Politics in college essays?

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Our Collegewise counselors often get questions, especially during an election year, from students about whether or not to share political views in a college essay. You can even broaden that question to religion, current events, or any other topic on which intelligent, reasonable people can have very different, equally valid beliefs. Is it OK to write about it, or is it too risky?

There is no fail-safe, yes-or-no answer to that question. But here are a few guidelines if you’re considering writing about a potentially divisive topic.

1. Apply to the right colleges. It should go without saying that you should be mindful of the type of colleges you’re applying to. Some schools have established religious affiliations or prevailing ideologies. If your essay clearly flies in the face of those things, a reader can’t help but wonder if that’s the right place for you. Maybe you want to attend college with people who believe the same things you believe? Or maybe you want to be exposed to different ways of thinking? Whatever your preference, make sure the colleges you select align with the learning and community that you’re seeking.

2. Show that you’ve made an effort to learn. You don’t get a lot of extra credit just for having a strong opinion (that’s available to anyone, informed or not). But it takes effort and curiosity to learn about the issue you feel passionately about. Have you studied this in class, talked with your teacher, read books, or otherwise made an effort to learn about this? If so, make those efforts clear in the essay. Colleges respect students who’ve worked to understand the complexities of an issue or belief. And a demonstrated track record of learning shows that you’ll likely keep making those efforts in college.

3. Have you walked your talk? It’s one thing just to say that you believe strongly in gun control, the pro-life movement, health care reform, etc. It’s another thing to actually commit time to supporting that belief. Maybe you’ve volunteered for a campaign, or presided over a related club, or worked in a free clinic. Most colleges will acknowledge and appreciate the student who goes beyond just believing something and actually walks their talk to forward their cause.

4. Are you open to other viewpoints? It’s possible to believe strongly in something while simultaneously remaining interested in different points of view. Whenever possible and appropriate, show colleges that you’ve considered how and why other people feel differently about this subject. If you’ve heard arguments on the other side that you think are valid, acknowledge them. Most colleges appreciate the vision of very different students actively sharing with—and learning from—each other. An interest in opposing viewpoints doesn’t show weakness in your resolve. It just shows that you’re mature enough to understand not only that the world is a complex place, but also that there’s always more you can learn about it.

For more on this subject, here’s some advice about topics that might be considered off-limits.