College Application Essays

Underprivileged or Underrepresented Students: This Means You!
Why You Must Share Stories That Show Your Grit

As a writing coach, I work mainly with students I consider “privileged.”

This means they can find support writing college application essays through an extensive network of tutors (like me), test prep programs, private college admissions counselors, services in their affluent schools, and most importantly, from well-educated, connected parents who will do almost anything to help them.

But I know there are thousands of bright, eager and deserving students out there who have none of this support.

In fact, at almost every turn, many are bombarded with obstacles that are not their fault.

I often warn my students against writing about topics that are overdone or cliche, since one of the objectives of a college admissions essays is to stand out among the stacks of other essays.

I wondered if students from underprivileged or underrepresented backgrounds could be hurting their chances for college admission if too many of them were writing similar hard luck stories–about enduring a violent, scary ghetto environment, or living with unemployed, substance-abusing parents, or watching the struggles of immigrant parents.

I wanted to know if college admissions officers would grow immune to their impact–like they have to overdone topics on mission trips and torn ACLs.

But how could a student who has faced such formidable challenges not write about their gripping personal struggles when asked about their life stories? (Such as the first prompt in the Common App.)

So I posed this question via LinkedIn to professionals who work in the college admissions industry, mostly as private college consultants.

The answer I received from one veteran consultant, who specializes in essay writing, took me by surprise. He said these hard-knock topics are EXACTLY what students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be writing about. 

The reason?

Colleges and universities, especially the best ones, need these students to show their grit.

That hard, raw determination to reach a goal no matter what tries to get in their way or stop them.

Because if a student’s other qualifying factors aren’t up to snuff–say they don’t have the top grades, high test scores and other markers as the other applicants–admissions officers need these essays to make a case for this student’s acceptance.

In other words, they might want you at their college, but they need your help convincing the deciders to let you in.

Here’s how that passionate, insightful college admissions counselor–a former college admissions officer named Parke Muth–described how this works:

“Grit means overcoming odds—economic, educational, social, and racial. Grit means that schools can use an essay to admit a student whose academic credentials –academic program, testing, performance—will be at times significantly lower than the students at the high end of the economic scale. Given that affirmative action is now officially under close ‘scrutiny’ schools need to make sure they have justifiable and documented reasons for admitting some students. Grit lets them do this.”

Muth said underprivileged African American and Latino students, especially, should feel confident showing their grit in the college application essays, and how they have overcome challenges and obstacles in their lives.

He shared this gritty essay on his blog.

He even featured this quickie test you can take to see how you rate on the grit scale.

I actually believe that any student who has faced unique obstacles that could help explain lower-than-required academic performance–such as dyslexia, or a death of a parent, or a debilitating illness–could benefit by sharing their grit factor stories in their essay.

Even if the topic could fall under the list of topics people like myself often try to steer students away from because they are too overused, emotionally loaded or difficult to write about.

Muth told me that this idea of grit is currently in vogue among the big thinkers out there, and has been explored and promoted by a woman named Angela Lee Duckworth.

The idea is that students who have grit often are more successful than students with the high IQs or other learning advantages.

I love that colleges are starting to weigh this quality along with the classic set of qualifiers when deciding who gets to attend their schools.

Don’t we all already know this is true?

How Do You Show Your Grit In A College Application Essay?

How exactly do you show your grit in a college application essay?

RELATED: Best way to learn how to show your grit is to watch my free online tutorial How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4: What’s Your Problem?

Meanwhile, all over this blog, and in my ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, I direct students to look for problems they have confronted in their lives as a starting point for writing engaging, compelling essays.

If they describe a problem–an obstacle, challenge, change, crisis, conflict, struggle, etc.–and then go onto to explain how it made them feel, how they thought about it, what steps they took to handle it, and what they learned in the process (about themselves, others and the world), they will have a terrific narrative essay.

And chances are, they will have shown their unique true grit!


If you are interested in how grit leads to success, watch Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED video:



Check out my free tutorial video on how to write about a problem, which target Common App Prompt #4.