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A group of six college students sits on the floor in a living room/common area having what appears to be an engaged, supportive discussion.

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In our roles as a senior associate director of admissions and as a dean at the small, private, liberal arts college where we both work, we enjoy unique perspectives on the changing trends and attitudes of both prospective and current college students. Whether in reviewing hundreds of personal essays in college applications from high school students or in talking with current students in the dean’s office about their experiences, we have the privilege of learning about the changing priorities in our students’ lives.

When it comes to application essays, the full spectrum of topics is always there, including the sports essay, the role-model essay, the “I wrote this for English class and am now submitting it as a college essay” essay, the “what I learned from Legos” essay, and the overcoming adversity essay. And, in conversations in the dean’s office, we also experience a wide range of modes in which students choose to present their interests and experiences. Although it is ever-evolving, the patterns have remained consistent until recently.

Over the past few years, we have noticed a meaningful change in the central focus of students’ lives, both in their application essays and in what they are sharing with us in conversations. Application essays are now increasingly focusing on students’ mental health as either the main theme or a sub-theme. In the current admissions cycle, for example, essays that address parental substance use disorder, device addiction, physical and emotional abuse, disordered eating, anxiety and depression have been notable. Many more prospective students openly discuss neurodivergence of all kinds, especially Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism spectrum disorders. And, in a recent series of informal interviews with our graduating college seniors held in the dean’s office, the theme of caring for their mental health and the concern for supporting friends with their own socio-emotional needs were consistent through lines. We both believe that this is a positive signal of post-pandemic reflection and that it demonstrates significant changes in the ways in which our young people are prioritizing mental health—their own and their peers’—as a central focus of their lives.

We propose that this shift shows self-awareness and compassion for the self and others that we, as readers/evaluators/college deans, have never experienced on this scale. Students who know themselves at this deeper level and can express their journeys with authenticity make good learners, and, just as importantly, caring community members. These are the students we want in our college’s classrooms, in our residence halls and in leadership roles in campus organizations.

We also believe that this shift in thinking and expression among young people provides an important context during the holistic evaluation of candidates for college admissions. If a student’s academic performance in ninth grade suffered because they were grappling with pandemic isolation and its attendant anxiety, we readers/evaluators have a better understanding of a dip in grades that otherwise could be misinterpreted.

For our current students, their ability to understand and navigate their own struggles with mental health allows them to advocate for their needs more consistently and to know what types of learning will work best for them. Students’ increasing openness about sharing their challenges with mental health is both brave and timely. In a world where discussing mental health is still too often taboo, applicants who openly name their struggles are showing courage that more adults could emulate. And they are changing our culture. It has always been true that young people in each generation have shifted societal norms. The pandemic accelerated a needed focus on the importance of mental health in living/learning communities like college campuses. College applicants and students have responded accordingly and purposefully.

Beyond centering mental health in their college essays, many prospective students have created and/or participated in clubs that increase awareness of and support for mental and socio-emotional health. We are seeing the creation of new groups to address mental health issues and offer new webs of support for students at the college level as well. With all that was (and continues to be) so challenging about the COVID pandemic, this shift in focus is something to be celebrated. Our students are embracing the full complexity of the human condition and modeling a kinder, more humane way of being in the world. We both believe that the focus on well-being that we are seeing from prospective students in their college essays and from our current students on our campus is an important way in which this new generation is shifting the paradigm on mental health.

Lisa Kaenzig is dean of William Smith College and Melanie Sage is senior associate director of admissions at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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