Sad college essays: do they work or should I avoid them?

I've been hearing quite a bit about sad college essays and I wanted to ask for opinions on whether or not they're a good idea. Will admissions officers appreciate them, or is it better to choose another topic? Let me know your thoughts!

While there's no definitive answer to whether or not sad college essays will work for every student, it's important to focus on presenting a well-written, genuine, and impactful story. If your "sad" topic is truly significant to your life and has shaped your character or values, then it might be a strong choice. However, be mindful of the following considerations:

1. Avoid writing a sob story: Your essay should not be an attempt to gain sympathy from the admissions officers. Instead, it should convey important aspects of your personal growth, values, or resilience in the face of adversity.

2. Focus on personal growth and reflection: Emphasize what you've learned or how you've grown from your experiences. Your essay should demonstrate self-awareness, maturity, and reflection, regardless of the tone or topic.

3. Maintain a balance of emotions: While it's essential to express your authentic feelings and experiences, maintain balance throughout your essay to avoid overwhelming the reader. Including moments of hope, optimism, or resolution alongside your "sad" story can make it more powerful.

4. Don't let the sadness overshadow your qualities: Admissions officers want to learn more about you, not just the challenges you've encountered. Make sure to highlight your strengths, passions, and accomplishments as well, so they can gain a well-rounded understanding of who you are.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a sad college essay will depend on your ability to present it in an authentic and meaningful way while still showcasing your personal qualities, achievements, and potential contribution to the college community.

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College Essays

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Just as there are noteworthy examples of excellent college essays that admissions offices like to publish, so are there cringe-worthy examples of terrible college essays that end up being described by anonymous admissions officers on Reddit discussion boards.

While I won't guarantee that your essay will end up in the first category, I will say that you follow my advice in this article, your essay most assuredly won't end up in the second. How do you avoid writing a bad admissions essay? Read on to find out what makes an essay bad and to learn which college essay topics to avoid. I'll also explain how to recognize bad college essays—and what to do to if you end up creating one by accident.

What Makes Bad College Essays Bad

What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution.

Problems With the Topic

The primary way to screw up a college essay is to flub what the essay is about or how you've decided to discuss a particular experience. Badly chosen essay content can easily create an essay that is off-putting in one of a number of ways I'll discuss in the next section.

The essay is the place to let the admissions office of your target college get to know your personality, character, and the talents and skills that aren't on your transcript. So if you start with a terrible topic, not only will you end up with a bad essay, but you risk ruining the good impression that the rest of your application makes.

Some bad topics show admissions officers that you don't have a good sense of judgment or maturity , which is a problem since they are building a class of college students who have to be able to handle independent life on campus.

Other bad topics suggest that you are a boring person , or someone who doesn't process your experience in a colorful or lively way, which is a problem since colleges want to create a dynamic and engaged cohort of students.

Still other bad topics indicate that you're unaware of or disconnected from the outside world and focused only on yourself , which is a problem since part of the point of college is to engage with new people and new ideas, and admissions officers are looking for people who can do that.

Problems With the Execution

Sometimes, even if the experiences you discuss could be the foundation of a great personal statement, the way you've structured and put together your essay sends up warning flags. This is because the admissions essay is also a place to show the admissions team the maturity and clarity of your writing style.

One way to get this part wrong is to exhibit very faulty writing mechanics , like unclear syntax or incorrectly used punctuation. This is a problem since college-ready writing is one of the things that's expected from a high school graduate.

Another way to mess this up is to ignore prompt instructions either for creative or careless reasons. This can show admissions officers that you're either someone who simply blows off directions and instructions or someone who can't understand how to follow them . Neither is a good thing, since they are looking for people who are open to receiving new information from professors and not just deciding they know everything already.

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College Essay Topics To Avoid

Want to know why you're often advised to write about something mundane and everyday for your college essay? That's because the more out-there your topic, the more likely it is to stumble into one of these trouble categories.

Too Personal

The problem with the overly personal essay topic is that revealing something very private can show that you don't really understand boundaries . And knowing where appropriate boundaries are will be key for living on your own with a bunch of people not related to you.

Unfortunately, stumbling into the TMI zone of essay topics is more common than you think. One quick test for checking your privacy-breaking level: if it's not something you'd tell a friendly stranger sitting next to you on the plane, maybe don't tell it to the admissions office.

  • Describing losing your virginity, or anything about your sex life really. This doesn't mean you can't write about your sexual orientation—just leave out the actual physical act.
  • Writing in too much detail about your illness, disability, any other bodily functions. Detailed meaningful discussion of what this physical condition has meant to you and your life is a great thing to write about. But stay away from body horror and graphic descriptions that are simply there for gratuitous shock value.
  • Waxing poetic about your love for your significant other. Your relationship is adorable to the people currently involved in it, but those who don't know you aren't invested in this aspect of your life.
  • Confessing to odd and unusual desires of the sexual or illegal variety. Your obsession with cultivating cacti is wonderful topic, while your obsession with researching explosives is a terrible one.

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Too Revealing of Bad Judgment

Generally speaking, leave past illegal or immoral actions out of your essay . It's simply a bad idea to give admissions officers ammunition to dislike you.

Some exceptions might be if you did something in a very, very different mindset from the one you're in now (in the midst of escaping from danger, under severe coercion, or when you were very young, for example). Or if your essay is about explaining how you've turned over a new leaf and you have the transcript to back you up.

  • Writing about committing crime as something fun or exciting. Unless it's on your permanent record, and you'd like a chance to explain how you've learned your lesson and changed, don't put this in your essay.
  • Describing drug use or the experience of being drunk or high. Even if you're in a state where some recreational drugs are legal, you're a high school student. Your only exposure to mind-altering substances should be caffeine.
  • Making up fictional stories about yourself as though they are true. You're unlikely to be a good enough fantasist to pull this off, and there's no reason to roll the dice on being discovered to be a liar.
  • Detailing your personality flaws. Unless you have a great story of coping with one of these, leave deal-breakers like pathological narcissism out of your personal statement.

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Too Overconfident

While it's great to have faith in your abilities, no one likes a relentless show-off. No matter how magnificent your accomplishments, if you decide to focus your essay on them, it's better to describe a setback or a moment of doubt rather that simply praising yourself to the skies.

  • Bragging and making yourself the flawless hero of your essay. This goes double if you're writing about not particularly exciting achievements like scoring the winning goal or getting the lead in the play.
  • Having no awareness of the actual scope of your accomplishments. It's lovely that you take time to help others, but volunteer-tutoring a couple of hours a week doesn't make you a saintly figure.

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Too Clichéd or Boring

Remember your reader. In this case, you're trying to make yourself memorable to an admissions officer who has been reading thousands of other essays . If your essay makes the mistake of being boring or trite, it just won't register in that person's mind as anything worth paying attention to.

  • Transcribing your resume into sentence form or writing about the main activity on your transcript. The application already includes your resume, or a detailed list of your various activities. Unless the prompt specifically asks you to write about your main activity, the essay needs to be about a facet of your interests and personality that doesn't come through the other parts of the application.
  • Writing about sports. Every athlete tries to write this essay. Unless you have a completely off-the-wall story or unusual achievement, leave this overdone topic be.
  • Being moved by your community service trip to a third-world country. Were you were impressed at how happy the people seemed despite being poor? Did you learn a valuable lesson about how privileged you are? Unfortunately, so has every other teenager who traveled on one of these trips. Writing about this tends to simultaneously make you sound unempathetic, clueless about the world, way over-privileged, and condescending. Unless you have a highly specific, totally unusual story to tell, don't do it.
  • Reacting with sadness to a sad, but very common experience. Unfortunately, many of the hard, formative events in your life are fairly universal. So, if you're going to write about death or divorce, make sure to focus on how you dealt with this event, so the essay is something only you could possibly have written. Only detailed, idiosyncratic description can save this topic.
  • Going meta. Don't write about the fact that you're writing the essay as we speak, and now the reader is reading it, and look, the essay is right here in the reader's hand. It's a technique that seems clever, but has already been done many times in many different ways.
  • Offering your ideas on how to fix the world. This is especially true if your solution is an easy fix, if only everyone would just listen to you. Trust me, there's just no way you are being realistically appreciative of the level of complexity inherent in the problem you're describing.
  • Starting with a famous quotation. There usually is no need to shore up your own words by bringing in someone else's. Of course, if you are writing about a particular phrase that you've adopted as a life motto, feel free to include it. But even then, having it be the first line in your essay feels like you're handing the keys over to that author and asking them to drive.
  • Using an everyday object as a metaphor for your life/personality. "Shoes. They are like this, and like that, and people love them for all of these reasons. And guess what? They are just like me."

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Too Off-Topic

Unlike the essays you've been writing in school where the idea is to analyze something outside of yourself, the main subject of your college essay should be you, your background, your makeup, and your future . Writing about someone or something else might well make a great essay, but not for this context.

  • Paying tribute to someone very important to you. Everyone would love to meet your grandma, but this isn't the time to focus on her amazing coming of age story. If you do want to talk about a person who is important to your life, dwell on the ways you've been impacted by them, and how you will incorporate this impact into your future.
  • Documenting how well other people do things, say things, are active, while you remain passive and inactive in the essay. Being in the orbit of someone else's important lab work, or complex stage production, or meaningful political activism is a fantastic learning moment. But if you decide to write about, your essay should be about your learning and how you've been influenced, not about the other person's achievements.
  • Concentrating on a work of art that deeply moved you. Watch out for the pitfall of writing an analytical essay about that work, and not at all about your reaction to it or how you've been affected since. Check out our explanation of how to answer Topic D of the ApplyTexas application to get some advice on writing about someone else's work while making sure your essay still points back at you.

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(Image: Pieter Christoffel Wonder [Public domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)

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Too Offensive

With this potential mistake, you run the risk of showing a lack of self-awareness or the ability to be open to new ideas . Remember, no reader wants to be lectured at. If that's what your essay does, you are demonstrating an inability to communicate successfully with others.

Also, remember that no college is eager to admit someone who is too close-minded to benefit from being taught by others. A long, one-sided essay about a hot-button issue will suggest that you are exactly that.

  • Ranting at length about political, religious, or other contentious topics. You simply don't know where the admissions officer who reads your essay stands on any of these issues. It's better to avoid upsetting or angering that person.
  • Writing a one-sided diatribe about guns, abortion, the death penalty, immigration, or anything else in the news. Even if you can marshal facts in your argument, this essay is simply the wrong place to take a narrow, unempathetic side in an ongoing debate.
  • Mentioning anything negative about the school you're applying to. Again, your reader is someone who works there and presumably is proud of the place. This is not the time to question the admissions officer's opinions or life choices.

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College Essay Execution Problems To Avoid

Bad college essays aren't only caused by bad topics. Sometimes, even if you're writing about an interesting, relevant topic, you can still seem immature or unready for college life because of the way you present that topic—the way you actually write your personal statement. Check to make sure you haven't made any of the common mistakes on this list.

Tone-Deafness

Admissions officers are looking for resourcefulness, the ability to be resilient, and an active and optimistic approach to life —these are all qualities that create a thriving college student. Essays that don't show these qualities are usually suffering from tone-deafness.

  • Being whiny or complaining about problems in your life. Is the essay about everyone doing things to/against you? About things happening to you, rather than you doing anything about them? That perspective is a definite turn-off.
  • Trying and failing to use humor. You may be very funny in real life, but it's hard to be successfully funny in this context, especially when writing for a reader who doesn't know you. If you do want to use humor, I'd recommend the simplest and most straightforward version: being self-deprecating and low-key.
  • Talking down to the reader, or alternately being self-aggrandizing. No one enjoys being condescended to. In this case, much of the function of your essay is to charm and make yourself likable, which is unlikely to happen if you adopt this tone.
  • Being pessimistic, cynical, and generally depressive. You are applying to college because you are looking forward to a future of learning, achievement, and self-actualization. This is not the time to bust out your existential ennui and your jaded, been-there-done-that attitude toward life.

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(Image: Eduard Munch [Public Domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)

Lack of Personality

One good question to ask yourself is: could anyone else have written this essay ? If the answer is yes, then you aren't doing a good job of representing your unique perspective on the world. It's very important to demonstrate your ability to be a detailed observer of the world, since that will be one of your main jobs as a college student.

  • Avoiding any emotions, and appearing robot-like and cold in the essay. Unlike essays that you've been writing for class, this essay is meant to be a showcase of your authorial voice and personality. It may seem strange to shift gears after learning how to take yourself out of your writing, but this is the place where you have to put as much as yourself in as possible.
  • Skipping over description and specific details in favor of writing only in vague generalities. Does your narrative feel like a newspaper horoscope, which could apply to every other person who was there that day? Then you're doing it wrong and need to refocus on your reaction, feelings, understanding, and transformation.

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Off-Kilter Style

There's some room for creativity here, yes, but a college essay isn't a free-for-all postmodern art class . True, there are prompts that specifically call for your most out-of-left-field submission, or allow you to submit a portfolio or some other work sample instead of a traditional essay. But on a standard application, it's better to stick to traditional prose, split into paragraphs, further split into sentences.

  • Submitting anything other than just the materials asked for on your application. Don't send food to the admissions office, don't write your essay on clothing or shoes, don't create a YouTube channel about your undying commitment to the school. I know there are a lot of urban legends about "that one time this crazy thing worked," but they are either not true or about something that will not work a second time.
  • Writing your essay in verse, in the form of a play, in bullet points, as an acrostic, or any other non-prose form. Unless you really have a way with poetry or playwriting, and you are very confident that you can meet the demands of the prompt and explain yourself well in this form, don't discard prose simply for the sake of being different.
  • Using as many "fancy" words as possible and getting very far away from sounding like yourself. Admissions officers are unanimous in wanting to hear your not fully formed teenage voice in your essay. This means that you should write at the top of your vocabulary range and syntax complexity, but don't trade every word up for a thesaurus synonym. Your essay will suffer for it.

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Failure to Proofread

Most people have a hard time checking over their own work. This is why you have to make sure that someone else proofreads your writing . This is the one place where you can, should—and really must—get someone who knows all about grammar, punctuation and has a good eye for detail to take a red pencil to your final draft.

Otherwise, you look like you either don't know the basic rules or writing (in which case, are you really ready for college work?) or don't care enough to present yourself well (in which case, why would the admissions people care about admitting you?).

  • Typos, grammatical mistakes, punctuation flubs, weird font/paragraph spacing issues. It's true that these are often unintentional mistakes. But caring about getting it right is a way to demonstrate your work ethic and dedication to the task at hand.
  • Going over the word limit. Part of showing your brilliance is being able to work within arbitrary rules and limitations. Going over the word count points to a lack of self-control, which is not a very attractive feature in a college applicant.
  • Repeating the same word(s) or sentence structure over and over again. This makes your prose monotonous and hard to read.

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Bad College Essay Examples—And How to Fix Them

The beauty of writing is that you get to rewrite. So if you think of your essay as a draft waiting to be revised into a better version rather than as a precious jewel that can't bear being touched, you'll be in far better shape to correct the issues that always crop up!

Now let's take a look at some actual college essay drafts to see where the writer is going wrong and how the issue could be fixed.

Essay #1: The "I Am Writing This Essay as We Speak" Meta-Narrative

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.

Falling into my personal wormhole, I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!" I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

I fell into a state of panic. My college essay. My image of myself in senior year. Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there. My heart lifted, I took his advice and listed three of my greatest achievements - mastering my backgammon strategy, being a part of TREE in my sophomore year, and performing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance in public. And sure enough, I felt inspiration hit me and began to type away furiously into the keyboard about my experience in TREE, or Trees Require Engaged Environmentalists. I reflected on the current state of deforestation, and described the dichotomy of it being both understandable why farmers cut down forests for farmland, and how dangerous this is to our planet. Finally, I added my personal epiphany to the end of my college essay as the cherry on the vanilla sundae, as the overused saying goes.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal. Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In the middle of a hike through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, I realized that the college essay was nothing more than an embodiment of my character. The two essays I have written were not right because they have failed to become more than just words on recycled paper. The subject failed to come alive. Certainly my keen interest in Star Trek and my enthusiasm for TREE are a great part of who I am, but there were other qualities essential in my character that did not come across in the essays.

With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.

What Essay #1 Does Well

Here are all things that are working on all cylinders for this personal statement as is.

Killer First Sentence

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine.

  • A strange fact. There are different kinds of tornadoes? What is a "landspout tornado" anyway?
  • A late-night-deep-thoughts hypothetical. What would it be like to be a kid whose house was destroyed in this unusual way?
  • Direct engagement with the reader. Instead of asking "what would it be like to have a tornado destroy a house" it asks "was your house ever destroyed."

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Gentle, Self-Deprecating Humor That Lands Well

I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

The author has his cake and eats it too here: both making fun of himself for being super into the Star Trek mythos, but also showing himself being committed enough to try whispering a command to the Enterprise computer alone in his room. You know, just in case.

A Solid Point That Is Made Paragraph by Paragraph

The meat of the essay is that the two versions of himself that the author thought about portraying each fails in some way to describe the real him. Neither an essay focusing on his off-beat interests, nor an essay devoted to his serious activism could capture everything about a well-rounded person in 600 words.

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(Image: fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons .)

Where Essay #1 Needs Revision

Rewriting these flawed parts will make the essay shine.

Spending Way Too Long on the Metanarrative

I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal.

Look at how long and draggy these paragraphs are, especially after that zippy opening. Is it at all interesting to read about how someone else found the process of writing hard? Not really, because this is a very common experience.

In the rewrite, I'd advise condensing all of this to maybe a sentence to get to the meat of the actual essay .

Letting Other People Do All the Doing

I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!"

Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there.

Twice in the essay, the author lets someone else tell him what to do. Not only that, but it sounds like both of the "incomplete" essays were dictated by the thoughts of other people and had little to do with his own ideas, experiences, or initiative.

In the rewrite, it would be better to recast both the Star Trek and the TREE versions of the essay as the author's own thoughts rather than someone else's suggestions . This way, the point of the essay—taking apart the idea that a college essay could summarize life experience—is earned by the author's two failed attempts to write that other kind of essay.

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Leaving the Insight and Meaning Out of His Experiences

Both the Star Trek fandom and the TREE activism were obviously important life experiences for this author—important enough to be potential college essay topic candidates. But there is no description of what the author did with either one, nor any explanation of why these were so meaningful to his life.

It's fine to say that none of your achievements individually define you, but in order for that to work, you have to really sell the achievements themselves.

In the rewrite, it would be good to explore what he learned about himself and the world by pursuing these interests . How did they change him or seen him into the person he is today?

Not Adding New Shades and Facets of Himself Into the Mix

So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In both of these passages, there is the perfect opportunity to point out what exactly these failed versions of the essay didn't capture about the author . In the next essay draft, I would suggest subtly making a point about his other qualities.

For example, after the Star Trek paragraph, he could talk about other culture he likes to consume, especially if he can discuss art forms he is interested in that would not be expected from someone who loves Star Trek .

Or, after the TREE paragraph, the author could explain why this second essay was no better at capturing him than the first. What was missing? Why is the self in the essay shouting—is it because this version paints him as an overly aggressive activist?

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Essay #2: The "I Once Saw Poor People" Service Trip Essay

Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive. My whole outlook on life changed after I realized that my life was just being handed to me on a silver spoon, and yet there were those in the world who didn't have enough food to eat or place to live. I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness. But my most vivid memory was the moment I first got to the farming town. The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water? As these questions rolled around my already dazed mind, I heard a soft voice asking me in Spanish, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?" I looked down to see a small boy, around nine years of age, who looked starved, and cold, wearing tattered clothing, comforting me. These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate ahead of themselves. It was at that moment that I saw how selfish I had been. How many people suffered like this in the world, while I went about life concerned about nothing at all?

Thinking back on the trip, maybe I made a difference, maybe not. But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

What Essay #2 Does Well

Let's first point out what this draft has going for it.

Clear Chronology

This is an essay that tries to explain a shift in perspective. There are different ways to structure this overarching idea, but a chronological approach that starts with an earlier opinion, describes a mind changing event, and ends with the transformed point of view is an easy and clear way to lay this potentially complex subject out.

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(Image: User:Lite via Wikimedia Commons)

Where Essay #2 Needs Revision

Now let's see what needs to be changed in order for this essay to pass muster.

Condescending, Obnoxious Tone

Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive.

This is a very broad generalization, which doesn't tend to be the best way to formulate an argument—or to start an essay. It just makes this author sound dismissive of a huge swath of the population.

In the rewrite, this author would be way better off just concentrate on what she want to say about herself, not pass judgment on "other teenagers," most of whom she doesn't know and will never meet.

I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

Coming from someone who hasn't earned her place in the world through anything but the luck of being born, the word "compassion" sounds really condescending. Calling others "less fortunate" when you're a senior in high school has a dehumanizing quality to it.

These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate in front of themselves.

Again, this comes across as very patronizing. Not only that, but to this little boy the author was clearly not looking all that "fortunate"—instead, she looked pathetic enough to need comforting.

In the next draft, a better hook could be making the essay about the many different kinds of shifting perspectives the author encountered on that trip . A more meaningful essay would compare and contrast the points of view of the TV commercials, to what the group leader said, to the author's own expectations, and finally to this child's point of view.

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Vague, Unobservant Description

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness.

Phrases like "cries of the small children from not having enough to eat" and "dirt stained rags" seem like descriptions, but they're really closer to incurious and completely hackneyed generalizations. Why were the kids were crying? How many kids? All the kids? One specific really loud kid?

The same goes for "filthy rags," which is both an incredibly insensitive way to talk about the clothing of these villagers, and again shows a total lack of interest in their life. Why were their clothes dirty? Were they workers or farmers so their clothes showing marks of labor? Did they have Sunday clothes? Traditional clothes they would put on for special occasions? Did they make their own clothes? That would be a good reason to keep wearing clothing even if it had "stains" on it.

The rewrite should either make this section more specific and less reliant on cliches, or should discard it altogether .

The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality.

If this is the "most vivid memory," then I would expect to read all the details that have been seared into the author's brain. What did their leader tell them? What was different in real life? What was the light like? What did the houses/roads/grass/fields/trees/animals/cars look like? What time of day was it? Did they get there by bus, train, or plane? Was there an airport/train station/bus terminal? A city center? Shops? A marketplace?

There are any number of details to include here when doing another drafting pass.

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Lack of Insight or Maturity

But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water?

Without a framing device explaining that this initial panic was an overreaction, this section just makes the author sound whiny, entitled, melodramatic, and immature . After all, this isn't a a solo wilderness trek—the author is there with a paid guided program. Just how much mortality is typically associated with these very standard college-application-boosting service trips?

In a rewrite, I would suggest including more perspective on the author's outsized and overprivileged response here. This would fit well with a new focus on the different points of view on this village the author encountered.

Unearned, Clichéd "Deep Thoughts"

But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

Is it really believable that this is what the author learned? There is maybe some evidence to suggest that the author was shaken somewhat out of a comfortable, materialistic existence. But what does "there is more to life than just being alive" even really mean? This conclusion is rather vague, and seems mostly a non sequitur.

In a rewrite, the essay should be completely reoriented to discuss how differently others see us than we see ourselves, pivoting on the experience of being pitied by someone who you thought was pitiable. Then, the new version can end by on a note of being better able to understand different points of view and other people's perspectives .

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The Bottom Line

  • Bad college essays have problems either with their topics or their execution.
  • The essay is how admissions officers learn about your personality, point of view, and maturity level, so getting the topic right is a key factor in letting them see you as an aware, self-directed, open-minded applicant who is going to thrive in an environment of independence.
  • The essay is also how admissions officers learn that you are writing at a ready-for-college level, so screwing up the execution shows that you either don't know how to write, or don't care enough to do it well.
  • The main ways college essay topics go wrong is bad taste, bad judgment, and lack of self-awareness.
  • The main ways college essays fail in their execution have to do with ignoring format, syntax, and genre expectations.

What's Next?

Want to read some excellent college essays now that you've seen some examples of flawed one? Take a look through our roundup of college essay examples published by colleges and then get help with brainstorming your perfect college essay topic .

Need some guidance on other parts of the application process? Check out our detailed, step-by-step guide to college applications for advice.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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Search the site, search suggestions, my very unofficial tips on writing your college essay.

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College application essays can seem really freaky and daunting.

If you’re nervous to write your essay, that’s good! That means you care! But, hopefully I’ve got some helpful, very unofficial tips here to make you feel a little more confident in writing this future masterpiece.

To clarify again: I’m just a shmuck. I have no say in the admissions process, and if I had the key to writing the perfect college essay, I would be a rich man sitting in a hot tub in Monaco. I am a shmuck. But I am a shmuck here for you .

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Look at that shmucky face!

Because people like to emphasize how much academics, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and the interview matter in the application process, the personal essay tends to be undervalued. But it is mucho importante (see, I took Spanish)! And you’re going to nail it! Here are my best tips:

MAKE IT UNIQUELY YOU

The personal essay is the only place in your entire application where the admissions officers have the ability to hear your own voice. While a lot of applications have similar academics or extracurricular activities in them, none of them of them have you in them. So, make yourself shine out through your essay.

Now, that doesn’t mean your essay has to be about how you’re going to end world hunger but if you are, that’s cool. What that does mean is that if someone was holding a stack of 1000 nameless college essays and dropped them in your school or at your house, that each of your friends, teachers, and family members would be able to pick out your essay. Your personal essay is also not Mrs. Smith’s English paper on Hamlet . Write your personal essay in your regular, every day voice. Your instinct might tell you to make this seem proper and elevated, and that instinct is baloney. So, keep that in mind when you…

PICK A TOPIC WHICH MATTERS TO YOU

Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be something really sad or emotional like when your bunny got hit by a car :(. And that doesn’t mean it has to be about something impressive about yourself like if you made your own jetpack and went to the moon. For the most part, the admissions officers can glean “impressive” information from your resume and academics, so I wouldn’t try to “impress” them here. But then again, the essay shouldn’t be prescriptive in topic. You can write about your mom, you can write about the time you went to McDonalds with your friends, you can write about anything. Brainstorm a ton of ideas! But try to write about something which really brings out your stellar personality. And write about something which you won’t get bored about because this essay is your baby and you’ll be dealing with it for a while.

START WRITING

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank screen or paper. Inevitably, you’re going to go on Facebook or doze off and you won’t get anything accomplished. Just start writing. Once you get some words down on the page, you’ll get more ideas, and you’ll feel good.

Even if what you have on the page at first is stinky, the essay will at least start to take a shape.

WRITE A LOT

Write as much as you can about your topic. Even if it doesn’t really make sense, just pour those ideas down on the page. And then, when you’ve written everything you can possibly write down about your topic, it’s time to whittle that novel down into 650 words. For every sentence that gets into your essay, there’s probably going to be four that don’t. But that’s completely okay! You just gotta trim that fat. Of the essay I mean, although beach season is almost upon us.

And after you got that, there’s your essay. But you ain’t done yet!

REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE

The Great Gatsby wasn’t written in one draft. And neither was the Declaration of Independence I’m pretty sure. If you’re going to write a masterpiece (and you will), you have to revise and rewrite. Read your essay out loud. Does it sound weird? Fix that. Is it boring? Jazz it up a little. Then, rewrite it again to tell your story in the best way possible. Maybe for Mrs. Smith’s English paper, you could write in one draft and be fine with it. But with this, scary enough, a lot more people will read it, and these people don’t really know you. So, keep rewriting it until you’re proud of it. Or even when you’re not proud of it yet…

SHOW IT TO OTHER PEOPLE

Let your mom read it. Show it to your teacher. Show it to the milkman if you have one of those. People will love to read your essay.

As awkward as it is having other people read your essay, it’s necessary to get different pairs of eyes and perspectives on your essay. If they give criticism which you think rings true, great! If they give advice which you don’t agree with, great you don’t have to take it! Showing your essay to a bunch of people will inevitably make it stronger, but you just have to get over the initial awkwardness. Keep rewriting it and revising it and showing it to other people until…

ARE YOU PROUD OF IT?

If no, then keep rewriting. Or start from scratch if you think that’s best. Or pick a different topic, and write about that. Sometimes your essay can be like overcooked cookies, you can try to make them taste better by adding frosting or sprinkles or something but it might be better just to start over again. And that’s completely fine! Don’t get stuck in negativity, and also, don’t freak out.

If you are proud of it, well done. You’ve written your college essay, and I’m sure it’s awesome .

Dan Class of Alumni

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  • Nov 4, 2022

Can My College Essay Be Sad?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

can college essays be sad

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.

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.

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.

can college essays be sad

With all my support,

Sawyer Earwood

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors

[email protected]

can college essays be sad

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Can College Essays Be Sad?

Tragedy and sadness are a part of life, and with it comes various stories that shape our very being and personalities. Let’s dive into the topic and explore whether college essays can be sad.

When choosing a topic for your college essay, selecting one can take a lot of work. And often, the best stories to evoke emotions in others are the sad types.

Nevertheless, these types of stories can include very serious and personal topics that can be challenging to write about and share with others. Which further makes these topics hard to write about. 

Topics can include the death of a loved one, such as a parent, sibling, or friend, or a traumatic first-person experience. These experiences can feel heavy or sometimes even wrong to write about, especially if it was something that did not happen directly to you.

college essays can be sad

College essays can be sad; if written correctly, these emotions can create a vacuum and draw in your readers, who, in this case, are admission officers. Some particular topics, however, are overly used and can become bland, overrated, and a big cliche.

Right around now, you might be thinking, “ Can I Write My College Essay About Anything? ” You’ll have to take a peek at my other article to find out 😉

Below we will discuss how to avoid writing a cliche college essay, especially if you choose to focus on a tragic topic or story.

Why you need to stand out

Imagine getting to work and seeing a pile of papers sitting at your desk. One after the other, you have to read a little about the life of a kid you have never met. 

This will somewhat weigh into the decision of whether they are admitted or rejected from their chosen college. Soon enough, the pile will begin blending into one, and you will desperately wish for some entertainment.

If you, as an applicant, do not capture the reader in your first sentence or two, it is probable that they will skim through your essay and never look at it again. But working towards this can be a slippery slope, especially if you don’t take caution with your writing. 

Think Before You Write

Avoid coming across as a victim or even showing that you might be a bad fit for the university. It would be best if you aimed to stand out by portraying how the story has changed you, your life, or some crucial aspect. 

Before writing a sad college essay, ensure you and the people affected by the story are okay with the story being told. This can become a larger issue if the topic is still playing out, a fresh wound, or an ongoing investigation of some sort.

As an applicant, you should also show that you are emotionally and mentally stable toward the situation and even open to discussing it further. To take it a step further, mention how the course of events led you to volunteer, sponsor a club, or anything else that ties your story with a positive note.

Note:  You should never lie or exaggerate the truth when writing your college essay, especially when it is a sad and heartfelt topic. Be honest about what you did! For instance, if you did not get to start a club to honor or help others in the same situation you went through, mention that it is a goal you hope to achieve in your time with the university.

How to write a sad college essay

College applications often play a significant role in students’ lives after leaving high school. Admission essays are a big part of that! This can overwhelm students new to the university scene but worry not. 

There are tons of resources to answer all questions, for instance,  Can College Essays Be Informal ? Check out the article if you want to learn more. 

But the main idea here is to write the perfect essay, one sure to succeed. And what better way to do that than to know the  five flaws found in most college application essays .

To help you grow your knowledge and understanding of what admission officers are looking for in a college essay, you can get your hands on a  College Essay Guide  that can aid you, step by step.

Now, let’s dive into the tips and tricks on how to write a sad college essay while steering clear of all the cliches.

Show Respect

Being respectful can come in all sorts of ways, but privacy is vital in this scenario. Stories of tragedy can often include the loss of loved ones, and with it must come respect.

First and foremost, you should have the approval of others included in the story to use it. Remember that just because the story included you does not mean that it is yours to tell.

Students willing to write about this topic must keep the personal information of others involved private. The only name that should be tied to the story is yours because you will submit your application.

Do your best to avoid mentioning names or other details that are private. If you must include names in the story to make it flow better, then change the names.

Try your best to keep any unneeded information away from the essay and be respectful of the story itself. The lack of details in these types of stories will not reflect poorly on your essay.

On the contrary, admission officers will recognize you for being discreet and respectful and are more focused on looking at the bigger picture and how the events affect you.

Choose Your Words Carefully

It goes without saying that college essays must be respectful; this means that no cursing or profanities should be on them. Furthermore, keep any and all controversial thoughts and feelings away from the paper too!

A tragic topic can bring severe thoughts and feelings to the table and, with it, somber words. In this case, there has to be an established balance between the tragic event and the silver lining.

Though college essays can be sad, they should not feel empty. Students must take the time to draft their ideas and re-write the essay as many times as needed.

To ease the process, start with a simple sentence: “it made me sad.” Then start elaborating and evoking emotions to build the sentiments further, like, “it brought me to tears to reflect on…”

Focus on finding the right words to convey the emotions you felt at that time, but also add in the feelings you have now towards the situation. See the good and the bad that came from it, what you learned and how you grew.

Prompts Are Guidelines

Unless you are given a prompt that lets you explore any possible topic, such as the Princeton Review, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.” then skim the list and choose one that ties in nicely with your story. 

It is crucial to visualize your prompt as a guideline for your writing. Remember that colleges are not going to directly ask you questions such as, “Why did you last cry?” You won’t find a prompt centered around a sad topic or tragedy, mainly because it reflects badly on universities if they ask their applicants to talk about tragic personal issues or challenges.

Nevertheless, they do leave the door open for interpretation in most of their prompts. For example, a commonly used prompt is, “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

In this case, you could definitely connect it to an emotional story, tying in the resolution and talking about how it made you grow as a person. Regardless of the story, you are willing to tell, stay on task and answer the prompt.

By no means does that mean you should change the route of the story or what you are trying to portray, but you should be cautious of how a prompt can change the theme of your story.

Don’t get overly obsessed with telling the story; instead, look at it as an inspiration. You might want to be a surgeon because you have undergone countless surgeries. Or the passing of a childhood friend motivated you to be an educator.

Whatever it may be, you can mention it in your essay, but that does not mean the whole essay must be based on it. There is a significant difference between the two.

Maintain Focus

Don’t get lost in the story; focus on the prompt and let it guide your story along. Bring only the most crucial details to the table, and leave the details for embellishment. 

To practice this, I suggest writing your story in bullet points. Now remove as many as you can while still keeping the story intact. Those are the most vital details you should mention.

When drafting, you should include these points and add other details where you see fit. This exercise can help keep the word limit from skyrocketing and keep the reader’s attention on the prize.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Regardless of what topic you are writing or what prompt you chose, you must always be truthful. The college admission officers are looking for genuine candidates willing to open up and share their stories.

Feel free to write about something other than a tragedy. Contrary to popular belief, admission officers do not expect sad and tragic topics from applicants. You should only do so if you feel that the topic has moved and changed you in exceptional ways.

Keep yourself true; only mention the ways you were truly impacted and the truthful consequences you had to go through. The goal is to come across as authentic as you can be.

Me, Myself and I

When discussing a loss, sad story, or tragic event, you must remember to center the story around you and how it changed or affected you. This can sometimes be difficult to do if the story revolves around someone else.

Colleges look at you as an applicant, not the people mentioned in the story. Though this can seem somewhat selfish, it can be more detrimental to your essay to focus on other people instead of yourself.

Balance how much time you spend talking about the story and how much you develop the resolution and silver lining of the story. Refrain from spending so much time talking about someone else or their story; concentrate on how the story is yours too.

To better keep yourself in line, ask questions like, ” What were the short and long-term impacts? How has this altered my way of thinking or goals? And when did I feel like I could use this to my benefit?”

Final Thoughts

College essays can be sad. In fact, they can be exceptionally effective if performed the right way. Nevertheless, you should always be honest, stay true to the story, and respect the privacy of others involved.

Concentrate on how the story has impacted you and made you a better person. Admission officers want to have a better insight into your life, and a tragic story can be an unconventional way to do so, but it can be successful if performed correctly.

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Articles & Advice > College Admission > Blog

How to Approach Tragedy and Loss in Your College Essay

You may feel compelled to write about a difficult subject for your college essay. Here are some tips to write about hard topics with respect and impact.

by Keaghan Turner, PhD Partner, Turner+Turner College Consulting

Last Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Originally Posted: Aug 5, 2019

Tragedy and loss are not easy subjects to broach in writing at all, let alone very public writing that someone else will read or hear spoken. Writing about tragedy and loss certainly won’t be for everyone, so make sure you give it some real thought before you try to dive in and put your jumbled, high-emotion thoughts to page. But if a difficult topic is the one that compels you to write a great admission essay, then it can be done—as long as it’s done the right way. Before we explore the key elements to writing about traumatic experiences the right way, here’s some perspective through a personal story of loss.

The struggles with writing about loss

One spring, there was a rash of suicide attempts at a local high school in my community. Two of them were successful; others were not. The first time I wrote about this loss was for a memorial service. This is the second time. It’ll never be “easy” to write about, just as what happened will never make sense to anyone who knew the victims. How can we use words for trauma and grief in order to make sense of what doesn’t make sense?

One student, in a mature spirit of activism, wrote an open letter to the school district office, which was posted and reposted all over social media until there was a school assembly featuring officials, professionals, and faith leaders open to the whole community. The Parent Teacher Organization gave out green ribbons to raise awareness about depression and other mental illnesses . Most immediately for the teens in my town, the words appeared via social media posts. That was how the students wrote about their loss in the weeks following the first (then six weeks later, the second) tragedy. Some students will write about it for their college essays, and they’ll need help. It’ll be important to them to do a good job, to honor the memories of their friends who passed away, to get it “right.”

To say the least, people had mixed feelings about these posts and reposts; about what should be discussed and how; and how to protect the grieving families from more suffering. It’s a small community, and these were shockingly sad events. The fact is, these tragedies have already fundamentally redefined the high school experience of the students in my town. The ripples might be subtle or pronounced, but they exist. Peers will mark time using these losses (midterms happened  before , prom happened  after ), and the experience will not be forgotten; it’s now part of their life stories.

Related:  Mental Health: What Is It and How You Can Find Help

How to tackle writing about tragedy the right way

Difficult topics can ( and should) be broached in admission essays because they are a part of life that can’t be ignored and often play a huge part in defining who we are as people. What I told those students about handling loss with their words is summed up below, and it also applies to writers tackling any kind of special need, medical condition, or family struggle in their college essay.

Be honest and straightforward

You don’t need to have been super close to a tragedy to be affected by it or to write about it effectively. But don’t pretend you were affected in a way you weren’t; you’ll come across as phony. If you’re moved to write about a painful event, there’s a genuine reason behind that impulse. That reason is good enough; figure out what it is. That being said, powerful life events require quick-hitting, direct sentences. Be like Hemingway, my professors used to say—keep your sentences short; they have more punch that way. You don’t need lots of flowery or figurative language to convey that your subject is a big deal—but at the same time, do make sure you’re showing, not telling, in your writing . Connecting emotionally is about expressing that time through actions and events, not just thoughts and feelings.

Find your message with the right words

Superfluous language gets in the way of gravity. Be ready to prune drafts until you feel you’ve found the right semantic fit for the intention behind your words. Your essay also needs a theme, a call, a purpose. The point isn’t simply to narrate a sad story in order to show the reader how sad it is (e.g., your essay’s message is not that teen suicide is tragic); rather, the point is to connect the sad story to the essay prompt you've chosen to address. The event itself essentially takes a backseat to the points you want to make about what it  means .

Be respectful

This is really the one ultimate rule, and if you do this, the other stuff can be worked out. In the context of the college essay, respect usually involves approaching your subject matter somewhat anonymously. Names aren’t necessary. If you’re engaging a serious, painful topic—and it involves others—be careful to write as circumspectly and thoughtfully as you can. When in doubt, ask someone whose judgment you trust (like a teacher or parent) to check it out for you.

Seek help for you or others

Is it easy to write about hard realities? Not at all—not in any context, not for anyone. But if you’re brave enough to try, you may find it to be transformative and therapeutic to articulate your experience as you process your grief and begin to heal. And the most important thing to remember is to take those emotions and experiences and use them to help others in the future before other tragedies strike. Writing about these situations can often shed light and inspire others to help people in need, which in the end is more crucial than anything else. If you have been affected by tragedy or are worried about a friend who is struggling, help is available. Contact the  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  800-273-8255 or a trusted adult.

For more advice on college essays, check out our Application Essay Clinic , or if you’re in need of mental health advice, check out the tag “mental health.”

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About Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Humanistic Studies at Coastal Carolina University . She has taught writing and literature at small liberal arts colleges and state flagship universities for the past 20 years. As a managing partner of Turner+Turner College Consulting, LLC, Dr. Turner also counsels high school students on all aspects of their college admission portfolios, leads writing workshops, and generally tries to encourage students to believe in the power of their own writing voices. You can contact Dr. Turner on Instagram @consultingprofessors or by email at  [email protected]

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can college essays be sad

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Is it OK to Write about Death in Your College Application Essay?

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13 Reasons Why It’s OK to Write About Trauma in your College Applications — And How to Do So (a joint post by AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions)

can college essays be sad

Hi everyone. This post is written by me, AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions , TOGETHER. It’s a subject we both care about. We (your dynamic college-co nsultant duo) took up pens together to write what we believe is the first collaborative advice post in the sub’s history. Yay!  Enjoy and thanks for reading. 

Content warning: discussion of traumatic subjects: suicide, sexual abuse, trauma, self-harm

There is always a debate about what topics should be avoided at all cost on college essays. The short-list always boils down to a familiar crew of traumatic or “difficult” subjects. These include, but are not limited to, essays discussing severe depression, self-harm, eating disorders, experiences with sexual violence, family abuse, and experiences with the loss of a close relative or loved one.

First and foremost, you do NOT have to write about anything that makes you uncomfortable or that you don’t want to share. This isn’t the Overcoming Obstacles Olympics. Don’t feel pressure to tell any story that you don’t want to share. It is your story and if you don’t want to write about it, don’t. Period.

BUT, in our view, ruling out all essays that deal with trauma is wrong for two big reasons.

The first is that there is no actual, empirical evidence that essays that deal with trauma are less successful than those that don’t.  The view that essays dealing with trauma correlate with lower admissions rates is based on counselor speculation and anecdotal evidence from students who applied, weren’t admitted, then tried to find a justification and decided it was their essays.

Both of us reflected on this. Here’s what we had to say.

  • AdmissionsMom : I work with lots of students who have suffered from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. They nearly always have to address their issues because of school disruption, and I have to say that their acceptances have remained right in range with the rest of my students.
  • McNeilAdmissions : I counted, and I can provide more than 17 accounts about students of mine who have written about trauma and been admitted to T10 schools. I also asked a colleague of mine who is known as the “queen of Stanford admissions” and she said there was no trend among her students.

The other big reason is that traumas, while complex, can be sources of deep meaning, and therefore are potentially the exact sort of thing you want to consider . Traumatic experiences are often life-shaping, for better or for worse. So are the ways that we respond to and adapt in the face of trauma. The struggle to adapt and move forward after a traumatic experience may be one of the most important and meaningful things you’ve ever done. So a blanket prohibition on traumatic topics is equivalent, for many, to a blanket prohibition on writing an essay that feels personally meaningful and rewarding.

Categorically ruling out trauma stories also conflicts directly with  the core lesson  that most college consultants and counselors (including ours truly) are trying to advocate. That is, write a story that matters to you. This is a piece of corny but non-bullshit advice. As it turns out, it’s a rare moment (in a process that can be somewhat cynical) where meaning and strategy overlap. AOs want to read good essays. Good essays are good when they’re written about things that matter. You can attempt to hack together a good essay on a topic you don’t care about, but good luck.

So there are a few big intersecting threads about why you MIGHT want to write about your experience with trauma. First, there is no empirical evidence to recommend against it. Second, traumatic experiences are huge sources of personal meaning and significance, and it would be sad if you couldn’t use your writing as a tool for processing your experience. Third, meaningful essays = good essays = stronger applications.

So for anyone out there who wants to talk about their experience but who is struggling with how to do it, here are some things we want to say:

  • You ARE allowed to talk about trauma in college apps.
  • Your story is valid even if you haven’t turned your experience into a non-profit focused on preventing sexual assault, combating abuse, or eating disorders or done anything whatsoever to address the larger systemic issue.  Your  story and experience —  your  personal growth and lessons learned — are intrinsically valuable.

Now, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to write an essay about a challenging or traumatic subject.

13 Reasons Why It’s OK to Write About Trauma in your College Applications —  And  How to Do So

  • Colleges are not looking for perfect people . They are looking for real humans. Real Humans are flawed and have had flawed experiences. Some of our most compelling stories are the ones that open with showing our lives and experiences in less than favorable light. Throw in your lessons learned or what you have done to repair yourself and grow, and you have the makings of a compelling overcoming — or even redemption — story.
  • Write with pride : This is your real life. Sometimes you need to be able to explain the circumstances in your life — and colleges want to know about any hardships you’ve had. They want to understand the context of your application, so don’t worry about thinking you’re asking the colleges to feel sorry for you (we hear kids say that all the time). We recognize you for your immense strength and courage, and we encourage you to speak your truth if you want to share your story. Colleges can’t know about your challenges and obstacles unless you tell them. Be proud of yourself for making it through your challenges and moving on to pursue college — that’s an accomplishment on its own!
  • Consider the position of the admissions officer :  “We’ve all had painful experiences. Many of these experiences are difficult to talk about, let alone write about. However, sometimes, if there is time, distance, and healing between you and the experience, you can not only revisit the experience but also articulate it as an example of how even the most painful of experiences can be reclaimed, transformed, and accepted for what they are, the building blocks of our unique identities.

If you can do this, go for it. When done well, these types of narratives are the most impactful.  Do remember you are seeking admission into a community for which the admissions officer is the gatekeeper. They need to know that, if admitted, not only will you be okay but your fellow students will be okay as wel l.”  from Chad-Henry Galler-Sojourner ( www.bearingwitnessadmissions.com )

  • Remember what’s really important : Sometimes the processing of your trauma can be more important than the college acceptances — and that’s ok. If a college doesn’t accept you because you mention mental health issues, sexual assault, or traumatic life experiences, in my opinion, they don’t deserve to have anyone on their campus, much less survivors. Take your hard-earned lived experiences elsewhere. The stigma of being assaulted, abused, or having mental health issues, is a blight on our society. That said, be aware of any potential legal issues as admissions readers are mandated reporters in some states.
  • Consider using the Additional Info Section : If you do decide you want to share your story — or you need to because of needing to explain grades, missed school, or another aspect of your application or transcript, don’t feel compelled to write about your trauma, disability, mental health, or addiction in the main personal essay. Instead, we encourage you to use the Additional Info Essay if you want to share (or if you need to share to explain the context of your application). Your main common app essay should be about something that is important to you and should reveal some aspect of who you are. To us (and many applicants), your trauma, disability, mental issues, or addiction doesn’t define you. It isn’t who you are and it isn’t a part you want to lead with.

Putting some other aspect of who you are first in your main essay and putting trauma, addiction, mental health issues, or disability in the Add’l Info Essay is a way to reinforce that those negative experiences in your life don’t define you, and that your recovery or your learning to accommodate for it has relegated that aspect of their experience to a secondary part of who you are.

  • You CAN use your Common App essay if you want:  IF you feel like recovery from the trauma or learning to handle your circumstances  does  define you, then there is no reason you can’t put that aspect of who you are forward in the main personal essay. If the growth that stemmed from the crisis is central to your narrative, then it can be a recovery, or an “overcoming” story. It’s a positive look at your strengths and how you achieved them. If you want to place your recovery story front and center in the primary essay, that’s an appropriate choice.
  • Write from a place of healing : Some colleges fear liabilities. So, wherever you decide to put your essay in your application, make sure you are presenting your situation in a way that centers how you have dealt with it and moved forward. That doesn’t mean it’s over and everything is all better for you, but you need to write from a place of healing; in essence, “write from scars, not wounds.” (we can’t take credit for that metaphor, but we love it)
  • M ake sure your first draft is a free draft.  With any topic, it can be hard to stare at a blank page and not feel pressure to write perfectly. This can be doubly true when addressing a tough topic. For your first draft, approach it as a free write. No pressure. No perfection. Just thoughts and feelings. Even if you don’t end up using your essay as a personal statement or in the additional info section, it can be useful to sit and write it out.
  • Establish an anchor. Anything that makes you feel safe while you’re writing and exploring your thoughts and experiences. Have that nearby. It can be a candle, an image, a pet, a stuffed animal.
  • Check-in with how you are feeling.
  • Pay attention to your body and what it’s telling you.
  • Take breaks
  • Go for walk
  • Talk to someone who makes you feel safe
  • Remember this kind of essay is NOT a reflection of you. It is only  part  of your story. (Ashley Lipscomb & Ethan Sawyer, “Addressing Trauma in the College Essay,” NACAC 2021)
  • Who supported you in the aftermath of the experience? What did you appreciate about their support and what did you learn about how you would support others?
  • Did your self-perception change after the experience? How has your self-perception evolved or grown since?
  • How did you cultivate the strength to move through your experience?
  • What about how you dealt with the experience makes you most proud?
  • Remember that all writing is a two-way street and should serve you and the reader : All writing leaves an emotional impression or residue with the reader. This is especially true with personal essays. Good writers are able to look at their writing and understand how it can serve themselves (that sweet, sweet catharsis) while still meeting the reader halfway. This can be particularly challenging on the college essay, where your goal is to be both personally honest and to help an AO see why you would be a wonderful addition to their school’s student community. When you’re writing, be cognizant of your reader – tell your story
  • Shield your writing itself from excessive negativity : When writing about difficult experiences, it can be easy for the writing itself (your phrasing, your diction) to become saturated with a tone of hardship and sorrow. This kind of writing can be hard to read and can get in the way of the underlying story about growth, maturity, or self-awareness. Push yourself to weed out any excessive “negativity” in your writing – look for more neutral ways of stating the facts of your situation. If you’re comfortable, ask a trusted reader to read your essay and point out the places where language seems too negative. Think of ways to rephrase or rewrite.
  •  Think of your application — and therefore your essay — kind of like a job application. Sure, it’s more personal than a job occupation, but it’s not necessary to share every detail. Focus on the relevant information that validates the power of your journey and overcoming your challenges. Focus on the overcoming.

A framework for writing well about trauma and difficulty: “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes”

Here’s a framework that we think you could apply to any essay topic about a traumatic experience or challenge. This is not a one-size-fits-all framework, but it should help you avoid the biggest pitfalls in writing about challenging topics.

The framework is called “More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes.” The metaphor actually comes from one of our parents who used to be active on A2C back when her kid was applying to college; she took it down in her notes at a Wellesley info session. In short, however, the idea is to pare down the “ashes” (the really hard details about the situation, past or present) to focus on who you’ve become as a result.

  • Address your issue or circumstance BRIEFLY and be straightforward. Don’t dwell on it.
  • Next, focus on what you did to take care of yourself and how you handled the situation. Describe how you’ve moved forward and what you learned from the experience.
  • Then, write about how you will apply those lessons to your future college career and how you plan to help others with your self-knowledge as you continue to help yourself as you learn more and grow.
  • Show them that, while you can’t control what happened in the past, you’ve taken steps to gain control over your life and you’re prepared to be the college student you can be.
  • Remember to keep the focus on the positives and what you learned from your experiences.
  • Make sure your essay is at least 80% phoenix, 20% ashes. Or another way to put this is, tell the gain, not the pain.
  • The ending, overall impression should leave a positive feeling.
  • Consider adding a “content warning or trigger warning” at the beginning of your essay, especially if it deals with sexual violence or suicide. You can simply say at the top: Content Warning: this essay discusses sexual violence (or discussion of suicide). This way the reader will know if they need to pass your essay along to someone else to read.

Use that checklist/framework to read back through your essay. In particular, do a spot check with the 80/20 phoenix/ashes rule. Make sure to focus on growth!

Good luck and happy writing,

AdmissionsMom and McNeilAdmissions ( www.McNeilAdmissions.com )

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I agree with both of You! When we experience a traumatic event, it can be difficult to share our experiences with others. We may feel like we are the only ones who can understand what we went through. We may feel like we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. But sharing our experiences with others can help us heal and can help prevent further trauma. Although, for me, it’s ok to share. If you can’t, then there’s nothing bad about that. After all, it’s difficult to get back to your dark past.

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I love your perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here!

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Do you think if you write about a parent who was abusive, they can somehow contact the parent or something? I don’t wanna get in any trouble.

They might have to because of their state laws. I’d research that and talk to your school counselor.

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As someone who works closely with high school students, I will definitely be sharing your article with them. It’s a valuable resource that can help them navigate this important aspect of the college application process with confidence and integrity.

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November 4, 2013

Bad College Essays

Terrible College Essays, Horrible College Essays, Bad College Admissions Essays

Curious to know what bad college essays look like? Pick any college essay at random submitted to a college — even the highly selective ones — and there’s a great chance that you’ll pull out a bad essay. And why’s that? Because high school students just plain can’t write. It’s a conclusion we came to years ago, one reinforced over the last several years. In fact, in all of our years helping students with their college admissions essays, we can remember one (one!) essay that was actually great before we started helping with revisions. The writing of American high school students (and the international applicants are way worse!) is, quite frankly, horrible.

Let’s give our readers an example of some bad college essay writing. Here is a sample paragraph from an essay. Tell us what you think is wrong with it in the Comments section below: Winning the race was a really big accomplishment for me. It made me really proud to stand on the podium and wave to the crowd, surrounded by so many people I love. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget that win. It taught me so many valuable life lessons about never giving up and about what it takes to succeed. In this way, sports symbolize life.

And let’s hear your comments on this sample paragraph from a terrible college essay that we’re making up on the spot: Being first chair violin can, at times, be very stressful. If I mess up a note, the whole orchestra can follow my lead. I sit right by the conductor. I am who the audience is looking at. There is so much pressure. And yet I love it. Playing the violin makes me feel alive.

So what’s wrong with these sample paragraph? Is anything right? Definitely not! If you thought anything was right, you might want us to have a look at your college essays. We promise that they’re a whole lot closer to these sample paragraphs than you might think!

Need help with your college essays ? We’re offering a college essay package. Email [email protected] for information.

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