Cancer College Essay

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.

Imagine you've got a week until your college essay is due. You think it's impossible. You're worried it won't be good enough. Even worse, you're convinced you don't have anything worth writing about. But you do.

As a volunteer with College Access Now -- a program in the Seattle schools -- I've helped lots of students with their essays. Here's what I tell them when they're looking for a topic and wondering how to bring it to life.

Your personal statement is your chance to show who you are and why you're special in a way that test scores and grades can't. It can make the difference between being accepted or being turned down, so it's worth investing the time.

Brainstorming for a topic helps. Think about an experience that taught you something important about yourself. Maybe it was an experience you wish you hadn't had -- like growing up with a mother who was battling breast cancer or your own struggle with dyslexia. It could be something quirky -- like the time you volunteered at the local petting zoo and spent your summer shoveling elephant poop. Or something that gives you joy -- a hobby or a passion -- like playing the harp or rowing crew. For more brainstorming ideas, check out these.

If you're sure you don't have an interesting life, think about the weirdest thing you've ever done. Write about that.

The trick is to start with a snapshot of an important time in your life. Instead of sticking with the essay format you learned in English class -- introduction, points one, two, and three, and a conclusion -- write it like a story. Let it unfold, so readers will stay with you from start to finish.

Use a conversational voice -- but don't use slang. (And definitely avoid writing about touchy subjects like religion and politics, or sketchy activities: sexual, illegal, or otherwise.)

Weave in background and lots of detail. If you're a harpist, you could describe the moment you first realized you wanted to play the harp. Where were you? Who or what planted the idea in your head? How did you make your wish come true? What have you done with the harp since and where do you hope to go with it?

If your mother is battling breast cancer, you could describe a time when she was in the hospital and you took care of your younger siblings. How did you cope? Is there something you wish you'd done differently? How will you use what you learned in the future?

For examples of winning essays, check out "Birks & Barbie", "Surf's Up! In East LA?", and "My Hill". Each writer tells a story in their own voice, weaves in their interests and background, and reflects on what they've learned.

Many colleges have word limits for their essays, but don't worry about length when you're writing your first draft. Include the background and detail you need to make your story come alive. You can trim it later. Save the text you cut; you may be able to use it in a different essay. To shorten without cutting out the heart of your story, try using contractions and synonyms that contain fewer words.

Before you paste your essay into your application, ask at least two reviewers to read it and give you feedback. Teachers, parents, mentors, or friends can point out weak spots, ideas that need to be developed or cut, typos, and misspelled words. Spell check software won't highlight words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly, like affect/effect and its/it's. Quality counts, so make sure your essay is completely ready before you click Submit.

As intimidating as this might sound, it's totally doable. Millions of seniors submit essays every year, and they succeed. So can you.

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