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Tragedy as Essay Fodder

Many students believe that revealing the deepest tragedies of their lives in their college essays will gain them admission. But the most important goal in writing a college essay is to stand out--to come across as unique. We hate to sound harsh but, harrowing as they are to experience, death, divorce, substance abuse, self-harm, serious illness, financial instability, and other traumas are not unusual; they happen to lots of people. So a tragedy in and of itself does not make for a breakthrough topic.

If you do choose to write about a terrible experience, saying that you lived through it is not enough. With this type of subject matter, it is important that you: 1) explain how you got through it, 2) explain what you learned from it or how it shaped you, 3) keep the focus on yourself, and 4) approach it from an unexpected direction. For example, you are not breaking any new ground to talk about how emotionally difficult your parents' divorce was but that you ultimately learned that you are stronger than you thought. So how do you tell such a story? Here are the jumping off points of a few of the more unique approaches we've read:

  • A student whose family lost their house in an earthquake, wrote about how it made him refocus on the things in his life he had control over.

  • A young woman who lost her dad realized that those around her judged her for the way she grieved.

  • After a cancer diagnosis, a girl is surprised to find that time seems limitless if you spend it doing things that are truly meaningful.

Whatever you choose to write about, remember that what will make the essay yours are the details specific to your story and the meaning you assign to your experiences.

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