After years of working with students, I’ve seen that dealing with divorce as a part of the college process can be challenging for students. While many family separations are amicable or mutually chosen, many others contain feelings of loss, grief, anger and sadness. If you are a student who has faced the challenges presented by divorced parents in any way, this blog is for you!
In my last two blogs (Part 1 / Part 2), I gave advice to divorced families regarding finances and the college search process. Making sure your family understands their financial plan and has a good process in place can help things go much more smoothly. However, when it comes to filling out the application, you – the student – will be faced with clearly explaining how divorce affected you.
For many students, the timing of a parents’ divorce could not be worse – when it happens during high school, it can distract you from activities, destabilize your financial support, impede on your emotional support system, and/or a hamper your studies right when grades are most important . Even if it happened several years ago, you may still be struggling with the reshuffling of your life. In these cases, it is important that you explain this to colleges. Here are three of the best ways to do that.
1) You can write about these circumstances in the additional information section of the Common Application. This section allows you to write up to 650 words “if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.” When writing a summary of your parents’ divorce, keep it fairly factual (as opposed to highly emotional), and point clearly to how the circumstances of divorce impacted your application – primarily academic work and extracurricular activities. Typically, you would want an explanation for this section to be shorter than your main essay, so around 150-300 words, but you can use as much space as needed, and should, when appropriate. I recommend doing this when circumstances dictate, as you have little to lose and everything to gain, even if you don’t want to “whine” or “ask for pity” as many of my students say.
2) Write your main Common Application essay about your parents’ divorce. I am very cautious to recommend this strategy, but it can be effective for some students. The primary problem with writing about a highly emotional or traumatic event in your life is that you haven’t always fully processed the event. This makes it very difficult to gain the needed perspective. Frequently, students end up writing with less skill, more difficulty, and less cohesion, because they are trying to explain an experience that taps deep emotions, particularly negative ones. So, how to decide if this is an appropriate topic for your essay? First, decide if writing about this event gives admissions readers unique insight into who you are. Second, ask yourself if this topic will provide better insights about who you are than all other possible topics. Third, make time to write in a journaling style, and then, get feedback from a trusted adult about whether the thoughts present you well and add to the strength of your application.
3) Finally, your school counselor recommendation is another appropriate place for colleges to learn about family circumstances that might have affected your application to college. If you have experienced challenges related to divorce, be sure to communicate those to your counselor. For example, after your parents split up, you might not have been able to visit a particular college to demonstrate interest. You could need more time for your college search, have less time to devote to extracurricular activities because of your living situation, have gone through a period of time where your academics were affected negatively, or have had to get a job. Regardless of the circumstance, be sure to set a meeting with your counselor to fully explain the circumstances and why you’d like them to be included in the letter. Your counselor can help contextualize your circumstances in the school recommendation letter or forms.
While divorce presents challenges for many students, I’ve also worked with many students who found strengths, hopes, or new opportunities because of the change of circumstance in their lives. Living through a challenge can cause you to become more mature or more flexible. Further, it can introduce more support people – such as stepparents – into your life. Look for those positives and emphasize those in your applications, so colleges will see you gaining self reliance, optimism, and strength.
Nicole has dedicated the entirety of her 20 year career to encouraging higher education opportunities. After graduating from Vanderbilt, she worked in her alma mater’s admissions office. The, she completed her PhD in Counseling so she could bring that expertise into college counseling. Nicole partnered with her former Vanderbilt colleague, Fitz Totten, to form Find The Right College and support their mission to make trustworthy advising more accessible.