Ask Collegewise: Controversial college essays?

Sarah asks:

NewQuotation

I have a student who wants to write an essay about his experience when he was caught dealing pot in high school. Should negative experiences like this be avoided in college admissions essays, even if the student has learned from his mistakes? I'd really appreciate any insight you could share. Thanks.

It's difficult to give good essay advice when we've never met the student and don't necessarily know the whole story. But I'll give it a try.

First, was the student suspended or expelled from school because of this?  Does he now have a criminal record?  If so, chances are he'll be asked about those things on his college applications.  And as soon as he checks the "Yes" box, he's going to need to explain it. That will pretty much end any debate about whether or not to share it because he won't have a choice. 

Assuming he won't be required to disclose it, should he?  There are no firm rules here, but I can tell you that college admissions officers are reluctant to admit anyone who has the potential to put himself or other students at risk.  That's why violence and serious criminal offenses are usually big red flags for admissions officers (so is academic dishonesty, for different reasons).  There are too many other applicants in the pool who don't come with evidence of those risks. 

In the case of the above student, I really can't imagine an essay that's thoughtful enough to make an admissions officer feel good about admitting a student who's dealt drugs.  Maybe if the kid was formally reprimanded (so a punishment has already been handed down), and has since turned that experience into something that positively impacts other students, like teaching drug awareness classes to teens, or working at a drug rehab center.  Maybe.  But the problem is that this kid didn't just do something that was harmful to him–he did something that was harmful to other students.  That's going to be a tough sell. 

Sometimes a student wants to write about a potentially risky topic in which she hasn't necessarily done nothing wrong, like a struggle with mental or emotional problems, or a suicide attempt.  Those topics can be risky because the admissions officer has to be concerned about the applicant's well-being in college.  College can be a difficult transition under the best of circumstances, and no school wants to put a student in an environment that could be detrimental to your mental or physical health.  If you feel compelled to share a story like this, make sure you show them how you've come out on the other side.  Talk about how well you're doing today, what steps you're taking to maintain your health, and if you're doing anything to help others who may be experiencing the same troubles.  And if you're still not sure, it's probably best to get some admissions advice from your high school counselor with whom you can share the entire story.

Every situation is different, obviously.  But I hope these guidelines help a little bit.