October 23, 2021

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Have You Ever Felt Pressure to ‘Sell Your Pain’?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Have you ever applied for something that asked you to talk or write about a time you overcame adversity? If so, did you feel pressure to share your challenges in a way that felt uncomfortable or inauthentic? In what ways might prompts like this be valuable? In what ways might they be limiting?

In a guest essay for The Times, Elijah Megginson, a high school senior, describes the pressure he felt to write a college essay on this topic — and explains why he chose not to. “I knew what I went through was tough and to overcome those challenges was remarkable,” he said, “but was that all I had to offer?”

In “When I Applied to College, I Didn’t Want to ‘Sell My Pain’” Mr. Megginson writes:

In school, most kids are told that they have the potential to do great things in life. They’re told the sky’s the limit. As I started to be recognized as a promising student, around eighth grade, I was told, “You’re smart and you’re from the hood, you’re from the projects, colleges will love you.”

When I heard this, I was confused. I always looked at being from the hood as a bad thing. It was something I was quite ashamed of when I was younger. So for my teachers and advisers to make it seem like it was a cool thing made me feel good inside, until I fully realized what they were talking about.

In my life, I’ve had a lot of unfortunate experiences. So when it came time for me to write my personal statement for college applications, I knew that I could sell a story about all the struggles I had overcome. Each draft I wrote had a different topic. The first was about growing up without my dad being involved, the second was about the many times my life was violently threatened, the third was about coping with anxiety and PTSD, and the rest followed the same theme.

Every time I wrote, and then discarded and then redrafted, I didn’t feel good. It felt as if I were trying to gain pity. I knew what I went through was tough and to overcome those challenges was remarkable, but was that all I had to offer?

Mr. Megginson asks a friend and two teachers about the messages they got about applying to college, and finds that they all had received similar advice to write about challenging experiences. The essay continues:

Mr. Sinckler, my friend who went to N.Y.U., Mr. Jones and I had gone to different high schools, and we had all been given the same message. But it wasn’t just the advisers; I was hearing it from family and neighbors. Everyone around me seemed to know this was what colleges were looking for, to the point where it didn’t even have to be spoken. I felt like the college system was forcing us to embody something that was less than what we are. Were colleges just looking for a check on a checklist? Were they looking for a slap on the back for saving us from our circumstances?

As I kept rewriting my personal statement, it kept sounding clichéd. It was my authentic experience, but I felt that trauma overwhelmed my drafts. I didn’t want to be a victim anymore. I didn’t want to promote that narrative. I wanted college to be a new beginning for me. At the time, my mom, a part-time health aide, was taking care of a patient who used a wheelchair. My mom was sometimes unable to pick him up at the bus stop, as she was just getting off her second job, so I took on that responsibility.

I would wait for her patient at the bus stop; I would make sure he ate, and I would play music for him until my mom got home. I also wrote about my relationship with my middle school janitor. I used both of these stories to show the importance of diversity and the value of respecting everyone regardless of physical ability, status or class. After writing this, there weren’t any feelings of regret. I felt free.

Trauma is one of life’s teachers. We are molded by it, and some will choose to write about it urgently, passionately. Yet I would encourage those who feel like their stories were written in tragedy to rethink that, as I did. When you open your mind to all the other things you can offer in life, it becomes liberating. Let’s show college admissions officers what they’re missing out on, not what they already know.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • The author writes that he felt pressure to “sell his pain” in a college essay. Have you ever experienced something similar? If so, when? What did you decide to do and why?

  • What messages have you gotten about how to market yourself, whether in an application process or everyday life? What do you think of those messages? Do you think your background and identity have shaped the advice you’ve been given? If so, how?

  • Why do you think so many application processes include a question about facing adversity? Why might it be useful? Do you think it is a fair question in general?

  • Do you agree with Mr. Megginson that a focus on adversity can prevent students from getting to express other parts of their identities? Do you worry that this focus could put students “in a box”?

  • In contrast to this essayist, you may have had an application experience in which sharing a story about a challenge you faced was useful, or even empowering. If so, how and why did it help you?

  • Some applicants have a different problem: They feel they haven’t faced challenges significant enough to merit discussing. In the essay, Mr. Megginson tells the story of his teacher who, when applying to college, felt he was “competing with kids on the same academic level who had faced even more adversity” — which made him feel he had to “oversell himself.” Have you ever felt this way? If so, what did you do?

  • Think about a time you wrote about your identity — whether for a college essay, a personal narrative or a social media post. What part of yourself did you choose to write about, and why?

About Student Opinion

Find all of our Student Opinion questions in this column.
Have an idea for a Student Opinion question? Tell us about it.
Learn more about how to use our free daily writing prompts for remote learning.

Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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