out.

One other issue he may face is his father’s (or mother’s) comfort level with the subject matter. Some parents expect to read all essays submitted (and may be appalled when they see what they say!), while others leave the choice to their children. Just stand warned that this can be a hot button in many households, and your nephew may want to consider the ramifications of a tell-all topic before he proceeds.