When I asked my mentor to look over my admissions essay to Columbia, I remember her circling the paragraph about my depression.
That red circle gutted me. Of course, she did it because she cared. She had been a part of my support team for a long time; she really wanted to see me accepted. But as a tenured professor who had helped develop the creative writing program at my previous college, she knew the stakes of the admissions game. She acknowledged that a stigma still existed, even if she and I both wished there wasn’t one.
Deep down, I knew it too. You see, Columbia was the last school I applied to. I had previously sent in applications to six other schools—Sarah Lawrence, Brown, Wesleyan, Emory, Hamilton, and Oberlin—and I had gotten rejected from each and every one of them.
From ages 16 to 23, I suffered from major depressive disorder and anxiety. In all that time, I was not able to complete a single semester of school. My mental illness was a terrible weight to bear. Often I couldn’t eat, but I gained significant weight. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I slept all day. I lost all my friends and was devastatingly lonely. Mostly, I was very sad and worried all the time—a clever, creative soul trapped inside a weak, withering body.
When I finally got better, I attended community college and earned my associate degree. 10 years had passed since I had been diagnosed. Finally, at that point, I was ready to transfer schools and finish my undergraduate degree.
As the rejections poured in, I asked myself why. I now had a 4.0 GPA, extensive work and volunteer history aligning with my career goals, and just about the best damn letters of recommendation an applicant could ask for. On paper, I looked stellar.
I thought I had written a great essay, too. One simple question is asked to transfer applicants for their essays: Why do you want to transfer to this school? It seemed easy enough to answer. But I wrote about mental illness. A lot. So much of my personal history is entwined with it; it felt disingenuous to leave it out. If I erased this history, there would be a seven year gap on my resume I glossed over.
Moreover, I didn’t want to leave out all that history. Had it not been for my depression and anxiety, I wouldn’t have spent many isolated years writing poetry and novels. I wouldn’t have developed my sense of graciousness for others who suffer. Yes, many people in my life abandoned me in my most vulnerable moments, but the relationships I forged in loneliness are the most fulfilling I have experienced. I am who I am because I was sick.
It feels like most college admissions offices don’t want to hear that. There is a gap in our discourse where mental illness should reside—a great big blank of things left unsaid. I believe I was rejected from so many schools because in their eyes I wasn’t an applicant with a happy ending to her story. My mental illness felt like a liability.
Well, after I followed my mentor’s advice and cut out the parts about my mental illness, I got into Columbia.
There is important work being done on campus related to student mental health, yes. But so many people are still not participating in the dialogue, especially many in admissions offices across the country. Additionally, we need resources that can help students address their mental illness throughout the admissions process as they move on to graduate school or their professions.
Recently in a creative writing course, I shared with my professor a piece I wrote for workshop. It covered an awful period of depression. I asked her if this topic was fit for the classroom. She said yes, and together we built safeguards for those who didn’t feel comfortable talking about severe mental illness. This is how these discussions should operate: with inclusion, safety, and understanding. These conversations should make a person who has suffered feel like an actual person, like they are being heard no matter the struggle, no matter the pain.
I am proud to have chosen Columbia and the School of General Studies as the next step of my journey. I know now I need to start speaking up about mental illness—to start filling the great, big blank, one word at a time.
The author is a junior who transferred to the School of General Studies in the fall of 2019. She is majoring in creative writing and holds her associate of fine arts from Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, MN. She currently lives in the Bronx, NY.
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