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.
In August, my younger sister Lucy died. She was only 32 years old and the light of our lives. We knew it was coming, not quite as quickly as it did, but she had advanced cancer, so her days were numbered. As soon as the cancer reached her brain, it was game over.
There is nothing that could ever have prepared me for the past weeks since she died, and while this isn’t the first time someone has written about grief, and it certainly won’t be the last, it is my experience first-hand, and it’s very different to what I had expected.
Jenni Russell: Shorn of the rituals of old, death maroons us in grief
Grief, as we all have heard, comes in waves. That’s a lie. These aren’t waves; these are gargantuan freight trains that ram into your very soul, from nowhere. They come as you stand in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, looking around you, wondering how the hell anyone can manage to get on with life when this terrible thing has happened and suddenly, from out of nowhere that train comes hurtling at you. It feels as if someone has sucked out everything you have – your guts, your heart, your oxygen, your whole being. Of course the Brit in you remains still and stoic as the train does its thing before pulling away, and you continue filling your trolley with Granny Smiths. But it’s there, and you never know when it will run into you next. You live in fear of that.
For a little while I didn’t speak to any friends on the phone, for fear of breaking down. I only spoke to my parents, my husband and to my three-year-old. Job number one was to explain to her that her beloved aunt was dead. No easy feat. I can barely remember it. I came up with a nonsensical story of her now being an angel, and a star in the sky and that whenever the sky was pink in the morning, it meant she was saying hello. Now, whenever the sky is pink, my daughter shrieks up to the sky excitedly. My husband feels uncomfortable with it; I don’t ever know what to feel. But it was all I had at the time. It’s probably confused her more than I’d like to admit.
After Lucy was told she had cancer, it was the last time she and I ever looked at each other in the eye. We avoided that. I know she felt the same. We knew that if we ever locked our gaze, that the tears would never stop. So it was better that way. Now I regret that, I regret not grabbing her and looking at her, deep into her soul, and telling her how much I admired her bravery. How she was a warrior, a trouper, an inspiration, and a truly beautiful human being and of course, how much love I had for her, but I didn’t, and I hate myself for that. I know she knew, but did she actually know?
My sister’s two greatest fears when she was ill were 1) being forgotten; 2) leaving behind any sadness. The first is just silly. The second not so silly. I was never one who feared death, really. I mean, I knew it would come, I just assumed it would be when I was an old lady, and I was fine with that. Now, I have a fear, in fact utter terror, not so much of death, but for what happens after death to the people who remain. The life change that happens to those people the minute they find out that their loved one is going to die. This experience for her was, I think, the worst of all of it. Her worry for her beloved fiancé, bereft at losing the only girl he ever loved, the heartbreak of our lovely parents, the confusion of her niece who thought she had “pancer”, and her seeing the sheer devastation of her friends of 25 years who just couldn’t believe that their best mate would no longer be around. She never wanted us to be sad. But we are – so, so utterly filled with sadness.
Actually, I can get through the days. My biggest amazement and awe in all of this is the wonder of the human brain. The kindness of it, that it allows you a few hours, sometimes three or four hours in a day or night, where you are all right. Where you laugh, smile, make a meal, play with your kid … you just are allowed to be OK sometimes and I thank the brain for that. Allowing us a little slice of time-out from the horror that surrounds us.
Good grief: the psychology of mourning | Dean Burnett
What haunts me, more than anything, more even, than her not being here any more, is the thought of the fear she faced alone. From 3 March 2015 until the day she died, she faced the worst thing any person could ever face. She looked death in the eye and it never let up. It was relentlessly wheedling its way into her life and she dealt with that with absolute poise and composure. How she managed to control that fear is truly beyond me. My guilt that my sister, who I was supposed to protect my whole life, would be lying there at night, while the world slept, knowing her drugs weren’t working and this cancer was killing her. That destroys me. And when I see my mother sobbing like a wounded animal at her grave every Tuesday lunchtime, I know it destroys her too.
The secret stories that only we shared just evaporate, because they are too old or too weird to try to explain to anyone else. Every year we wrote the exact same thing in each other’s birthday cards, and howled with laughter each time we opened them, knowing full well what it would say, but there isn’t any card to write now, so that joke just disappears forever.
Sometimes I feel anger towards my loving and sensitive three-year-old, when she carelessly throws something that was a gift from my sister on the floor. I shout and she gets frightened and doesn’t understand. When she does that, I find myself preferring my sister to my own child, and then I hate myself. I have a paralysing fear of losing things such as the screw top of a cheap plastic bottle that she bought my daughter at Disneyland in July, in case the bottle is no longer whole. The guarding of every solitary thing she ever gave us as gifts over the years, like a lioness with her cubs, and the blind panic and rage when one of those things is temporarily lost among the chaos of living with a three-year-old.
So it’s hard. No doubt it is life-changing. And what next? Well, we’ve been dreading December, of course. The month we share for our birthdays, Christmas, the time of happiness and love and family and light. And yet for us there is none of that without her. We will pretend, though. We have become good at that. But we all have an underlying anxiety that while we slowly move toward 2016, desperate to see the back of the year that brought us so much sadness, we also fear entering a year not touched by her, moving further and further away from the last time we were a family, all present and correct.
We will survive, though. Unlike her, we will survive. But we will for ever live with a shade of darkness over us. A grey filter over our world for ever.