Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

Emotional experiences are ones that have changed your life in some way, even though they caused you grief. This includes parents divorcing, being bullied, having a loved one die, or enduring through a traumatic event. In short, raw experiences that have left a tremendous impact on you.

After looking through this year’s CommonApp questions, I noticed that one question in particular seemed to be geared to writing about emotional experience:

“Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons 
did you learn?”

It is unbelievably difficult to write about these experiences. Last year, I wrote my essay on an emotional experience, and it was one of the hardest things I had done. Aside from the fact that I was worried that admissions officers would think I did not have my life together well enough for college, it was difficult to face my demons and my past. The first draft of my essay was blunt and emotionless, because it was too difficult.

But successful essays about emotional experiences stand out. You fought a struggle within yourself, and changed yourself for the better. It shows that you can handle stress and be successful in spite of hardships.

When should I write about an emotional experience?
If your experience is something that caused you to change your life, write about it! Remember that writing about a hardship is not meant to be a pity-party, but meant to highlight that you can overcome struggles. Remember that the focus of your essay is not the struggle itself, but the impact it had on you; if you were bullied in school, write about how it led you to leading anti-bullying workshops around the district.

How should I write about an emotional experience?
There are two simple formats: chronological, where you detail about the emotional event first and then talk about its impact on you; and in media res (Latin for “in the midst of things”), which is a nonlinear way of storytelling in which you start from the middle of the story (the impact) and then rewind to the beginning (the hardship). They each yield a different tone, so try playing around with them!

What are some topics I should not write about?
There are some experiences that, while significant, should not be written about as a CommonApp essay. Substance abuse, self-injury, and mental illness are some topics like these; remember that admissions officers do not know you personally, and that writing about them may make them wonder if you can handle the work (a judgment that usually comes about from ignorance about mental health). If you do decide to chance it, make sure that you have been stable in your academic life for a long period of time.

Always remember that, while writing about an emotional experience, it is important to take a break. Note that if you ever feel triggered by the topic, it may be important for you to talk to someone to debrief. Remember that other people are available to you during the college process, whether that is a close friend or a therapist.

Best of luck writing, everyone!

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the author

Lillian is a member of the Pitzer Class of 2017, where she is an anticipated Biology major. She is a first-generation college student that is interested in dental medicine (floss please!), mental health, visual arts, and political activism. Combining these interests, it is Lillian's life goal to heal communities on a micro and macro scale through medicine, art, and activism. You can learn more about her on her personal website. Since she will be retiring from TP at the end summer '14 in order to prepare for her study abroad in Ecuador, please subscribe to her blog to follow her journey!

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  1. Student X on October 14, 2014

    Thank you so much for this. I’m writing about an emotional topic for my college essay, and this post makes me feel so, so much better about it. I’ve been doubting myself a lot, but after reading this and talking to my mom and a few trusted friends, I’ve realized that my topic sets me apart from others, and how I overcame the problem (that I wrote my essay about) truly helped make me a stronger person; therefore, I am confident in my essay and now, I really believe in it.

  2. lillianhorin on October 19, 2014

    Student X, I am so happy to hear that. Remember that you are an incredible, strong person. You can get through this. Best of luck with your application!

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