October was National Bullying Awareness Month, and although it has come and gone, anytime is a good time to address such an important issue and answer a question we get asked often: Is it okay to write about sensitive topics like bullying in your college essay? Of course it is. You can write about bullying, coming out, political opinions, death and loss, depression, anxiety, drugs, religion, or any other sensitive topic in your college essay. In fact, you can write anything you want as long as you have a good reason for doing so. But let’s focus on bullying and the ways you can comfortably and impactfully address the topic.
Telling your story
To be effective in your college essay—no matter the topic—you must answer the prompt, show insight, and share something meaningful that colleges might not learn elsewhere in your application. Here are two questions to help you decide if writing about a topic like bullying will work for you:
- Why are you telling this story about bullying?
- What do you want colleges to take away about you after reading your story about bullying?
Let me give you some context. A few years back, I worked with a young woman on a package of college essays for multiple schools. She chose to tell a story about bullying to answer the fourth Common Application essay prompt: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
This was the perfect prompt for her topic; she wanted to share something about herself through a challenge she had experienced. She wrote a beautiful story about teaching a five-year-old camper how to handle a bully, connecting to her camper because she was also bullied during middle school. Her story showcased problem-solving skills, kindness, and empathy.
What her essay did right
This student’s story highlighted growth and learning related to her own experience being bullied. To write her story effectively, she focused on what was learned, not how she was forced to learn it, and how she used what she learned to help one of her campers confront her own bully. In her story, she:
- Answered the prompt
- Showed insight
- Shared something meaningful to her
- Highlighted a positive trait or characteristic
This student explained in gorgeous detail what the problem was that she cared about (teaching a camper how to cope with a girl who was mean to her) and how she helped solve the challenge (helping the camper ignore the mean girl). The key to this successful essay: She didn’t focus on the bullying; instead, she focused on her personal growth and problem-solving skills—something she learned through her own experiences back in middle school. This showcased to admission officers that she learned a lot from a difficult time in her life when she faced insecurities while hanging out with people who were mean to her. And she had grown significantly from that hard time.
This student got into her first-choice college (a highly selective public university) with a fabulous application that included a personal statement focused on a topic that some well-meaning adults might call too sensitive or controversial.
What to keep in mind as you write your college essay
As you make decisions about your own college application essay topics, consider that no topic is off limits if you handle it appropriately. And as you begin the process, always keep in mind:
- What you’re writing about: A story about you (not about bullying or any other controversial topic)
- Who you’re writing for: College admission representatives
- Why you’re writing it: 1) To illustrate something meaningful about yourself; 2) To demonstrate how you think; 3) To help admission officers round out your application package; and 4) To show that this college is a good fit for you and vice versa
Your essay should also be:
- Specific: Don’t write about your entire summer working on a construction site. Choose an important moment or other small piece of that experience, then demonstrate why that moment matters.
- Clear: Speak in your own voice. Don’t try to be funnier, smarter, or more creative than you actually are. Make sure you sound like you.
- Direct: Say what you mean in plain language. This ties back to “don’t try to sound smarter.” Throwing in fancy vocabulary you’ve never used before will only sound inauthentic.
- Unique: Even if your experience seems mundane, the fact that it happened to you makes it unique.
Focus on your traits and not just a topic
Too many students get hung up on the topic of their college essay long before they’re even ready to start the application process. They look for huge topics they think will attract attention or activities that might lead to stories, and they devote a lot of time talking about their experiences and accomplishments. That’s why college essays seem so difficult. Students start in the middle without even knowing they skipped the first part of the process.
Have you been thinking about what makes a great topic? Because bullying or coming out or similar subjects are only good topics if you can reflect on them. Do you think you know what you’re going to write about? If so, slow down. What do you want colleges to know about you if you did get bullied? Did it change you? Have you learned anything from that bad experience? Take two steps backward if you plan to start your college essay with a certain situation in mind. Instead, focus on a few traits and qualities that make you great. How would you describe yourself?
- Are you kind? Funny?
- Are you resourceful? Curious?
- Are you industrious? Patient?
- Are you compassionate? Competitive?
Determine what your best qualities are and how you want to highlight them, then choose a topic or experience you believe will allow you to do just that. Think about my student, the young woman who taught a camper how to face a bully. She knew how because she had been bullied herself. She’s resilient. She’s a problem-solver. She’s mature—and so very kind. If you follow this advice and put the topic aside while you focus instead on your own traits and characteristics, you’ll hit your college essay right out of the ballpark.
The college essay is a hurdle all applicants have to face, and students are often afraid to touch on sensitive topics—but it’s absolutely okay as long as you remember your end goal: sharing something with the admission committee that will show them who you really are and why you belong at their school. Focus on what you learned about yourself from the hard experience you want to write about and how it made you grow, and college admission counselors will surely see you for all you’re worth.
For more expert advice on how to write your best college essay, check out our College Admission—Application Essay Clinic section.