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Challenge: Get Happy!

Do You Have to Write a “Happy” Essay for College?

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A few weeks ago, I had one of those moments any parent would want to forget. When I dropped off my youngest child at preschool for the first time, her teacher had to physically pull her off of me in between sobs and flailing arms. Later that day, one of my colleagues was talking about her oldest child struggling to write her college essay. The irony was not lost on me as I thought about how hard every stage of parenting really is. In a sardonic tone she asked, “Does my daughter’s college essay have to be all happy, and perfect-sounding like her life is full of unicorns and rainbows every day?” I chuckled aloud; it was the first time I smiled all day.


The college essay should relate one moment, one characteristic, one experience, or one single thing that succinctly captures the student’s persona and motivation. It can be happy. It can also be sad or challenging as long as the student shows growth, self-awareness, and hope by the end of the essay.

I have read extraordinary essays about students traveling by foot to escape religious persecution, surviving the death of a parent, and even overcoming cancer. I’ve read just as many extraordinary essays about students who can impart a small ritual of eating rice every day, running, or even the experience of taking public transportation to school. Topics that are seemingly mundane can be turned into the most breathtaking metaphor and give unparalleled insight about a student. But one thing that all of my favorite essays share is a common theme of hope.

Admissions officers read hundreds, sometimes thousands of essays in a year. They want the essay to move them. But students need to be careful about the topic they choose. A sad or particularly heart wrenching essay topic can sometimes be risky without context. If the admissions officer thinks the student is immersed in a situation that could negatively impact their high school or college performance, they tend to get scared off. So a student who chooses a less than happy topic needs to be in a good place mentally and emotionally when they write the essay to show how they’ve grown.

Even the darkest moments and experiences can serve as motivation for something greater. That’s exactly what hope is. Hope can sometimes be hidden beneath the surface or muted by the grind we face on a daily basis. When a young person can tap into hope in their writing, it’s like a jolt that reminds us of the good we have in our lives. Whether reading college essays as an admissions officer or editing them now as a college counselor, I have always wanted that inspirational jolt to put a smile on my face and remind me about what really matters.

As much as social media and “reality” shows make us believe that others have more perfect lives, we all struggle every day with large and small challenges. It’s finding the hope in our everyday challenges that allows us to rebound, recharge, and re-commit to what’s important. Students can write about something purely happy in their college essay, but they don’t have to as long as they can show hope in their writing and their description of how they view their situation.

The night of my daughter’s first day in preschool, I wrote a piece to help me process all of the emotions I was feeling. It wasn’t for publication; it was merely a chance for me to see the good in being a working mom to three young children. That’s part of the authenticity that students need to recognize when writing their own college essays. A simple idea that can be happy, sad, or challenging should always have an underlying message about who we are that inspires us in times of doubt and inspires the reader as well. Hope is everything in the college process, and happiness always follows.

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