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Writing the hardship essay for your college application

In a lot of essay prompts, you are either asked to write about overcoming hardship, or you find that you need to explain adversity you’ve faced in your life. The colleges frequently want this information not just to learn more about you, but also both to know whether you deserve an extra leg up in life and in the admissions process, as well as to see how you’ve dealt with difficulty in the past (since college years can be turbulent ones for some). (Or more cynically, so that they can advertise to the public all the disadvantaged people they’ve admitted.)

Here I will give an overview of how to approach this particular prompt.

Drama girl standing near where people are in a hurry in different directions. Production of the composite picture of the story. A scene filmed overall plan. Abstract image of the double exposure.
Confused about what to write? Maybe stop in the middle of the road for a minute or two to gather your thoughts.

But first, I know that some of you will be thinking that you don’t have any real hardship to speak of, especially compared to many others in the world. Perhaps you believe that if you’re applying to college in the first place, then you’re ahead of the game, so to speak. (Only about a third of Americans enroll in and graduate from college, and only about 7% worldwide do.) If this describes you, bless you. You are either fortunate enough to have lived a safe life or you have the wisdom to keep perspective on your good fortune. If I’m describing you, and you genuinely don’t have any true or perceived difficulty to overcome, you may want to avoid writing about this topic in your essays, wherever they may show up. (For example, you wouldn’t want to complain about getting a Honda Civic for your 16th birthday instead of the BMW you wanted because that’s what all your friends drive. So no first-world problems in this essay, please.)

And I would also like to point out that many people, though they may appear outwardly happy and successful, have faced many kinds of difficulties that aren’t apparent at all. For example, you may be the president of your Future Singing Veterinarians of America club, but secretly you battle depression and don’t feel like you’re understood or appreciated, but you try hard to hide it from others because you don’t want to burden them. So in a word, hardship is often hidden, and definitely relative—what may be easy for some is a real challenge for others, and those who appear to have perfect lives almost certainly do not. (Don’t believe what you see on social media!)

A working definition of hardship or adversity

Again, as I mentioned, hardship is relative, and what may be difficult for one may not be for another. I may struggle to lose twenty pounds while one of my students may be struggling to gain twenty pounds. One person may excel in math, but struggle with writing essays. And another is the opposite.

Hardship is anything significant that you believe has held you back from reaching your potential, something that’s a particular challenge to you, just you.

For example, you may have a learning difference that you’ve had to overcome in order to keep up with your work in school. Maybe that learning difference was undiagnosed for many years, and you had a few teachers who were not patient with you and yelled at you, leaving you a little scarred. (It happens a lot, unfortunately.) Perhaps your parents divorced, and it was difficult for you to adapt to your new life, especially if you had to take on more responsibility or work part-time. In essence, something can be considered hardship if its absence would have made a big improvement in your life.

Again, if it’s not there, and you don’t feel disadvantaged, yay! You don’t need to go make something up. (As a parent, I can tell you that our first goal for our children is to raise them in a happy, safe environment, and many parents are actually able to do this.)

Let’s get more specific with examples of hardship.

Some examples of hardship or adversity

Here are some examples that I’ve seen students write about in the past, as well as a couple I’m suggesting:

  • Overcoming a diagnosed learning difference, such as ADHD or dyslexia.
  • Overcoming an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia. (If this is you, my heart goes out to you.)
  • Losing a parent or close relative. (I’m very, very sorry if you’ve experienced this.)
  • Struggling in a particular academic subject. This one is especially common, so be sure you write about how you assessed the problem, developed strategies to overcome the hardship, and of course, the successful outcome.
  • Adapting to a new country and a new language, ie, you immigrated to the US, experienced culture shock, and had to learn English. Note that for me at least, this is a very common subject to write about, and in California, where more than a quarter of the state’s population was not born in the US. (See below for more comments about this particular situation.)

Next up is vital—that you managed your situation with intense determination.

Demonstrate grit, tenacity, and perseverance in your essay: Always show that you’ve overcome the hardship, not that you’re still in the middle of it

This is key, perhaps even the most important part about writing the hardship essay: You must absolutely show that you’ve successfully managed the challenges you’ve faced and have a reasonable chance of succeeding in college in the future. That’s the kind of person you are. You don’t give up, you get back up if you’re knocked down, you’re unstoppable. You don’t want the people reading your essay thinking, Whoa, poor kid. Man, my heart goes out to him, but I’m really, really not sure that college is the best thing for him right now. He needs to get his life together first, and then think about college.

Yeah, that’s right—if it looks like you’re still in the middle of dealing with your various problems, they’ll decide that college will be a hindrance for you, not a leg up, even if it would be. Or they might think that you would be better off elsewhere, at a different college (they’ll use a euphemism like “not a good fit right now”), perhaps even part-time at a two-year college near where you live.

In general, you want to show that you: a) recognized the problem; b) analyzed your situation; c) came up with a reasonable and effective solution; and d) implemented your solution successfully with enormous determination and resilience. In other words, when life gives you lemons, you’ve got your own perfect lemonade recipe handy, and you’re not afraid to use it.

Now let’s take a look at some topics that seem to show up a lot, so may not set you apart in the way you’re hoping.

Some “hardship” topics that are commonly written about

Every year, I read a few essays that discuss these topics. Most of them are done very well, and show true challenges that the writers have faced. However, just be forewarned that the following are topics that a lot of people, at least the ones I’ve worked with, either use these topics or consider using them.

  • Shyness. “I was shy all throughout elementary school, so in middle school/junior high school I decided to break out of my shell.”
  • Transferring to a new school. “High school was a big transition for me, especially since I was coming from a private school to a public school.” (This one’s especially iffy because of the private school part.)
  • Immigrating and having to learn English in addition to adapting to a new culture. “In third grade, I came to America, and didn’t speak a word of English. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher was saying. I was scared and cried.”

If you’re going to write about these, be extra careful to make it unique and heartfelt. After all, any admissions officer with enough experience will tell you that there’s pretty much no topic she hasn’t read about before in an application.

Some final tips on writing the hardship essay

Some final thoughts, a couple of which I’ve already mentioned, but want to put here again.

  • Open up and tell the truth. But if you’ve got nothing to say about hardship, then don’t. You’re probably not required to write about this, and even if you’ve heard that “admissions offices love to read about adversity,” it’s probably better to skip this if you’ve led a storybook life.
  • Don’t manufacture hardship. Don’t take something that happened and turn it into something huge. If your avocado plant died in third grade, and you were sad, that’s not going to get you into Stanford.
  • Avoid the “pity me” essay—you don’t want to make a list of all the hardships you’ve endured as if they earn you points. Yes, you should talk about your difficulties, but also focus on your resilience and grit.
  • Remember that, in itself, facing adversity doesn’t earn you credit—you’re not going to gain admission as compensation.
  • Always show that you overcame the hardship. You’re past it. You beat it. You improved.
  • Avoid super-common or near-universal hardships. For example, going to high school or not being athletic enough apply to almost every applicant, so others will pretty much just expect you to have overcome these particular challenges.
  • Tread lightly: There are a few subjects that we pretty much always avoid talking about in admissions essays. They are the ones that relate to criminal activity, relationships, sex, and drugs. So unless you really think you’re going to write a gut-wrenching essay or you had a life-changing epiphany, writing about overcoming an addiction to nicotine (in the form of vaping) probably won’t win you any points with the admissions office.

Finally, as always, these are just guidelines. You could very easily write a beautiful essay that breaks some of the rules mentioned above as long as its heartfelt, genuine, and relatable. Trust your own judgment if you can, or ask others for their opinions if you have any doubt.