There is a myth that if you haven’t faced adverse experiences like family illness, you can’t write a great college essay. That’s BS.
You can write a great (college) essay on literally anything (and I rarely use the word “literally”). But at its center, the essay is about you. Everything else is a window to you.
There is another equally problematic myth that if you’ve faced a family illness, that’s automatically great topic for your essay. It might be. It might not be.
I’m going to lay out some basic considerations if you’re thinking about writing about someone else’s illness, loss or tragedy that impacted you. Even if that’s not your situation, read these pointers to learn a little about good writing.
Resources for Illness and Loss
First: some of the best sources I know to help cope with loss or grief are the teachings of Roshi Joan Halifax, Stephen and Ondra Levine, Frank Ostaseki, Sobonfu Somé.
Also check out Terrible, Thanks for Asking, by Nora McInerny.
Is Illness or loss part of your story? Are you even ready to go there?
Some of my students have experienced intense familial illness and loss—at such a young ago. When I sit and listen to teenagers tell me about how this impacted their family unit, I grip my chair and breathe with them, encouraging us to keep our hearts not slammed shut around pain.
I’m so impressed by how much they handled, and, often, how they handled intense emotional upheaval without totally checking out. I do not, however, suggest they write their essays on this.
My own mother lost her mother when she was 13, and no one talked with her about what was happening. Or–gasp– the fact that she might have feelings about it. She had to deal with those herself and for years, even to this day. I get how this stuff changes everything, forever. I also get how the processing is rarely instantaneous.
Here’s what to ask yourself if you think you want to write about illness or loss:
- What qualities of myself am I showing in dealing with the family illness? If I don’t know…I probably am not yet writing a college essay.
- How much am I focusing on the suffering of another, or even my own suffering? Suffering is a given, and should not be belabored. A few details carry us a long way.
- What did I learn within this experience that is of value outside of it?
- Am I being honest about my emotional trajectory? Was I really brave right away?
- How long ago did this take place, or am I still in the middle of it? Am I really ready to write about it? (Doing so takes some degree of emotional distance).
- What is my essay’s point? Am I doing more than evoking the reader’s pity and compassion for my rough situation? What am I trying to say that is true about me, or how I engage with life/my circumstances?
- Even if I spent a lot of time crying about this, is there too much crying in my essay?
- Does my essay help me work with some of the emotions that come with illness and loss– so I come out changed the other side of the writing process?
- Is the essay 30% about this other person, 70% about me? 40%/60%? The essay should be about, primarily, you.
- Did I pick out highly specific details that make your situation clear to the reader, without over focusing on the illness or loss? (See below: the red bra. The glass of water by the bed).
- Why am I choosing this?
If you need help sorting through those questions, I suggest freewriting on each of them, or sharing your draft with someone you trust who can ask you those same questions.
Colleges are not Adversity Hunters
No college will accept you “because” of your adverse experience. It doesn’t work that way.
Similarly, no matter how amazing your family member was, the college is also not accepting them. So if you want to focus exclusively on that person in your writing, don’t use if for your college essay.
However, you might impress a college by the quality of your thinking, writing, or reflection. You might impress a college by an unusual angle on a devastating event. You might impress a college by your willingness to be unfinished business, and still move forward with goals. All of these things are possible reasons an essay gets you noticed.
A poem and a poet that illustrate powerful writing on illness and loss
I like to turn to the poets for examples of how to tackle the enormity of pain with slenderness of hand. Here are two examples.
A Tanka About Illness, by Chenou Liu
both of us said nothing…
her red bra
in the corner of my mind
begins to change color
Marie Howe, on loss in art
In this excerpt from her interview with The Millions, poet Marie Howe shares insights:
“TM: [Y]you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world.
MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it.”
Not sure whether to write about illness and loss?
We’ve spent hundreds of hours in deep conversation with students dealing with illness, loss and grief, and are utterly comfortable in that space of listening and asking questions.
We can help you decide if your material is right for a college essay, or is better developed into some other meaningful piece- which we can also help you do. A free phone consultation is the best way to start, but you can check out all the options for support and reach out to us here.
And if you are dealing with this now, or in grief, we truly wish our culture was better at honoring that process. We’re hoping to change the culture by normalizing the experience of each of us–using our voices to say what it’s like to be alive, to suffer, and to love each other.
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