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Articles / Applying to College / How do I Explain My "Extenuating Circumstances" without Sounding like Debbie Downer?

Dec. 17, 2012

How do I Explain My "Extenuating Circumstances" without Sounding like Debbie Downer?

Question: I'm a high school senior who has applied to a wide array of colleges--from Tennessee Tech to Emory--and many of the essays that colleges have asked me to write have involved my "extenuating circumstances." I have plenty. I live in a warehouse, my mother works four jobs and has no health insurance to pay for her diabetes medication, and I have no money for college. However, writing about these things makes me worry that I'm either depressing or boring the admissions counselors. I don't want to sound like a Debbie Downer. I'm thankful for many things and I'm full of hope. However, I can't lie to the counselors. What do I do?

Sorry to hear about your "extenuating circumstances." High school is tough enough without them. You should definitely explain your situation to admission committees, whether it's in a primary essay, in an unsolicited extra essay or letter, or via the "Additional Information" section of your applications.


It's fine to tell the admission officials exactly what you've told me ... that you don't want to sound like "Debbie Downer" (they should like that!) but that you feel they should know about the struggles you're facing, because they are an integral part of who you are. It's also important to say that you're thankful for many things and full of hope. That's clearly a key component of who you are, too. In addition, you should point out the "silver linings" that your struggles may have provided. For instance, if you feel that you are more determined, independent, or flexible than the typical teenager because of life’s curve balls, then be sure to say so … and give examples.

You may continue to hit more hurdles as you pursue your college dreams, but try to maintain your sense of hope, and be persistent (but polite) as you navigate this maze … especially if you have to wrangle with financial aid offices before your plans are finalized.

Best of luck!

(posted 12/17/2012)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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