The Ivy Coach Daily

May 3, 2023

On Avoiding Sob Stories in College Essays

This is a view of students on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library.
Students should not share sob stories in their college essays.

Originally Published on September 29, 2017:

Many students and parents have the mistaken impression that sharing sob stories in college admissions essays will pull on the heartstrings of admissions officers at highly selective colleges and inspire them to want to offer the student admission.

Maybe it’s a story about a grandparent’s death. Or perhaps it’s a story about enduring a childhood illness like leukemia. Now, we don’t mean to sound coldhearted. That’s terrible to go through — no child (or adult) should have to experience cancer. It’s just that writing about a childhood illness will not serve a student’s case for admission. Nor will writing about a grandparent’s death since this experience is universal.

Instead, writing such sob stories will more likely lead an admissions officer to think just what you may fear they will think — that you’re sharing this woe-is-me story to sway them to offer you admission. Students made this mistake in 2003. They continue to make this mistake in 2023.

Sob Stories in College Essays

Sob Stories are Cliché in College Admissions Essays

While regrettable, it’s also important to know that many children suffer from illnesses, including cancer. So you can imagine that many students write about their bouts with these illnesses in their college admissions essays, most notably their Common Application Personal Statements.

When the name of the game in the highly selective college admissions process is differentiation, to stand out and avoid cliché, writing about a topic that so many other applicants are tackling is counterintuitive.

In our experience at Ivy Coach over the last 30 years, the six most cliché topics for Personal Statements are as follows: sports, music, foreign travel, community service, dead or living grandparents, and childhood illnesses. No essay executed on these topics will wow an admissions officer, and the latter three topics, in particular, lend themselves to sob stories.

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 rather than the rule. In all likelihood, they’re not. Remember, admissions officers don’t want to read about students as children. They don’t want to read about playing tag in the elementary school playground. Instead, they want to read about who students are and how they think now — as young adults. 

So in Ivy Coach’s 30 years of helping students earn admission 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.

For example, we had a student interested in political science whose father was tragically killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. This student wrote about how our nation should confront terrorism. She didn’t write her whole Personal Statement about their late dad. Instead, she shared this story as a way into her interest in political science so the reader could understand her unique perspective. She showed rather than told of their passion for improving America’s counterterrorism policies. In so doing, she proved she was the exception rather than the rule.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with College Essays

If you’re interested in wowing admissions officers with your essays, know that helping students present their most powerful case for admission in the many college essays they submit is a big part of what we do at Ivy Coach. So fill out our free consultation form, and we’ll contact you to outline our college counseling services.

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