A college essay does not have to be about an important topic – cancer, death, poverty, etc. – basically, the Worst Thing That’s Ever Happened To You Or Anyone Anywhere. It has to be important to you, but not by definition heavy or serious. However, sometimes a major world issue or a personal tragedy is vital to understanding you and your worldview. It’s understandable to want to share that with an admissions committee. If you truly want to write about something serious, here are some tips on how to handle it.
Keep the focus on how YOU relate to the topic at hand
Discuss major issues in the context of you and your life story. It can be difficult to have any sort of meaningful dialogue about such topics as war or racism in approximately 650 words. Narrow your focus down to a specific time or event when your life was personally affected by such an issue. Describe how it made you feel, what your reaction was, and how you have grown as a person as a result of going through the experience. Providing relevant (the key being relevant, not “every sordid”), specific details will be the key to keeping your college essay from feeling generic or superficial. Ultimately, the point of the essay is to give a little insight into an applicant as an individual. Don’t waste the opportunity by pontificating on ending world hunger without relating it back to exactly why it’s a goal of yours and what you plan to do about it.
Explain your transformation as a result of the issue
All college essays should have some sort of narrative arc to them, but it’s especially important if you are using a Major Life Tragedy as the backbone of your essay. There needs to be a significant transformation between You Before and You After this event. Show how going through what you have has made you a better, stronger, and wiser person. What do you appreciate now? What changes have you made to your behavior and lifestyle? What lessons have you taken from the experience? In order to make your essay about tragedy feel essential, you must be able to employ distance and perspective so you can reflect on the changes you’ve made externally or internally since the tragedy occurred. If you don’t have distance from the event yet or are still struggling with its effect on your life, it might not be the right topic choice.
Think about what you want the Admissions Committee to understand about you by telling this story
Just having experienced something horrible in your life doesn’t mean that a college owes you any sort of opportunity. Exploiting your personal or family tragedy to elicit sympathy can make you seem like a victim, instead of someone who has dealt with adversity in his or her life and who has continued to persevere in spite of it. What makes your tragedy pertinent to your college admissions process is in describing how far you have come from that low point, and how you will continue to grow in college. Some topics are controversial, uncomfortable, and frankly, irrelevant to whether you’ll succeed in college. Think long and hard about whether the subject you’re considering is something you want to share with the Admissions Committee. It also may not be the best use of your personal statement, but rather as a supplemental statement to explain poor performance or excessive absences. Use your best judgment.