College Essay Death Parent

(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.

A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled "Escape Essay Hell," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.

Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:

1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.

2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.

3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.

4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."

5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.

6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.

7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.

8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring. 

9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.

10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.

If you were to ask an admissions officer if there are any truly “bad” topics to avoid on your college application, chances are you’ll be advised to steer clear from essays about:

  • winning (or losing) the “big game,”
  • that horrible breakup with your girlfriend or boyfriend,
  • your eyes being opened after volunteering in a third-world country, and
  • the tragic loss or grave illness of a close family member.

Back when I served as an admissions officer at Barnard, I probably would have agreed. While some of these topics may seem like strong contenders initially, many essays written on these themes tend to be so overdone, it’s hard for an applicant to stand out and write about them in a way that’s both fresh and meaningful. Other themes are poor choices because students often use them as opportunities to release pent-up emotions and unwittingly turn their essays into therapy sessions that are inappropriate for the purposes of a college application.

But something happened to me recently that changed my mind. Almost one year ago, my father died from brain cancer. I was 35 at the time, married and with a young family of my own. For the two-and-a-half years that spanned between his diagnosis and his death, I found myself constantly torn between supporting my parents, caring for my children, and looking after my own well-being. For two-and-a-half years my family lived in limbo, wondering when the cancer would return, how fast it would take over his brain, and how the rest of us would possibly survive without the head of our family to guide us.

And then, a few months after my father passed, I happened to come across a student’s college application essay about his own father’s death. Brain cancer. Incurable. Reading his story, it was as though I were reliving my own father’s passing all over again. But then it hit me: I managed to pull myself through a horrific family event with the support of my husband, my sister, and a grief counselor to boot. This essay was written by a teenager who just lost the most important person in his life during one of the most stressful moments in a young person’s life. Who was I to say that this topic was too personal or too raw for him to write about? The death of his father was a major, life-changing moment that clearly shaped who this student is today.

After finishing the essay, I reflected on whether or not this writing sample would pass muster in a college admissions office.

  • Did the essay successfully demonstrate the student’s personal qualities and characteristics?
  • Was the essay a powerful and genuine expression of who the student is and what his passions are?
  • Did the essay convey how the student might positively contribute to a campus community?

Despite the topic clearly falling into one of the four verboten categories highlighted above, this student’s essay worked. Granted, he didn’t spend the entire piece memorializing his father; rather, he wrote about his father’s death for approximately 20 percent of the essay, and wisely used the remaining space to reflect on how that experience influenced some of the choices he’s made in his own life since then. Admissions officers aren’t going to admit a student because they feel sorry for his loss or take pity on his family’s circumstances. They want to admit a student who (in addition to handling the academic load, of course) is thoughtful, motivated and will bring something unique to college.

So if the best way for an admissions officer to learn about you stems from a personal tragedy, that’s okay. But remember that your essay isn’t really about the death of your loved one; it’s about the lessons you learned from that experience and how those lessons manifest themselves in your intellect, your academics, or your extracurriculars. That’s what admissions officers want to know.

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