Preparing for College

How do I Explain My "Extenuating Circumstances" without Sounding like Debbie Downer?

Question: I'm a high school senior who has applied to a wide array of colleges--from Tennessee Tech to Emory--and many of the essays that colleges have asked me to write have involved my "extenuating circumstances." I have plenty. I live in a warehouse, my mother works four jobs and has no health insurance to pay for her diabetes medication, and I have no money for college. However, writing about these things makes me worry that I'm either depressing or boring the admissions counselors. I don't want to sound like a Debbie Downer. I'm thankful for many things and I'm full of hope. However, I can't lie to the counselors. What do I do?

Sorry to hear about your "extenuating circumstances." High school is tough enough without them. You should definitely explain your situation to admission committees, whether it's in a primary essay, in an unsolicited extra essay or letter, or via the "Additional Information" section of your applications.

It's fine to tell the admission officials exactly what you've told me ... that you don't want to sound like "Debbie Downer" (they should like that!) but that you feel they should know about the struggles you're facing, because they are an integral part of who you are. It's also important to say that you're thankful for many things and full of hope. That's clearly a key component of who you are, too. In addition, you should point out the "silver linings" that your struggles may have provided. For instance, if you feel that you are more determined, independent, or flexible than the typical teenager because of life’s curve balls, then be sure to say so … and give examples.

You may continue to hit more hurdles as you pursue your college dreams, but try to maintain your sense of hope, and be persistent (but polite) as you navigate this maze … especially if you have to wrangle with financial aid offices before your plans are finalized.

Best of luck!

(posted 12/17/2012)