Avoiding Sob Stories in College Admissions Essays

Avoid Sob Stories in Essays, College Essays, Sad Stories in College Essays

Think twice about writing a sob story in your admissions essays.

Many students and parents are under the mistaken impression that sharing sob stories in college admissions essays will pull on the heartstrings of admissions officers at highly selective college and inspire them to want to offer the student admission. Maybe it’s a story about enduring a childhood illness, like leukemia. Now, we don’t mean to sound coldhearted. That’s a terrible thing to have to go through — no child (or adult) should have to experience cancer. It’s just that writing about that childhood illness will not serve a student’s case for admission. Rather, it will most likely lead an admissions officer to think just what you may fear he or she will think — that you’re sharing this woe-is-me story to try to get them to offer you admission.

Sob Stories in College Admissions Essays are Cliché

While regrettable, it’s also important to know that many children suffer from illnesses, including cancer. So you can imagine that many students end up writing about their bouts with these illnesses in their college admissions essays, notably their Personal Statements. When the name of the game in the highly selective college admissions process is to differentiate yourself from other talented applicants, to stand out and avoid cliché, writing about a topic that so many other applicants are tackling is counterintuitive. Sports, music, community service, dead or living grandparents, foreign travel, and childhood illnesses. In our twenty-five years of helping students earn admission to highly selective colleges, it’s these poor topic choices that applicants to America’s elite colleges are most inclined to choose. Yikes is right.

Notable Exceptions to Tackling a Sob Story in College Essays

But for every rule, there is an exception. It’s just that virtually every parent and student seems to think they’re the exception. In all likelihood, they’re not. Remember, admissions officers don’t want to read about students when they were children. They don’t want to read about playing tag in the elementary school playground. They want to read about who students are and how they think now — as young adults. So in our quarter of a century of working with students applying to our nation’s most prestigious institutions, the only occasions in which we’ve allowed them to tackle a sad story is when they can relate that story to their interests as young adults. As an example, we’ve had students interested in political science whose parents were tragically killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. These students have written about how our nation should confront terrorism in our world. They didn’t write their whole essay about their late loved ones but instead shared this story as a way into their interest so the reader can understand and appreciate their perspective. They showed rather than told of their passion for improving America’s counterterrorism policies.

Thinking about sharing a sob story in a college essay? Thinking about it twice now? We hope so. Let us know your thoughts, your questions, your musings, and your stories by posting a Comment below.


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  • Hannah Henderson says:

    When I was eight, my mother lost her four year battle against stage three cervical cancer. Since then, I have been very passionate about pursuing a career in the medical field, particularly in obstetrics and gynecology, oncology, and neonatal care. Would it be acceptable for me to write an essay detailing how her diagnosis, treatment, etc. sparked my interests in those fields and how I plan on doing what I can to improve treatment, diagnoses, and more pertaining to people who are dealing with medical issues in these fields? Or would that be just another ‘sob story’? (Looking for an honest answer, I don’t want to make a mistake by writing about something that won’t help me.)

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi Hannah – We’re sorry about your mom. We would encourage you to avoid writing about your mom as an inspiration for wishing to pursue a career in medicine. Medical school admissions officers don’t want to hear about you as a child. They want to hear about you now. And, yes, too many medical school applicants write about family members who suffered illnesses. The game is to differentiate.

  • Cathy says:

    is it okay if i were to write about an experience as a child and how it made me the person i am today and how it still affects me in certain scenarios?

  • Xara says:

    I want to write a sexual assault story and how i became a feminist and started an NGO related to helping sexual assault victims. The story will only be in the first paragraph, is that okay?

  • Julia Kash says:

    I want to write about my sexual abuse story and how i ended up taking care of the one who hurt me making me realize i wanna be a nurse. is this also a sob story?

  • arnika says:

    2 years ago i went through an open heart surgery. Is it okay to write about that and explaining how i became interested in medical science?

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