Best of Ask Richard: Should I “Come Out” as an Atheist in my College Application Essay?

Dec. 30, 2009

(This column shows Richard at his best as he combines empathy and understanding of this young student's plight with real-world practical advice.)

Oct. 7, 2009

You may send your questions for Richard to All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of request; please be patient.

Dear Richard,   

I am a senior in high school and I am preparing to start the college admissions process. A few of the colleges that I am planning on applying to use the Common Application. The essay for the Common App. is open-ended and can be written on any topic of choice.   

I am contemplating writing about my experiences as a teenage atheist for the subject of this essay. I am not planning on explaining the reasons why I'm an atheist or even talk about atheism itself. I simply want to share how being a minority has affected my life by sharing my experiences. I think that it would be a very personal and sincere essay and it would allow the schools to see who I really am.   

At the same time, I am worried about the potential for discrimination. I feel that it is risky to even mention the fact that I don't believe in God to the people who are paid to judge my character and who also have influence over my future. Surely they have received plenty of similar essays from racial minorities sharing their experiences, but I'm not sure how they would react to an atheist doing the same.   

So far, I have only found very limited advice on the Internet and most of it recommends avoiding the subject of religion, especially atheism. Any additional advice would be greatly appreciated.   


College-Bound Student

Dear College-Bound,

Ah, the eternal struggle between principles and pragmatism, what ought to be vs. what works.  In principle, you should be able to write about "any topic of choice," just as it says on the application. But pragmatically, you're taking a chance that you'll be denied an acceptance regardless of how well it is written.

In principle, the admissions staff reviewer should be evaluating mainly for your ability to express yourself clearly and skillfully, with a style that shows promise that you will be able to write appropriately for academic works.  In reality, the admissions reviewer is a human being, subject to emotions, biases and even prejudice. 

At this point in time, discrimination against racial minorities and religious minorities is socially taboo enough to get people who discriminate fired, as it should.  Discrimination against gays and lesbians is steadily becoming more taboo, but is still accepted by a large portion of the population. However, discrimination against atheists seems to be almost universally accepted, rarely resulting in social embarrassment or penalty at all. We have a long way to go. 

The admissions staff may have no problem at all with you being an atheist, or they may disapprove but try to disregard it, or, subconsciously, they may be negatively influenced by the knowledge that you're a nonbeliever. They may even see themselves as protecting the college from influences that they think are "objectionable" and they will reject you any way they can. Their set of "principles" may not include giving an atheist a fair chance.

I found an interesting web site called Education Planner that seems to have some good advice on several aspects of successful college admission, including this statement  about essays:

Remember, a great essay can really make an admission official sit up and take notice. However, subjectivity prevails here. Some readers are biased towards content; some toward writing style and mechanics. One applicant submitted an ambitious essay that compared the works of three Eastern European writers. Two of her evaluators were impressed by her literary sophistication and the insight of her analysis; a third couldn't get beyond the errors in spelling and sentence structure.

College-Bound, whether or not this topic for your essay is a good idea depends on many factors that are not within your control.  You have control over some of the materials you send to them, and other materials, such as your transcripts, you do not. By sending them your proposed essay, you will be relinquishing even more control to them, and to the perhaps slim odds that they will follow principles that you hope that they share with you.

The problem is that in this horse race, the odds don't pay any better if you bet on the long shot instead of on the favorite.  You are accepted or rejected. That's all you get.  For taking a greater risk, you do not get a greater return. 

I want to make it very clear that by starting out my response by contrasting principles vs. pragmatics, I was not implying that you would be compromising your personal principles by choosing a less risky topic.  That would be a false dichotomy that does not apply at all.  You have made no promises regarding your choice of topic; you owe no one anything about it. This is your bid to get into one of the colleges of your choice. You're free to write about whatever you want.

Many atheists stress the importance of "coming out" publicly because it helps to dispel the myths and negative stereotypes and to normalize our image as legitimate members of society. In general, I agree with this, but it has to be each person's decision, made with their own interest in mind, carefully considering the pros and cons of taking that step at any particular point in time.

You said, "I think that it would be a very personal and sincere essay and it would allow the schools to see who I really am."

Yes, I'm sure that it would be sincere and candid. I just wonder if your sincerity and candor will be honored by the people who have the choice to give you or deny you what you want. 

Whatever you write about, have it be something that you can express clearly, with a balance of both passion and intelligence. That could probably be several subjects. Your atheism is only one aspect of you.

In your writing, demonstrate the traits that have led to your atheism: your ability to think freely, to go beyond the popular assumptions, to question, investigate and reason. Those traits apply to many more things in your life than just a question about the existence of gods.

Right now, as a beginning student you have very little power, clout or authority. If I were in your position, I'd wait until my completed education had given me enough power, clout and authority to defend myself against the inevitable backlash before declaring my atheism in an essay.

However, if I were in your position I'd be 40 years younger, and back then, the idea that I ought to be able to write about whatever I damn well please would have been more important to me.

But now, over the decades, I've become more pragmatic. I've charged up several hills with my comrades only to find myself at the top facing the enemy alone, so I've learned to pick my battles and most importantly to pick the right time.

I wish you the very best of experiences in your education and career. This is the beginning of a wonderful and challenging time in your life.



(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)