If you were to ask an admissions officer if there are any truly “bad” topics to avoid on your college application, chances are you’ll be advised to steer clear from essays about:
- winning (or losing) the “big game,”
- that horrible breakup with your girlfriend or boyfriend,
- your eyes being opened after volunteering in a third-world country, and
- the tragic loss or grave illness of a close family member.
Back when I served as an admissions officer at Barnard, I probably would have agreed. While some of these topics may seem like strong contenders initially, many essays written on these themes tend to be so overdone, it’s hard for an applicant to stand out and write about them in a way that’s both fresh and meaningful. Other themes are poor choices because students often use them as opportunities to release pent-up emotions and unwittingly turn their essays into therapy sessions that are inappropriate for the purposes of a college application.
But something happened to me recently that changed my mind. Almost one year ago, my father died from brain cancer. I was 35 at the time, married and with a young family of my own. For the two-and-a-half years that spanned between his diagnosis and his death, I found myself constantly torn between supporting my parents, caring for my children, and looking after my own well-being. For two-and-a-half years my family lived in limbo, wondering when the cancer would return, how fast it would take over his brain, and how the rest of us would possibly survive without the head of our family to guide us.
And then, a few months after my father passed, I happened to come across a student’s college application essay about his own father’s death. Brain cancer. Incurable. Reading his story, it was as though I were reliving my own father’s passing all over again. But then it hit me: I managed to pull myself through a horrific family event with the support of my husband, my sister, and a grief counselor to boot. This essay was written by a teenager who just lost the most important person in his life during one of the most stressful moments in a young person’s life. Who was I to say that this topic was too personal or too raw for him to write about? The death of his father was a major, life-changing moment that clearly shaped who this student is today.
After finishing the essay, I reflected on whether or not this writing sample would pass muster in a college admissions office.
- Did the essay successfully demonstrate the student’s personal qualities and characteristics?
- Was the essay a powerful and genuine expression of who the student is and what his passions are?
- Did the essay convey how the student might positively contribute to a campus community?
Despite the topic clearly falling into one of the four verboten categories highlighted above, this student’s essay worked. Granted, he didn’t spend the entire piece memorializing his father; rather, he wrote about his father’s death for approximately 20 percent of the essay, and wisely used the remaining space to reflect on how that experience influenced some of the choices he’s made in his own life since then. Admissions officers aren’t going to admit a student because they feel sorry for his loss or take pity on his family’s circumstances. They want to admit a student who (in addition to handling the academic load, of course) is thoughtful, motivated and will bring something unique to college.
So if the best way for an admissions officer to learn about you stems from a personal tragedy, that’s okay. But remember that your essay isn’t really about the death of your loved one; it’s about the lessons you learned from that experience and how those lessons manifest themselves in your intellect, your academics, or your extracurriculars. That’s what admissions officers want to know.