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The concerning rise of the "Trauma Essay"
High school students are being encouraged to write about their struggles, hardships, and traumatic life experiences in order to be admitted into college & university. This therapist has some concerns.
She was sitting in my office biting her nails.
Anxious about her future, this grade twelve client of mine has been talking at length about school applications, school choice, and moving away from her family and friends. She’s still waiting to hear back from her top picks. In session, we’ve been unpacking her grade twelve year; worries about the future are a main topic.
In the Fall, she came into my office with an excited grin. She was holding a bundle of papers. When we sat down in session, she handed me the stack.
“Here! Read this. This is what I want to talk about today.”
I read the first line. It was a writing prompt for a college admissions essay.
“Discuss an example of when you encountered a major challenge, setback, or failure in your life and describe how you overcame it.”
I’ll leave the details of her answer out, but reading what she wrote made my heart sink. She wasn’t writing about a minor failure or a small lapse in judgment. She was writing about her trauma history.
I thought to myself, “why should this teenager have to recount a major hardship to a group of strangers?” and “what messaging are we implying to adolescents by asking them to recount a major life struggle at such a young age?”
As a therapist, I have concerns about this practice and the expectations it places on young people. Treating our life struggles as currency for admission into the next chapter of our lives is not just worrisome, it is entirely unnecessary and inappropriate.
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The price of admission
The end of a school year already brings enough mixed emotions. Many kids are happy and relieved to be off for Summer holiday and others are worried about what the next school year may bring. Grade twelves turn their focus towards what they will do after high school. For the senior students who decide to apply to post-secondary education, the end of a school year can be an added layer of stress.
The rise of the “Trauma Essay” in the college application process puts an unhealthy price of admission on young people. For those who have a legitimate trauma history, it sets the expectation that their story is for others to learn about — so long as they get admitted to their top school of choice! This creates a bit of a trauma trade-off, where students are rewarded for revealing a traumatic storyline.
For those who don’t have a “major hardship” to announce, it becomes a discouraging practice of comparison and guilt; some kids sadly assume that their future or suitability for their program of choice comes down to their ability to articulate (or inflate) their prior life experiences.
Not to mention, the “Trauma Essay” also reinforces the false narrative that childhood is inherently traumatic and fraught with major life hardships. For minority communities, it can also be an exercise in re-traumatization if they feel pressure to discuss how their identities contribute to their experience of struggle and hardship in the world. Many do feel this pressure.
But they never said “Share your traumas”
I found the framing of the question asked of my client to be quite interesting. Here was this teenager sharing personally traumatic events without being explicitly asked to do so. So, why did she write about the deep, dark stuff rather than something a bit lighter? I have a few guesses.
In adolescence, kids already feel a pressure to be seen by adults as independent and mature. When we ask high school students to write about “a major hardship” or”a major struggle,” we should not be shocked that they write about the themes that best convey their sense of mastery and maturity. Writing about trauma, even when not prompted to do so, signals to adults that they’ve experienced the realities of life. Getting personal and intimate conveys a sense of maturity.
Sadly, I don’t think we can chalk this up to a teenage misinterpretation of the question. “But that’s not what they asked,” ignores the reality that teenagers also understand the inherent competition at play here— how do I show that I’ve struggled with something big, perhaps something bigger than the everyday struggle, and how do I prove that I’ve had an adult-size takeaway from it?
Evaluating childhood trauma and adversity
One of the worries I have is that when we ask kids to write about their trials and tribulations, it also sends the message that their life experiences are up for judgment and evaluation. What does the kid who doesn’t get admitted learn— that their struggles were not big enough? That they didn’t have a big enough epiphany from having gone through it?
I also wonder if the “Trauma Essay” is turning young people into mini marketing and brand managers. Essay writing is an under-appreciated art form. Distilling and diluting your story into 1000 words may not do these stories justice. In addition, young people might also re-tell and re-narrate their stories in a way that instills confidence in the students ability to self-reflect and reassures the school that they will not be a liability or a strain on their health and wellness resources. The emphasis is not just on the story, but how the story is told and sold.
It’s time to retire the question
The stark reality of the matter is that not everyone has a trauma story or major life hardship to write about by age 17. That’s a good thing. I do worry that this question is training the wrong skillset in our kids. Yes, we want them to be effective communicators and have good grades in order to be admitted to college. But do we really need them to have fully processed their childhood or be persuasive marketing managers in order to move to the next phase of life?
My hunch is that high school guidance counsellors and college admissions officers don’t like this question either. Whether it’s for the same reasons I described above, or simply because it feels icky, I think it is time to retire these questions.
A few alternatives
Any time I raise an issue like this, I try to come equipped with hearty solutions. As enticing as it is, I don’t like to complain or raise an issue without also generating a discussion about what we should do about it. It looks to be that the “Trauma Essay” originated from our desire to understand student’s life experiences, ensure they have a level of grit, and ensure we are onboarding a diverse student population. I think the question was also born out of trying to have students set themselves apart from each other too. However, after testing the question, I really don’t think we need to continue asking it. We’re at the point where these schools have heard the same trauma story over and over, anyway…
If we’re going to retire this question, we need a replacement. From the standpoint of a therapist and someone who helps people makes changes every day, here are a few questions I am personally more interested in learning about:
What are three strategies you use to overcome procrastination and how do you motivate yourself to finish a difficult task?
Tell me about a time you struggled to accept the outcome of something. How did you work through the frustration and disappointment of it not going your way?
What are three examples of a micro-failure (small setbacks that are unique to you) you’ve experienced and how do these small failures shape your learning or approach for the next time?
What experiences in your life have taught you how to help others or focus on something bigger than yourself?
Where is she now?
You may be wondering how things turned out with my client. She didn’t get into any of her top school choices. She isn’t going to the school she once dreamt of going to. And she isn’t settling either. She’s going to a school where she can prioritize community and smaller class sizes. A much healthier environment than the one that was sold to her throughout high school. And there was no “Trauma Essay” required for admission either. A big win.
This post was inspired by a TED Talk I watched recently by Tina Yong called The “Trauma Essay” in College Applications. The client story is shared with permission and with identifying details removed.