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Sad Story included in Essay?

boogaloonyboogaloony 54 replies24 threads Junior Member
edited August 2010 in College Essays
I have heard along the years that if you have had a troubled childhood or teenage you should write about it (like if your parents had a divorce or I don't know). My parents actually got divorced and my Dad lived hundreds of miles away from me for 10 years and he almost didn't care about me anymore but really that is not my major problem so far.

When I was 16, almost 17 my boyfriend practically died in my arms and I spent the next year almost isolated and studying all the time. That is all I am going to say about it. Now, should I mention such a thing in the essay or not? I have always sworn to myself I wouldn't because I have no intentions at all to use his death as a means to get accepted or anything, but sometimes when I am asked to write about me and my life, it inevitably comes to my mind and... I don't know.
I guess it depends on how you look at it. If I do write, it will not sound like I want to be pitied at all because I am a strong person, I never gave up the fight and eventually fully recovered and this will probably show in the essay.

What do you think?
edited August 2010
26 replies
Post edited by boogaloony on
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Replies to: Sad Story included in Essay?

  • figureskaterfigureskater 383 replies74 threads Member
    Wow you've been through a lot. I offer my sympathy, even if you do not seek it.
    I'll try to be purely objective. If you do choose to write about something tragic, you need to spin it. Make it clear that you have risen above your hardship, and show how it relates to who you are as a person. Also, keep in mind this will be a difficult essay to critique, so you might be on your own once it's actually written. It certainly catches attention. Good luck.
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  • NorthstarmomNorthstarmom 24049 replies804 threads Senior Member
    It's not a good idea to write about tragedies in your life unless you are writing about how you've risen above them. For instance, if you decided to enter the health care field due to your experience with your boyfriend, that would be a reason to write about it, with the essays' focus being on what you want to accomplish in the health care field.

    In requesting essays, colleges are looking for reasons to accept you, not reasons to feel sorry for you.
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  • prateek92prateek92 1146 replies13 threads Senior Member
    It's important to focus on not what happened but what you learned and how it changed you [in a positive way i.e] If you can nail it, as figureskater put it, it'll catch the adcoms attention.

    I know writing about such a topic is a big dilemma especially since you really can't objectively decide nor can you explain the topic to others.

    Why don't you write a rough draft/outline and then pass it on to some readers on CC who can give you an objective answer?
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  • AntariusAntarius 4547 replies67 threads Senior Member
    Make sure the essay is about you as a person. The story you mentioned, albeit brief, is certainly troubling and rather sad. Make sure the essay is about how you felt, what you did and how this changed you and the world around you, and less about the situation itself.

    What people stumble on is when they rely on the value of the story itself. Make sure you explain the situation, but the adcoms need to know how this affected you and who you are as a person.

    As figureskater said, this is your essay. Make it reflect you. Good luck
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  • Traveler2beTraveler2be 214 replies23 threads Junior Member
    Also, be sure it doesn't sound like a whiny story or a "My life was difficult so I deserve to get in" essay. Often times people write essays about tragedies in their lives and that come off that way. It will be difficult to have a friend critique your essay and tell if its a good one or not,but they should at least be able to tell you if its whiny or not.
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  • boogaloonyboogaloony 54 replies24 threads Junior Member
    Yes, I was thinking precisely about what you have advised me so far. It would be an essay about how I got over the episode with the help of what later became my major passion: caving, mountaineering etc, outdoor activities in general. Thank you all for your opinions.
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  • mkapurmkapur 234 replies33 threads Junior Member
    Here's my frank advice from reading about this topic countless times. Often college apps have a specific section for "special circumstances", say, your boyfriend's death (i'm so sorry to hear that) deeply affected your grades for a semester (and then they came back up). recognize that colleges give you this extra space because they're allowing you to write about something else transformational or interesting in your main essay. imagine you are a reader and you review your app, then get to the essay. after reading hundreds of essays, here is one that tells a very sad story that, unless unfathomably well written and woven into the applicant's outlook, basically just leaves you depressed and all you know about said applicant is that they had a depressing incident in their lives. you don't really know much about their character (sure, you may be "compassionate" or "sensitive", but most will assume this about you and especially so if you volunteer). i'm not trying to be disrespectful but just know that anyone who's had a traumatizing experience can write about it in gory detail and then explain how they were "sad" but now "appreciate life". then what will you write about in the "special circumstances" section? repeat yourself and make them even MORE depressed? hopefully not. all the vets of college apps have told me that the best essays tell a unique story, even about a trivial matter, that reveals the persons CHARACTER, not necessarily a profound pivotal moment in their lives (don't deceive yourself. truly, adcoms understand that most 17 yr olds haven't had THE MOST SUDDEN experience and often essays about this topic feel trite and or exaggerated). so look inside and try to find something neutral or positive (could be trivial, like a day in the sun) and leave your stories as material for EXPLANATION. you want them to read your essay, then read your additional info and think "wow, she's been through alot and still managed to write this upbeat/interesting essay. her pain is not the center of her life and therefore she could be a functional student".
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  • hyperlitehyperlite 598 replies70 threads Member
    i disagree.

    traumatic experiences shape our character. they can be transformational experiences. but you can only write about a transformational experience once you've changed. if your in the depths of depressions, you haven't overcome the issues(s) yet and it's likely your essay will sound discouraging.

    these types of essays are extremely tricky to write and i think a lot of applicants mistake traumatic for sob story. even if they don't mean for the essay to come off as a sob story, the depression and whiny tone of the essay are hard to ignore. also, the right traumatic topic is key. divorce is overplayed. death of a relative is overplayed. not saying you can't write about these things, but it's not a unique basis.

    the essay does not need to go into expressive details and specifics. college application essays are designed to show admissions committee your personality. who are you? how did you get here? i think writing about trite topics like coffee (or something like that) to show character can be extremely challenging and artificial. most of us have not had character-building experiences from random happenings.

    it's personal: if you are deeply affected by your traumatic experiences and are at the point where you have grown from them, then they can make great essays. the traumatic event introduces the reader to your background, but the focus of the essay is what you did with that traumatic event. the essay should inspire others, instill courage and hope, and showcase that even though you faced adversity, you are a better person for it.
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  • LirazelLirazel 348 replies4 threads Member
    I'm really sorry, for what it's worth. My personal theory on this sort of thing goes like this:

    (1) If the essay about difficulty shows you in a positive light, feel free to use it as your main essay. For example, a kid who spent the time he was in a wheelchair for a major health problem trying to cheer people up, making an effort to smile, volunteering with what he could indeed do, etc. Not only "I overcame x," but also "and here is why you would like to get to know me better." (This kid is fictitious.)
    (2) If the essay about difficulty shows you in a non-negative light, it should be a supplement. I don't mean mediocre by non-negative--I mean that it shows good qualities of yours that might not necessarily make the adcoms want you to come to their school. Perseverance, for example, is a good quality but not one that is particularly conducive to making you well-liked. For an example of this type of essay, I had moderately large health problems with a lot of surgeries when I was little. All my essay showed was that I could overcome difficulties. There was nothing about why you'd want me on campus or why I'm a cool person or anything. It just added an emotional accomplishment to my academic ones.

    Good luck!
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  • suzr21suzr21 8 replies0 threads New Member
    You must write about the things that have contributed to making you the person you are today. You have had a hard time, but think of yourself as a sword being forged. You must go through fire in order to test yourself, season yourself and come out stronger.
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  • collegeattemptcollegeattempt 169 replies22 threads Junior Member
    I originally intended to post some long-winded response, but it probably wouldn't have done you much good anyway. So I'll leave you, instead, with this: There, unfortunately, remains a large majority of people who will tell you to put an "original spin" on your story. Instead of beating yourself over how to make your story sound different from the thousands of other applications, take note:

    "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, without caring two pence how often it has been told before, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."--C.S Lewis

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  • rahujarahuja 340 replies24 threads Member
    That quote above just made my day. just saying.
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  • AudreyHAudreyH 685 replies33 threads Member

    thank you for that beautiful Lewis quote.
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  • spanglishspanglish 342 replies13 threads Member
    I haven't read the other comments, so I hope I'm not overlapping anything here.

    I think you should write about something that makes you unique. I believe that, through reading your personal statement, an admissions officer wants to find out what you can bring to classroom discussions and to the campus as a whole. People with interesting backgrounds (some of which include tragedies) are able to bring a different angle to discussions and whatnot, so the adcom is trying to make the classroom as diverse as possible. Write about something that identifies who you are, something that makes you stand out, even if it is considered a "cliche" topic, if it totally identifies you, the way you write it will make it unique.
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  • gwgradgwgrad 466 replies4 threads Member
    Divorce? No, that's too common. (Not that it doesn't affect you, but it doesn't make you unique, either.)

    Death? Maybe, but only if it relates and changed your career plans, like others have mentioned. If it happened only a year ago, it might be hard to make the essay demonstrate how it changed your life. If it lead you to a career choice, like entering into healthcare or counseling it might be relevant. Personally, I wouldn't mention it. I've lost a lot of people in my life, but didn't include it in my college essays because it didn't seem to fit. I preferred essays more relevant to college, and focusing on me.. not about the people I lost. If you grew up a refugee in South Africa and your entire community was pillaged when you were 5-15, then you immigrated in order to live the developed-nation dream, I would include it.. because then it would be cultural background. Not to lessen your friend's death, but just be careful that any essay is relevant to the admissions process. You can always include something like losing him in a more personal essay, as an editorial or something for some other usage than college admissions. Good luck.
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  • limabeanslimabeans 4649 replies105 threads Senior Member
    It's not about a "big event" or something tragic that makes an important essay, it's how you write about it that's important. Oftentimes, it's the details that make an essay stand out.
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  • BruinLiferBruinLifer 69 replies7 threads Junior Member
    First of all, I am not gonna say whether it is a good or bad idea to talk about your tragic background. Ultimately, the decision should be yours. Your life has always been yours, and we all know that you know the answer behind your inquiry. You just want some reassuring clarification to validate your decision, which you have already made in your mind: )

    But as a person who went through some tricky "curve-ball" trajectory of life,

    (e.g. We came to the U.S. when I was 13. No one in my family had gone to college. My mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease when I was 14. My father soon lost a job. My older brother dropped out of high school in his junior year. We were on welfare and foodstamps for five years right before the end of my high school. I ended up graduating from an inner city school that had sent only 1% of its graduates to four-year colleges, but my mother died during my freshman year in college)

    I would like to ask you to carefully reflect upon your life to find a relevant theme or two in your life to seamlessly synthesize your narrative tensions.

    Simply portraying yourself under the self-defeating aura of "self-victimization" mentality won't suffice. Worse, it may even backfire by advertently sending a wrong message to adcom about your mental makeup.

    Granted, this may sound easier than done.

    Just to give you an example from my own life experience and my college application essays I wrote back in 1995, I focused on two life-defining events that symbolized my circumstance and thus defined my life trajectory.

    First, I talked about the very first meeting with a doctor at UCLA medical center where my mother was a patient. At the age of 15 or 16, I became the face of my family, the virtual gateway to the new culture of this country, as I was the liaison between the medical staff and my family.

    Being overwhelmed, I had felt that I was developing a defeatist mentality. But a meeting with one of the doctors drastically changed my outlook on life. When the doctor sensed that I was huffing and puffing in the cross-fire battle of this new and overwhelming situation, he said something that really stoked the dormant fire within me,

    "Hey, why are you worried about? You are the face of your family! You speak English better than any other family member. You are SUPPOSED to work for your family and for yourself. Dont ever feel let down. Come on!"

    The in-your-face pep talk and no non-sense attitude shown by the doctor was a welcome surprise for me, as his demeanor during that short conversation demonstrated that I should not have felt sorry, guilty, despondent, or depressed about the circumstance I was in.

    Instead, his whole message captured the essence of the kind of positive and resilient tenacity that would become the core of my formative years. Instead of that kind yet superficial sign of condolence or a mere gesture of putting his arm around my shoulder, his fierce demeanor served to change my subconscious attitude for the situation and, eventually, for my own life.

    Second, I also talked about "the food stamp at local market" scene. On the surface, my older brother was a loser who had decided to give up everything in his life - his education, opportunity, school, friends, and family trust - by simply walking away from what had kept him from being disintegrated.

    Yet, instead of juxtaposing my academic excellence and his decision to drop out of school, I tried to demonstrate his unconditional love for his family and me and his older-sibling responsibility by capturing a scene at a local market when he snatched the food stamps out of my trembling hands.
    Sensing that his little brother was hesitant to walk all the way to the front cash register to pay for grocery with the food stamps, hence damaging his self-confidence, my older brother, who was only 17, 18 at the time, ran across the cash booths and snatched the food stamps to personally pay for the grocery.

    Left empty-handed but saved from the vigilant eyes of judgment and superficial condolences, I took a long look at the back of my older brother who did not even flinch to care to notice his immediate surroundings. Through this scene, I wanted to show that this whole process of overcoming adversity was a family reunion thing. It was a clear real-life demonstration of a huge billboard sign in the middle of LA downtown that had stood for some time: "A family who prays together stays together."

    Dear OP, think through your life and walk through your past trails. I am sure that you have many wonderful, powerful, and heart-wrenching yet rewarding events in your life that have served to shape and mold your value system. Find one or two symbolizing events to narrate your reflection and introspection not only on the state of your family but also on the grand scheme of things in life.

    I hope this helps.
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  • glassesarechicglassesarechic 5471 replies16 threads Senior Member
    Simply portraying yourself under the self-defeating aura of "self-victimization" mentality won't suffice. Worse, it may even backfire by advertently sending a wrong message to adcom about your mental makeup.

    Exactly. This is what people who advise against tragic event essays are trying to get at. Essays should be woven around choice anecdotes and bound together in their illustration of some greater attribute--perserverance, drive to become a doctor, etc. These attributes should be things that make the college want to accept you, that provide evidence that you are more than grades and SAT scores...and more than tragic, crippling events, should you choose to write about them.

    I think Lirazel's advice is sound. The events in your life don't seem to have affected your class choice/potential major/future career in any particular way, and so I don't think they're (likely to be) the strongest of Common App essays.
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  • radiokvetchradiokvetch 30 replies4 threads Junior Member
    I haven't read the other posts so i hope i'm not being repetitive, but i found that telling my story (which was rather unique and was responsible for a huge slump in my grades) actually improved my chances of being accepted. this was only in my essay, however- in interviews, it made things rather awkward and really that small time span doesn't give you enough time to describe how you changed, what you learned, etc. i made a point in my essay to describe that because of traumatic incident y, i became x, and so on.

    basically, just make sure you write about your current self and what you've learned, rather than solely focusing on your past. good luck :D
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  • compmomcompmom 11881 replies82 threads Senior Member
    One of my kids suffers from a chronic illness that had a huge impact on her adolescence. Her essay did not mention it. She wrote an impressionist essay about getting up in the morning at our house, no big substance, just an essay with nice style and vibe.

    However, since her illness had impacted attendance at high school, she wrote something brief in the supplemental essay, just a sketch about the moment of diagnosis at age 4.

    The guidance counselor wrote a note as well, which was no doubt more explicit, because, again, the pattern of her attendance required explanation.

    The issue of "using" life experiences, particularly those involving others, is a good one to ponder. I would feel squeamish about it, and leave what is private, as private as possible. But that is just me.

    The other issue is whether or not to base one's identity on hardship. This was what kept our daughter from writing an essay about difficult experiences. It wasn't a matter of what admissions would be impressed with: surely, overcoming obstacles is seen as a plus by admissions. But she did not want to base her identity on illness or any other hardship.

    Perhaps the real way to overcome what you have gone through is to not mention it at all. Or if it truly impacted your life, in a way that requires explanation, then either write something brief in the supplemental essay or have your guidance counselor inform them.

    Just my own thoughts: others will differ. And certainly, writing about your hard experiences can be helpful for acceptance, if done right. I just think it is sort of emotionally unhealthy in some cases.
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