There’s a lot of painful stuff that happens in high school. It can vary from the more mundane—unrequited crushes—to more dramatic—cruel gossip in a tech world—to life-altering—a car accident, cancer. In a second, the world changes. Our first encounters with these realities profoundly shape us, informing how we see things and what we ask of ourselves.
Things that are big and confusing are always worth exploring in writing, and often writing helps people work through life’s ups and downs. But is a big hard topic appropriate for your college application essay? The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
First the danger: writing about difficult issues without enough emotional distance may result in inadvertently seeming trite or melodramatic. Those of us who have read for college admissions saw a fair number of these “purple prose” essays. Written in over-the-top language that was meant to convey the weight of the experience, these essays most often switched us off as readers. Those essays told us what the student felt, but were not written in a way that allowed us to experience the story for ourselves.
That said, we also remember essays written about some of the biggest topics out there—abuse, alcoholism, terminal illness—that left us readers in genuine tears and suggested a level of maturity and distance that is hard to come by even in adults writing about painful topics.
Here are 3 things to remember when you are exploring a topic that is still emotionally raw as a possible topic college application essay:
- Start with your own experience: What happened to you? Take yourself back to a specific moment and describe what you experienced. Recreate the details, one by one. Who said what? Tell it like a story, once again, stepping out of yourself and observing.
- Watch out for clichés: When your mind starts to veer into interpretation (it’s natural; that’s how the human brain works) avoid the obvious generalizations – “He was a wonderful person” or “It was a tragedy.” Return to what happened to you; what did you learn that was personal and new?
- Remember your audience: Whatever you are writing about, colleges are likely to read many similar essays. But they have never before – and may never again – hear from you. What do you want this experience and this learning to tell colleges about you?
-Carol« Back to News