College applicants often assume universities demand perfection. No bad grades or lapses in judgement, no extenuating life circumstances. But nobody’s perfect. And the good news is that you don’t have to be. In fact, Victoria Turner Turco, founder of Turner Educational Advising, reminds her students that colleges value humility. They appreciate the student who has overcome challenges or grown from mistakes. Turner shows you how to address past mistakes in your college essay. But she also advises that there’s an art to the what, when and how of disclosing an apparent smudge on a college application.  

Read on to discover how you can turn a blemish into a humanizing display of strength and good judgement.  In fact, Victoria Turner Turco will show that learning from our missteps can be the makings of the most compelling college essays. 


Embarrassed of Something on Your Transcript?


Every student thinks he or she is the only one with a blemish. But the truth is, in my many years of working with students, about half have something they feel needs hiding or explanation.  

It could be a bad grade – or semester – or dropping several courses. There could be medical, mental health or family issues that affected them adversely.  Finally, there could be disciplinary – or even criminal – histories in a student’s past.  The good news is, that means you’re not alone. It also means admissions officers won’t be particularly shocked to discover you’ve had some challenges in life.   


From Bad Grades to Suspension: Which Mistakes are Worth Mentioning on Your Essay?


Disclose, disclose, disclose. That’s a drum that I beat constantly.  However, admissions reps are looking for good judgment, and the things you elect to disclose speak to that judgment.  In other words, if you’re going to go on and on about that one B – that doesn’t show good judgment.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a straight A student otherwise.  Leave it alone! You want to demonstrate that you’re more resilient than that.  

On the other hand, if mental health, illness or family circumstances substantially impacted your grades or participation in extracurricular activities, you want to address it.  Equally, if you don’t disclose an arrest, expulsion or disciplinary infraction, you’re playing Russian Roulette.  In my experience, you can explain most issues, but if an admissions rep thinks you’re hiding something, you’re done.  


Explain (but don’t Rationalize) those Dings on Your Permanent Record

In my experience, admission reps are understanding and open.  They’re very human and know people stumble from time to time.  But there’s an enormous difference between providing context and providing excuses, so how you address your past mistakes on your college essay is very important. 

In general, brevity is a virtue.  Small problems have short explanations.  But if you hand someone War and Peace, you magnify the issue in their mind.  Fight the tendency to overshare.  Be brief and factual.  Take ownership for your actions, avoid self-pity, and focus on how you’ve grown from your experience.   


Great College Essays Take Responsibility and Show Growth


In the case of a criminal record or other disciplinary issue, the student should take responsibility, talk about what he or she learned and why it will never happen again.   

If the student has struggled with mental health challenges, then emphasize new coping skills.  That might mean therapy, a new workout or meditation routine or changes to your daily schedule that reduce stress.  Again, avoid oversharing. Sadly, many students face mental health struggles and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’ve faced some dark times.   

Remember, admissions reps may be kind and understanding, but they are also in the business of enrollment management.  They need to be certain that a student will be a successful member of the community and remain at school for the long-term.   


Choose the Right Place on Your Application to Explain


In general, I advise students to offer a brief and straightforward paragraph in the additional information section of the Common or Coalition Application.  That’s back to the issue of brevity—don’t give the perceived weaknesses in your application too much oxygen.  But sometimes there’s something that’s just such a big deal that it’s the pink elephant in the room – then and only then does it deserve center stage as the main essay.  Examples might include an expulsion or criminal charges.   

The good news is I’ve seen students get into very good schools when they openly address their mistake and write thoughtfully about the lessons they’ve learned from that setback.  


Humility and Humanity Make Your Essay Shine


Admissions officers aren’t expecting that you’ve never suffered or never had a problem.  The question is: how have you responded to it? Humility and humanity are such refreshing characteristics.  Failures, disappointments and the unexpected are also opportunities for a student to reveal the character and maturity that will make them a compassionate and thriving member of any campus community.  While you can’t change the past, you can address those past mistakes on your college essay in a way that shows genuine growth. After all, learning from failure and growth is the stuff of the very best college essays. 


Victoria Turner Turco is the founder of Turner Educational Advising and a sought-after commentator on college admissions. She is based in Washington, DC but works with college and law school applicants throughout the world.


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