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  • Writer's pictureSawyer Earwood, CEP

Can My College Essay Be Sad?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

How many of you have heard the notion that a college application essay needs to be about something traumatic, gut-wrenching, or heart-breaking? Stories about college essays involving heavy or difficult topics are plentiful. At the same time, as online outlets highlight these stories, many students feel like their stories aren’t valid because they don’t have a defining tragedy in their life. I’m here to tell you that a college essay does not need to be a tearjerker and tragedy does not equal quality.

 

Why are sad essay topics so popular amongst students?


While I do believe that the importance of tragic essays has been overinflated, there is a reason that so many college essays attempt to tug on a reader’s heartstrings. Remember, college essays are not just writing samples, they are also opportunities for an applicant to highlight their values, identities, hobbies, academic interests, professional goals, or any number of meaningful experiences. Sometimes the easiest way for a student to highlight these aspects about themselves is to focus on the idea of a “growth journey.” In that sense, if a student wants to highlight a growth journey, then a story about overcoming an obstacle in life fits the bill.


Some students also choose a difficult topic because it is cathartic for them to revisit a story that had such a large influence on their life. Many students have never had an opportunity to speak about some of the obstacles they’ve overcome, much less write about one in a formal setting. Students who feel confident in confronting these topics might also feel a sense of catharsis and closure by synthesizing their memories, thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned from a difficult event. To be clear, your personal statement is not a therapy journal! Your personal statement is not the place to explore a newly traumatic or previously unresolved event. If you don’t feel that you can approach a difficult past event with some closure, distance, and proper healing, then it might not be a good topic to proceed with.


Lastly, we hear a lot of whispered conversations about weaponizing a student's tragedy or trauma to receive some kind of sympathy from an admissions reader. As someone who has been on the receiving end of many sad essays, rest assured that this is not a strategy I would recommend to any student. No college admissions reader wants to spend an entire day reading sad or depressing stories from their students. Similarly, any admissions professional worth their salt might feel compassion for a student's circumstances, but they will never allow tragedy to supplement a lack of academic preparedness, extracurricular engagement, or demonstrated maturity for a college-bound student. Without diving into the philosophical, moral, or ethical concerns about weaponizing tragedy, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that this is not a sound or reliable plan even from a strictly strategic standpoint.

 

If I have a sad story, should I write about it?


Do colleges like sad essays?” “Can my college essay be sad?” “How to write a sad college essay?” Regardless of the phrasing, this is a question that many students grapple with during their college application process. If a student has experienced a tragic event in their life, then they’ll often feel pressure to write about that subject. Several students with whom we’ve worked have been directly told by friends, faculty, or family that an obstacle in their life would make a “good college essay.” Firstly, a topic does not make a “good college essay.” A student can write about almost any subject, and it could still be considered an effective college essay. While the uniqueness of an essay topic can help an applicant stand out, a unique topic is not a substitute for a well-written college essay full of personal insight and evidence to back it up.


I also want to take a moment to address a concern that is commonly expressed by students, but rarely discussed by professionals in the field of college advising. Many students have been significantly impacted by the obstacles in their life, but they don’t want to be defined by them. When professionals, or even well-meaning supporters, pressure a student to write about a difficult subject, it can be damaging to a student’s mental or emotional health. No person wants to be defined by a single event, much less an event that caused significant turmoil in their life. Parents, teachers, peers, and professionals need to be keenly aware of the fact that a student might not feel comfortable writing about a tragic event in their life, and that’s okay.


As with many of my other blogs, I’ll use my experiences as an example. My parents went through a divorce when I was in third grade. Naturally, this was a very difficult circumstance, because a 9-year-old is old enough to remember the events, but not quite old enough to understand the nuances and difficult emotions that accompany a divorce. Fast forward eight years and I’m sitting at my desk staring at a blank word processor document titled “SLE College Essay.” I had made a significant effort throughout my academic life to hide the impact of my parents’ divorce. After all, everyone, especially teenagers, want to feel like they are in control of their own life and choices. Fortunately, neither my mother nor college counselor pressured me to write about any of the number of traumas that occurred during my childhood. Ultimately, I wrote about hope, the ebbs and flow of tragedy in life, and the power of a new beginning. This essay did touch on some traumatic subjects, but they were not the focus of the essay. The focus was instead on my growth and how each event shaped my identity to better prepare me for the next challenge. Although the essay was far from perfect, I was proud of my accomplishment. I had seized back some semblance of agency from past events that had made me feel powerless.


I ask that families, professionals, and students heed my words carefully. By pressuring students to write about uncomfortable topics in search of a metaphorical “golden ticket” to college, we risk emotionally alienating ourselves from a student and robbing them of the agency and independence they have fought so hard to achieve. Students should consider the fact that if they don’t want to be in a difficult memory, the reader likely doesn’t want to be there either.

 

How to Write a Sad College Essay


So, let’s say that you’ve given it a good amount of thought and ultimately decided that you would like to write about a tragic event in your life. There are a few ideas that we’d like you to keep in mind as you write your essay:

  • Write About Scars, Not Wounds

    • One idea that we’ve recently emphasized with students is the idea of writing about scars, not wounds. The biggest differentiator between a scar and a wound is time. A fresh cut hurts and demands more of our emotional and physical awareness. As time passes, a cut naturally heals, and with each passing phase of healing, we think less and less about the wound. Similarly, when we are presented with an obstacle in our lives, the initial challenge is very demanding of our emotional and physical awareness. As time passes and we overcome a challenge, it demands less and less of our attention. We are eventually able to distance ourselves from the incident, reflect on our growth, and approach our success or failure through a less biased lens. If you choose to write about a difficult topic, you need to be able to take a step back and reflect on the subject, without opening those old wounds.

  • Growth Journey

    • If you choose to write about an obstacle, it’s very important to plan out your essay to reflect a journey of growth. What do I mean by journey of growth? When I talk about a growth journey, I’m referring to an essay that introduces an obstacle, overcomes an obstacle, and reflects on the changes that occurred during or because of that journey. Remember that you, as the writer, are the star of the essay. If you are writing about overcoming an obstacle, then most of the essay needs to focus on how you overcame the obstacles and in what ways you grew from that experience. The most common pitfall that students make when writing about a difficult obstacle in life is focusing too much on the context of the obstacle and not enough on their own growth.

  • Resolution

    • An essay written about overcoming a difficult obstacle should have some form of resolution by the end. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be perfectly resolved and tied up nicely in a bow, but it does mean that there needs to be some sort of closure. Imagine a movie where the hero is in the middle of their adventure, they are confronted by the villain, and they lose. Naturally, as consumers of media, we know that this loss sets the hero up for an opportunity to strengthen their resolve, confront the villain towards the end of the movie, and ultimately emerge victorious. Imagine if during that first battle with the villain, the hero perishes, the movie ends, roll credits. Was that satisfying? Probably not. This example illustrates the importance of a resolution, preferably a resolution that projects the idea of a brighter or better future. If you’ve confronted and overcome an obstacle, the reader wants to see your growth and accomplishment. From a strategic standpoint, you also don’t want to end your essay on a lackluster or depressing idea. The end of your essay is likely going to be the piece that ties the narrative together and sticks with the reader. No one should be aiming to have a reader finish their essay only to leave a bitter taste of disappointment lingering.

 

Conclusion


Students writing about difficult subjects shouldn’t feel attacked by this blog post. Along the same lines, students choosing to not write about a traumatic event should feel comfortable and supported in their decision. The takeaway I want for you, as a reader, is to know that just because something is tragic does not mean that it is a good college essay. Remember, it is the writing, organization, structure, theme, ideas, and overall narrative that will determine the quality of the essay, not the topic.


With all my support,

Sawyer Earwood

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors





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