We’re all familiar with the classic “Sob Story” essay, a narrative about some sort of tragedy — death, divorce, cancer, etc. — and how it’s affected our lives. Of course, we are warned against writing these kinds of essays because of their banality and woe-is-me attitude. Let’s be honest — no admissions officer wants to read 80 essays about the emotional toll your parent’s divorce has had on you.
Unfortunately, many people, including myself, misunderstand this advice. When people hear the words, “Don’t write a sob story essay,” they take it to mean that they should not write about anything that is objectively tragic. But the truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with writing about a sad event. The problem is that when most people do so, they write it in a “you should pity me because my life sucks” kind of way. Sadly, the only effect this has on an essay reader is making her uncomfortable or annoyed. Making an admissions officer feel bad for you is not going to score you admission into the school.
So, how can you write about something sad without turning it into a sob story? Follow these simple steps to find out!
1. Focus on You, Rather than the Event Itself
Many people face similar problems; therefore, what makes a story interesting is not the struggles we face, but how we face them. For me personally, I wrote my Common App essay about being a low-income student. Writing about being low-income isn’t uncommon, so I made my essay interesting by focusing on what it was like to be low-income in a predominately upper middle class community. Also, instead of focusing on my family’s financial state, I discussed how it made me feel and its effect on me.
2. How Did You Overcome the Problem?
One of the biggest issues with sob story essays is that there is no overcoming of anything; it’s simply, “x event happened to me, thus my life is hard.” Colleges want to see some sort of personal growth, so simply describing a tragedy will get you nowhere. Courtland Thomas, a freshman at Columbia University writes, “The best tip is not to put too much weight on the emotional pieces/trauma of the ‘sob story,’ but to show how you overcame it.”
Of course, some problems may have easier or more obvious ways of being overcome than others. For example, doing poorly in Calculus can be overcome by studying more and working harder, but in the case of a deceased family member, they can’t be brought back to life or replaced. Overcoming can simply mean growing from an experience. Thomas continues, “Show how this overcoming relates to your person and how it will affect you in the future with similar scenarios.”
In my college essay, overcoming my problem didn’t mean going out and winning the lottery and somehow solving my family’s financial issues. It meant becoming more aware and appreciative of my parents and the sacrifices they have made for me.
3. Find a Silver Lining
As you can see from my essay, I was able to frame a seemingly negative aspect of my life in a positive way. Instead of writing about why being poor was hard or held me back, I actually wrote how fortunate I was to be in the position I was in.
Raelynne Benjamin, a freshman at Carleton College sums up this idea perfectly. She writes, “The trick to using the more real and hardened aspects of one’s life in college essays is to introduce them from a positive perspective and to leave the reader with a sense that the student has learned from his/her experiences and they have lead to just one more great attribute of the student who is applying.”
I won’t lie and say this part is easy. I mean, asking someone to find value in being poor or losing a grandmother can seem impossible at first. But as Peter Tran, a freshman at Emory University explains, “[a great applicant] is someone who can find a value ( which doesn’t necessarily have to be good nor pleasant), in the flaws and obstacles they face.”
In sum, a great college essay isn’t one where you prove your life is hard. It’s one where you show you can find value in anything and grow from your experiences.
Students often repeat themselves in the college essay “just to be safe.” However, admissions officers have already read, or will read, the rest of your application. Reading the same thing twice is boring. Trust them to do their job and read the application as thoroughly as necessary. Give them some insight into your motivations and how they indicate your abilities. If you mentioned something briefly on the application, you can go into it in more detail in the essay.
Don’t do this:
“In freshman year I was in Key Club. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about helping others. I also joined the lacrosse team, which took up a lot of time. However, I still found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend. All of this demonstrates that I am responsible and capable.”
Whining about circumstances instead of explaining why/how you overcame them.
Nobody likes a sob story, no matter how true or heartbreaking it is. Don’t look for pity. Instead, show admissions committees how you surpassed difficulties to achieve a high GPA, leadership position, or some other accomplishment. Impress them with your determination.
Don’t do this:
“Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn’t mind making the sacrifice.”
Talk about how you want to go to a particular college because it has a great reputation or you want to make money.
Many students want to go to a top school and make money. Why does this make you special and different? Self-promotion is a given. Instead, distinguish yourself through your desire to intensively study the subjects that interest you or to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas.
Don’t this this:
“University X is well-renowned, and many famous people like _____, ____, and ____ graduated from there. With a degree from University X, I’ll be sure to be a success in life and make my friends and family proud.”
Misrepresent your achievements and goals in the essay.
If you graduated in the middle of your class and have no extracurriculars/recommendations to back up the following…
Don’t do this:
“I was one of the top students in my school and hope to reduce world hunger or find a cure for cancer.”
The following need no example:
Use “cute” techniques to stand out.
Covering your essay in glitter and perfume, enclosing a link to a YouTube video of yourself performing goofy antics, or writing the entire essay in Pig Latin.
Say you want to go to College X in College Y’s application.
It’d be a shame to mix up the two essays and get into neither one as a result. Double check.
Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés.
You already know the stakes are high when it comes to college admissions. Show admissions officers that you care enough about the process to write an amazing college essay.