Dumping Your Heart Out: “Trauma Dumping” in College Application Essays

Exploring the advantages and pitfalls of writing the Common Application personal statement about traumatic experiences.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Summer: a time of abundant sunshine, ice cream, and … college applications. Rising seniors pass the days constructing school lists, applying to scholarships, and studying to take the SAT one last time. However, there’s one part of the college application process that’s particularly stressful: essays. The number of essays a student will write will vary based on which schools one is applying to, but it’s common to write up to 20 essays. Arguably the best-known essay that students write is the personal statement, which is submitted through the Common Application portal. This portal is used by over 900 colleges and universities and has seven prompts that students can choose from, each of them meant to bring out a side of the applicant not showcased in other parts of their application.

One approach to writing the Common App essay has been dubbed “trauma dumping,” where students center their essay on personal traumatic events. This term has since evolved to include essays focused on any intense hardships that the student experienced (whether they resulted in psychological trauma or not), otherwise known as “sob stories.” For the purposes of this article, “trauma” will be used to refer to any hardship that had a long-lasting impact on the student. This essay-writing approach has been popularized by viral social media stories, where trauma essays are portrayed as the “make-or-break” factor in college applications; a well-known example is Abigail Mack, who went viral on TikTok after sharing her “letter-S” essay about the loss of a parent. Mack was accepted to Harvard University.

Some students feel pressure to use trauma in their essays to make them stand out. Maggie Huang (‘23) is currently majoring in pharmacy at St. John’s University. “I think a lot of people treat [the college essay] as a major important thing in their life, like they have to sell themselves really badly and be like ‘I went through so much, I deserve to be here.’ [...] You're only 17, 18, so there’s not that much else you can talk about unless you did something really, really revolutionary,” Huang said. The pressure to stand out can be especially intense at a school like Stuyvesant, where there are countless high achievers and accomplished students. “When you hear about all the things your friends [...] are doing, [your own accomplishments] don’t seem impressive enough. I [felt] really very painfully average when compared to the rest of Stuy,” Huang added. 

By the time college application season arrives, essays are often viewed as the only thing on a student’s application that they still have control over. “Your grades are already your grades, your SATs are already your SATs, you’ve joined whatever clubs and pubs you’re going to join, so [the essay] feels like the last chance, the last thing that’s still up for grabs,” Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman said. Because of this, students often feel pressured to make up for the weaker points in their application by crafting a powerful essay.

Thus, trauma often becomes tempting as a way to stand out. “A lot of Stuy kids are immigrants, first generation, etc… or have had something bad happen (I mean, COVID was literally handed on a silver platter to us). Maybe it’s just me, but it feels easier to just write about that because it’s so much easier to make yourself seem inspirational and deserving of being in a school for having made it through that kind of experience,” Huang said. 

English teacher Mark Henderson agreed that including trauma in an essay is often presented as a means of earning a spot at a prestigious institution. “The whole college application process is really unfair to students and that aspect of it feels really gross to me. Students feel as though they are being asked to share things that are really hard to share with strangers in order to like, you know, win something—basically to win an acceptance to a college and all of that,” Henderson said.

However, others, such as Bill Ni (‘19), a graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and current software engineer at Amazon, believe that there isn’t any pressure to include trauma in college essays. “I don’t think there’s any pressure to use trauma … [However,] I still feel that it’s presented as an option, but it’s not something you have to, like, 100 percent use.” 

Ultimately, though, deciding whether to write a “trauma essay” should come down to the student’s own level of comfort with revealing a vulnerable experience in their life. This can be more difficult than students may initially assume. “If you’re writing about something traumatic in your past, exploring that topic in a piece can be traumatic in itself because you may, depending on what it is, be reliving it,” Ni said.

Ingenious Prep Associate Director of Counselor Enrollment and Communications Zak Harris agrees that it is crucial for students to think carefully about whether they are fully prepared to share their trauma. “If you’re going to go down this path, you have to be 110 percent behind yourself to some degree,” Harris said. Thus, it may be easier for students who have already worked through their trauma to mention it in their essays: “With students who are doing clubs and organizations, volunteering, [or] working for a nonprofit that connects to some of the issues that they’ve had, I think that’s where it’s a little bit different, because their day-to-day experience is sort of using that trauma [...] So that might be a little bit better than someone who is, I think, still navigating and figuring it out,” Harris added. 

Students should be aware that “trauma essays” can be controversial and aren’t well received by everyone. Some people caution against them because “trauma essays” can become too focused on the traumatic event itself and not on the student’s cultivated strengths. At Stuyvesant, senior English teachers dedicate an entire unit to helping students with their college application essays, often providing individualized feedback. “[My English teacher] said actively to avoid trauma dumping, because it’s so overdone and it doesn’t tell the college anything about you specifically,” Huang said. After hearing this advice, Huang switched gears with her essay. “Originally, it was about like a family situation and then it pivoted to my acceptance of my identity of being Asian-American in America, which is still kind of not completely trauma-free, but at least it wasn’t as bad as before,” Huang said.

Additionally, there is also the risk of admissions officers having biases against certain traumas, especially those relating to mental illness. “There are many colleges that have lawsuits going on against them right now connected to mental health issues and their slow reactivity to things that current students have been going through,” Harris noted. “Sometimes what happens in admissions is that if there's any risk, then I think there's going to be a pocket of people that will say, ‘Well, don't do it, because it's risky.’” However, this is slowly changing as mental health issues become more openly discussed and the stigma around them decreases. “I think we are in a generation and a time where mental health struggles and issues are widely talked about in a way that 10, 15, 20 years ago, they were not talked about as much, which I think actually is helping admissions officers become more comfortable or even more open to reading about these things in essays,” Harris added.

One way students can communicate relevant traumas to admissions officers outside of their essays is to ask their recommenders to include that information in their letters. “It's quite often, I find, when I'm writing recommendations, that [the letters] could be a really useful place for somebody else to sort of explain and put [traumatic events] into context, in the context of recommending them,” Henderson suggested.

If a student does decide that they want to write about trauma in their essay, they should be cautious of how they frame it. Students should make it clear that their goal is not to seek sympathy from the admissions officer, but to demonstrate how they’ve grown from their trauma. “The admissions officer [shouldn’t be] just focusing on what happened, but taking that into consideration [...] what's happening next, or what's happening now. How are they using this, you know, to better themselves or better other people?” Harris explained. 

English teacher Katherine Fletcher shared an example of when incorporating trauma in an essay can work to a student’s advantage. “I read a very effective college essay last year about this student’s struggle to overcome her challenge with obsessive compulsive disorder [...] and how she wants to sort of live a functional life in spite of those challenges.” By concentrating on growth rather than struggles, the student was able to impress Fletcher and leave a lasting impact.

However, students should consider avoiding including traumas in their essays because traumatic moments don’t always demonstrate the best aspects of one’s personality. “If I was applying to college or any other part of my life, I would not want to feel obligated to be judged on my worst moments,” Henderson said. “I would want to be judged on the moments I'm proudest of.” 

Grossman similarly believes that less intense topics can be just as powerful (if not more) than ones that address trauma. “One college essay I read that I really, really liked was my son’s. He wrote about [...] European castles and kind of like fantasized about what his life would be like if he could buy this one,” Grossman said. “I think the essay didn’t try to bare his soul [...] I don’t think that for the most part a college essay is for baring your soul. There isn’t enough room anyways—nobody’s soul is 600 words.” 

At the end of the day, there is no one person to listen to when it comes to essay topics but yourself. After all, the criteria used by admissions officers to judge essays isn’t clear-cut, and depends heavily on the individual admissions officer who reads the essay. “None of us have ever let anyone into college. So none of us will truly know that secret, like ‘Here’s the one essay that will get you in,’” Henderson said.

Ultimately, it’s important for students to remember to stay kind to themselves throughout the grueling process of writing their college application essays, whether or not they choose to write about their trauma. The approach to writing about trauma often recommended in college applications—that is, demonstrating one’s growth from it—might not always align with the healthiest approach for the student’s healing process, and that’s okay. After all, the personal statement is essentially supposed to hold a mirror to the applicant’s truest self, so whatever the student decides to put on the page should unequivocally be their choice and reflect the parts of themselves that they are most comfortable sharing. Whether that includes trauma or not, the admissions officer should come away from the essay feeling as if they have seen the applicant in the clearest and most authentic way possible.