How to Discuss Your Mental Health on College Applications

Should you write about depression in your personal statement? Should you disclose mental health challenges elsewhere on your college application? Here’s what experts say.

Within the next few months, many rising high school seniors will be staring at a blank computer screen with the same question on their minds: What should I write about in my college application essay?  This question can feel heavy.  After all, by the time students approach the end of their junior year, they’ve surely heard lots about “THE” college essay.  The concept can feel overwhelming so it’s no surprise that many students struggle when it comes to choosing the perfect topic.

For students who experienced a mental health challenge while in high school, this question takes on another dimension. Should they talk about how they coped with say, depression, or any other mental health condition? Should they refer to it only in passing? Should they avoid mentioning it at all?  What is the best way to handle such an important topic?

While this is a very complicated topic, the college planning experts I talked with all offered similar advice.

The Purpose of a College Application Essay

Before thinking about whether or not you should write about mental health in your college essay, you should remember what the essay — or the “personal statement”— is all about in the first place.  What is the purpose of the essay?

No matter which prompt students select, and for all college applicants, those with or without mental health challenges, the essay is the only part of the application in which college admissions officers have the opportunity to hear the voices of the student. The rest of the application contains numbers, statistics, and comments from teachers and counselors.

This is why the personal statement, as college planning experts concur, is where you should share part of your true self in the most positive light. Think about what a college wants to know about you as a person, or what a university would gain by having you become a part of the campus community.  Dig deep to figure out what makes you, you.

Use your essay as an opportunity to bring your college application to life. Try to strive for it to represent you in an authentic yet optimistic way. One former reader of applications at a top university’s admission office shared a fun way to see if your essay checks out.  She asked me, “Does the essay pass the midnight test”?

Picture an exhausted admissions officer with a stack of unread application files on her desk. She is reading yours at midnight at the end of a 16-hour day. Does your essay draw the officer in and make her eager to read until the end of your essay to learn more about you? Will she be eager enough for her to conclude that, yes, we want this student on our campus next fall? Or does your essay sound far too similar to some of the others she’s read that day?

The purpose of your essay is to take the reader beyond the numbers (test scores and GPA) and into who you are as a real live human being.

Experts on Writing About Mental Health

All counselors interviewed for this piece agreed that students’ college essays should not be about their struggles with mental health. Wendy Kahn, a Chicago-based college planner, and Anna Seltz, of Higher Ed U, a college consulting organization in Philadelphia, both spoke about how students should try to talk about themselves in a positive light, taking the opportunity to showcase one of their many outstanding qualities, like intellectual curiosity, personal growth, or maturity.

A couple of the counselors — Bruce Vinik of Vinik Educational Services and Marsha Shaines of College Strategies in Kensington, Maryland — said that the only case in which a student should consider writing about her mental health challenges is if the struggle truly defines her as a person. Even then, both counselors saw this as the rare exception, and suggest that instead, most students should take advantage of the opportunity to explore one of the many other attributes that makes them unique. Vinik says that mental health problems should only be shared in the essay if the college would not be able to understand the applicant without knowing about this part of her. Generally, he discourages selecting this as a primary topic.

The Additional Information Section

All of the college planners mentioned above agree that if your mental health struggle in high school clearly impacted your performance, then you should mention it in the “Additional Information” portion of the Common Application — but only in a factual manner. If you missed three months of your sophomore year to deal with a mental health condition, you should explain that you spent those months dealing with a “health challenge,” overcame it, and are now back on track, advises Vinik.

The three other college counselors generally agreed with this sentiment. All expressed that if the mental health challenges have made an impact on your grades, involvement in class, attendance, or ability to participate in school activities, you should provide a short, factual summary (no more than two paragraphs) for background purposes, always emphasizing your recovery after these difficult moments and your preparedness for a college environment.

Seltz suggests that talking about this in your admissions interview may be another route that applicants can explore. Seltz recommends taking an approach like the one outlined for personal statements above: Briefly explain how the challenge affected your grades and focus mostly on the fact that those problems are now under control.  Making sure to emphasize the way/s that the challenge helped you to grow as a person is also important.

All of the college planners suggest that you talk with your high school counselor to ensure that what you are saying about mental illness in the college application is consistent with what the counselor may or may not say in her own counselor recommendation. Or, if you’d prefer that the counselor not address your mental health issues, request that as well. School counselors are almost always open to any guidance you may have for what you’d like them to include in or leave out of your letter of recommendation.

Dealing With Mental Health Challenges Past the Application

Being told that you cannot share a part of yourself that may have had a large impact on your life can be difficult to hear. Unfortunately, mental health is a stigmatized topic, and it’s difficult to explore its nuances and complexities in the short and streamlined format of a college application.  It is also extremely important to remember that with or without mental health challenges, you are far more complex than a 650-word personal statement.

The fact that you are not writing about it on your application doesn’t mean that colleges don’t want the “real” you, or that you will be unable to succeed. A mental health condition does not disqualify you from having an excellent collegiate experience by any means, the same way that a physical limitation would not interfere with your success as a student. As you explore your college options, be sure to look for campuses that are particularly mental-health friendly, and focus on finding resources you can rely on as a student. From counseling services to wellness organizations, many campuses make student mental health a priority, and selecting this kind of college will help you embrace your challenges and thrive in a new environment.

If you are worried that your problems are not yet under control — and that college may exacerbate them — you may want to consider taking a gap year and working with a local counselor to prepare for the big transition.  There are lots of really wonderful gap year programs for students in this exact position. If you think you might be interested in this option, talk with your school counselor about exploring what programs are available to you.

Summing Up

Be personal in your college application essay — but do so in an optimistic and positive way. The purpose of the essay is to convince the reader that you belong on their campus next fall. Don’t leave the reader with any unanswered questions or red flags about you.  Be clear about who you are and your will to enhance whatever campus you find yourself on.  This is the best way to tell the story of who you are.

If there are circumstances that need to be explained — such as time off, a drop in grades, or diminished participation in extracurricular activities, do so in a factual and concise manner in the “Additional Information” section.

Yes, you may have experienced a mental health challenge, and/or you may be going to college with mental illness. But don’t let that singularly define you as a person. You have the propensity to offer much more to a college than your diagnosis. And the personal statement essay is the place to show the college who you are as an individual, why you are ready for college, and what strong and special qualities you will bring to the campus community if accepted.

If you’re currently applying for colleges and are planning on taking the SAT or the ACT, our tutors are here to help. Connect with them for your respective test below:

Related Highschool & College Admissions Resources: