5 Ways to Make College Essays About Tragedy More Memorable

August 14, 2023
By AdmissionSight
A student taking an exam

5 Ways to Make College Essays About Tragedy More Memorable

Difficult and personal topics of tragedy and loss aren’t easy for many people to talk about, let alone write about for others to read. This makes college essays about tragedy challenging for many applicants.

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To be sure, a college essay on the death of a parent or death in a family can have a positive impact on a student’s application. The gravity of these subjects makes them impactful, full of emotions, and very captivating for admissions officers, but only if they’re done right. Since so many students experience tragedy and loss at some point in their lives, these topics can come across as generic.

Writing About Tragedy in the College Application Essay: Should It Be Done?

When preparing to write a meaningful, personal, and impactful college application essay, something tragic that’s happened in your life might seem like a fitting topic. It’s revealing, emotional, and raw – seems like a fitting topic, right? Well, you’ll hear a variety of different opinions when you ask whether or not painful college essays are a good idea.

One camp says that these subjects can come across as generic since many applicants struggle with similar experiences or issues. However, another group will say that these stories are so personal and important that you’re doing yourself a disservice by not writing about them.

What’s the real answer? At AdmissionSight, we’ve helped countless students master their college application essays, and this is a common topic that we’re asked about. Through our experience, we can confidently say that tragedy and loss are appropriate subjects for your college essay if – and only if – they’re approached carefully and with a clear sense of purpose.

The purpose of your essay isn’t to garner sympathy, and an essay about a tragic event won’t earn you any. If you choose to focus your essay on a tragic event, make sure that you can explain how the tragedy has affected you as a person.

The Right Way to Write About Tragedy in College Application

If you’ve experienced tragedy or loss in your life and you’re confident you want to broach the topic in your college application essay, you’ll have to approach it differently than other subjects. These sensitive topics require more tact and care than others. But, when used properly, they can have a tremendous impact and can make your college application essay stand out from the crowd. Here, we’ll explore some tips for how to approach tragedy and loss in your college essay

1. Be open and honest.

When writing about tragic events, some people feel the need to stray away from the truth for many reasons. In some cases, applicants feel that speaking too bluntly and openly about their experiences would come across as too forward, revealing, or raw. Alternatively, some applicants feel as though they need to rewrite themselves as being closer to the tragic event than they were. The goal is to find the element of the tragedy that made an indelible impact on you. How have you changed and grown as a result of the tragedy? What have you had to overcome?

A woman attending an online high school.

You shouldn’t feel the need to dress your story up or strip it down. Don’t act like you were impacted in ways that you weren’t. This can come across as insincere, and you’d be surprised how easy this is to detect in writing – especially when touching upon such serious topics. You also don’t have to be affected firsthand by a tragic event in order to have been impacted by it. If something truly affected you, it’ll come through in your writing no matter what happened.

2. Use the right language.

When dealing with heavy topics on your college application essay, it’s often difficult to find a balance between authenticity and great writing. After all, a college essay is made or broken by the topic and the quality of the writing. When writing college essays about tragedy and loss, students need to write in a way that’s sincere while still conveying genuine emotions and feelings.

3. Connect it to the prompt.

Although colleges do have essay prompts that are more personal in nature, it’s rare to find a topic related directly to a tragic event. In general, universities won’t ask students to recount these personal events on their applications. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t find plenty of open-ended prompts where these subjects can be appropriate. In fact, it is common for universities to include questions that request students talk about formative experiences in their life. No matter what kind of prompt you choose, just make sure your story fits the prompt.

Female student sitting on the floor.

For example, let’s say a college application essay prompt is asking you to talk about how you developed an interest in your field of study. Maybe you’re pursuing a degree in the medical field because you had a close friend who died of cancer. Their passing had such a tremendous impact on you that you decided to dedicate your life to helping those suffering from the same illness. While the experience of loss and tragedy adds a powerful element to the response, it’s not the whole answer. It still needs to be connected to the original question. Don’t get too caught up in writing about the event that you forget to respond to the prompt.

4. Focus on yourself.

When you recount a tragic event or loss in your life, it’s often described as something that happened to you. Especially when dealing with the loss of a loved one, an applicant’s instinct is to focus on the individual rather than themselves. However, when writing college essays about tragedy, students have to remember to talk about themselves. It might sound selfish and inappropriate given the gravity of the event. However, admissions officers are interested in learning more about you through your essay. If you spend the whole time talking about somebody else, it won’t end up being a good college application essay topic.

a student writing on her notebook and looking at the camera

How did the tragedy or loss affect you? How did you feel throughout the grieving process? Have you changed permanently since the experience? How is it impacting what you’re doing today? Has it altered your direction or goals in life? These are all pertinent questions that – if applicable to the prompt – should be included in your response. You want to give admissions officers a glimpse into who you are as a person. That’s why it’s important to focus a good portion of your essay on how this experience impacted you directly.

5. Be respectful.

One of the most important tips for how to approach tragedy and loss in a college essay is with a high level of respect. A common reason some students are hesitant to write about these topics is because of how personal and revealing they are. While your name will obviously be on the application, you don’t (and shouldn’t) need to include the names of other people involved in your story. You can always use fake names to make the response flow better or leave out names altogether. Either way, you’ll want to remain as discreet and anonymous as possible. This isn’t only respectful to others involved but also demonstrates tact to admissions officers.

Male student holding a book while smiling at the camera.

Don’t worry. You’re not going to lose any points for not being specific. Colleges are used to reading these stories. It’s common practice to omit some personal details. Besides, as we mentioned before, the most important part of your story is how you were affected by the process.

Sample College Essays About Tragedy and Loss

Now that we’ve explored some tips for making college essays about tragedy more effective for your application, it’s time to take a look at an actual example. Although the aforementioned tips are incredibly helpful, seeing a successful essay on these subjects is very informative. Read through this great essay carefully and, thinking back to the tips we mentioned, guess what we like so much about it. Then, we’ll explain it in detail.

Written for the Common App college application essays “Tell us your story” prompt. This essay could work for prompts 1 and 7 for the Common App.

“They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt but steal a beloved life.

When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry–mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me–only six years old at the time–from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to prevent such blindness from resurfacing.

I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not on learning itself, but on good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes–to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.

However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything–even honoring my grandmother–had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.

Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind–not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group–no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother–had taken a walk together.

Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.”

What we like about this essay

It’s not often we come across college essays about tragedy and loss that hit all of the right points. Generally, these essays are too cliche despite their serious contents. Here, we’ll outline some things we loved about this essay and why we chose it as a great example of a college essay on death:

  1. The writer is able to broach a serious topic such as death, cancer, and the loss of a loved one with positivity and a sense of hope.
  2. The essay focuses on how the applicant was impacted by the experience more than it does the actual experience itself.
  3. It includes all of the details needed to convey the message without going over the word limit or getting too bogged down in specifics.
  4. The applicant talks specifically about how their tragic experiences impacted them personally while explaining how they’ll move forward in the future after this change.
  5. The essay describes how the tragedy and loss affect what they’ll want to study in college, helping admission officers make a connection between this event and the applicant’s plans for university.
  6. There are enough detail and personality without being too revealing as to make it uncomfortable or awkward for the reader.

Need help getting into top-tier colleges?

Essays are an integral part of the college admission process. In order to secure a spot at the university of your dreams, you need to nail this portion of the application. Fortunately, there’s a professional college admissions coach who can help you perfect your essays.

AdmissionSight is the leading college admissions specialist with years of experience successfully helping students like you gain admittance to their chosen universities. Our essay editing services can help you stand out amongst the crowd of applicants, even at top-tier universities.

Contact AdmissionSight to learn more about the services we offer and how we can help you.



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