A friend of mine was recently going through a hard time. Things were going wrong, seriously wrong in her life. She wryly labeled these experiences "character building."
It is a sad truth that tragedy and trial build character strength and develop wisdom. Most of us would rather be weaker and stupider than have character building experiences, but we can see the additional muscle in ourselves after adversity has left its footprint.
It is that imprint that you want to highlight when writing about obstacles overcome in essays. Recently on my thread in the Businessweek Forum a poster reminded me of an earlier post I had written on this topic. I am going to post her question and my response here:
QUESTION: If you come from a “disadvantaged” background, how do you not make it seem whiney and trying to evoke sympathy from the Ad Comm. I tried to focus my essays on what I have learned from my background and how it has shaped me (really motivated me, huge reason for me getting into community service, etc.), rather than rambling about potential issues. OK, that’s more than one question. J
RESPONSE: That sounds like an excellent approach. You have to balance the need to show what you have overcome with showing that you have definitely overcome it. You don’t want to come across as "damaged goods"; to the contrary you want to come across as stronger for your past experiences.
We once had this double-stroller for our kids. We used it — a lot — with all of them, and we had it for roughly ten years, before we finally gave it away. For several years, the thing appeared indestructible. At one point (when #6 was a baby) something in the metal frame broke. I had it soldered back together and the workman told me that the solder should be stronger than the original metal.
Your essay should show that you are stronger by virtue of your experiences. You don’t want to come across as whiny, but as confident and strong. You don’t want to evoke pity, but admiration.