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Can Writing The College Essay Have Mental Health Benefits?

P8020181The new Common Application prompts were revealed on Aug 1, and forward-thinking high school seniors are already brainstorming for what to write and attempting some rough drafts.

The prompts are listed below; notice how they are all designed to get students writing about their unique identities, character strengths and core values.

  1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The purpose of the essay is to give colleges a view of the student as a special person; they want a glimpse above and beyond the grades and test scores and lists of awards and achievements, into the internal life of the individual young woman or man.

Here are some insights from College admissions expert Allen Grove:

The new prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. If your essay doesn’t include some self-analysis, you haven’t fully succeeded in responding to the prompt….Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis…

This is a challenging task, and many students find it difficult to get started, so I have my students begin by considering:What kind of person am I? What are my character strengths? Am I persistent?…curious?…brave?…kind…?

To help them answer this question, I have them take the VIA (Values in Action) Inventory (and I suggest that parents also try it).

The VIA Inventory was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman and colleagues at U.Penn as part of their positive psychology initiative. They found that when people of all ages identify their top character strengths, they gain a more solid sense of identity and can make better life and career choices.

Armed with his or her “Top Five Character Strengths,” it’s a lot easier for a student to select one of the essay prompts and write a personal story which showcases one of those strengths.

According to Professor Timothy Wilson (U. of Virginia), we might all benefit from writing “college essays.” Dr. Wilson describes the technique of “story-editing,” in which people write about their beliefs, values and experiences. This act of explaining oneself and making sense of one’s experiences redirects our emotions and solidifies our sense of self. Story editing is being used to reduce teen behavior problems, reduce racial prejudice and treat PTSD.

So, whether you’re a college-bound senior or not, take another look at those essay prompts…they’re good topics to think about!

[photo of a glass sculpture at the Chihuly Museum, Seattle]



Can Writing The College Essay Have Mental Health Benefits?

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2013). Can Writing The College Essay Have Mental Health Benefits?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 17, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Aug 2013
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