07 Dec The Big Changes: Turning Life’s Worst into the Best Essays
Have you ever had a day where nothing goes your way? We all have. They’re the worst—a Murphy’s Law day where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. There’s one guy, however, who has all of us beat. That man is Job, from The Book of Job in The Old Testament.
THE GREATEST HARD LUCK STORY EVER TOLD
The story goes like this. God and the Devil are hanging out one day. It’s not specified where, but I’m imagining they’re playing darts at a dive bar while Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is on the jukebox in the background.
“Whooooaaa, we’re halfway there…”
The Devil makes a bet with God. He says this guy Job only praises His Name because he has such a rich life. The Devil bets that Job would curse God if all that good stuff was taken away. God says, “You’re on,” because he loves a good challenge, and He begins to shower Job with all the bad fortune in the world.
Job’s life takes a turn. He has not one bad day, but a whole mess of them. He loses most of his family, his possessions and wealth are reduced to ashes, and God gives him a wicked case of boils.
Soon after, he breaks down in a “Why me?” moment.
God speaks to him in an attempt at reassurance but avoids the main question, saying Job’s puny human brain can’t fathom the complex machinations of an almighty deity.
Job repents. “My bad, God,” he says. “We’re cool” (or something similar). For his humility in the face of the unknowable, Job regains all that he lost and more.
I’ll say it. Job’s experience would have made a stellar application essay. The reason is that he overcomes loss and struggle. You could categorize Job’s obstacles in a grouping I like to call, “The Big Changes.”
THE FIVE BIG CHANGES
According to the website HealthStatus there are Five Major Stressful Events that can be considered Big Changes. These are life situations that put the most pressure on a person.
- Death of someone you love
- Losing a job
Odds are, you can scratch off #2 and #5. I’m guessing (and hoping) that you haven’t been married yet, so that means there’s zero chance you’ve been divorced. Good for you! You haven’t been through what half the adult American population has.
Divorces are finalized with scissors. It’s the law.
Let’s stop for a moment here to examine divorce as an overall topic. I’ve had many students ask me if they can write about their parents’ divorce. There is no doubt that divorce has a major effect on children, whether they’re three-years-old or thirty-three. It’s a life event with inherent drama, and it transforms the people it touches. However, there are two problems with it.
First, divorce is a central conflict between two parents; the children aren’t the major players. It’s true that a child of divorce has a unique perspective, but it’s a limited one. The event isn’t really about the child, so the essay will likely tell more of the parents’ story and simply include the reaction of the child. If you’re writing the essay, the reader won’t get as much insight into who you are, compared with other topics where you’re central. The second reason this isn’t a great essay topic is that admissions committees see it a lot. It’s common, and the essays follow the same predictable structure: divorce recap, “how I felt then,” “how I feel now,” and “what I learned.”
Now, onto job loss. While many teenagers work part-time jobs, getting fired is not the same as when it happens to an adult with a career. There are rare exceptions for this. If, for example, you work a job to give necessary financial support to your family, then losing that job would be significant. For most teens, however, getting the boot from a part-time gig is a mere annoyance rather than a life-altering event. If it’s life-altering, it’s fair game for a personal statement.
Let’s address the other three BIG CHANGES.
Death of a loved one is perhaps the most trying experience for humans of any age. The consequences afterward may vary—losing a parent who is your sole caregiver has different physical effects on your life compared to losing a one-hundred-and-five-year-old great grandparent—but the grief and emotional upheaval are constants.
Many students ask me if this is a good essay topic. It can be, but it’s tricky and depends on the situation. The topic of death comes pre-loaded with heavy feelings, and readers will have varying reactions because everyone has a unique experience dealing with death. If you choose this topic, it’s important that most of your narrative happens after the death. We want to understand not only how it affected you, but also how you’ve changed as a result. It’s okay for your writing to be suffused with emotion. It’s not okay for you to mine this topic simply because it’s emotional. That’s a cheap tactic, the same as writing about a recent national or world tragedy that has zero relation to you.
I chose to write about death in 2001. My grandmother passed away three weeks before my Harvard application was due. Two days before submitting the application, I decided to write a freeform optional essay, penning a first draft about the depth of the relationship with my grandmother and the fallout from her sudden, unexpected death. I revised it several times over the next 48 hours. It was a risky move, but I believe it was my best essay.
Sure, when I look back on it, I cringe a little because it reads like the work of an emotional teen, but that’s what I was. My grandmother had been interested in the college application process—she was a Holocaust survivor from Vienna whose youth had been anything but traditional—and we’d speak about my future often. Her sudden absence made me realize I was on the cusp of a new age: I wasn’t a child anymore, yet I didn’t quite feel like an adult. I was anticipating college, yet the inescapable anguish I experienced from the loss of my grandmother made me question if I was mature enough for the next stage of my life. (For more about this essay, be on the lookout for a forthcoming post devoted entirely to it.)
I’m going to take a roundabout way to get into this one, but bear with me. It starts with your parents.
Many of your parents have changed jobs more than once in their lives, and perhaps they’ve changed locations, too. That’s where you, the applicant, come in. Maybe you have moved once, or maybe you’ve moved a dozen times.
A change in scenery can be fodder for a great essay, but it needs a unique approach.
Let’s focus first on the most common reason for a move, a parent’s job transition, including being a child of one or two military parents. The main rule is that the essay cannot be mostly about your parent’s job, unless it’s a family business where you played a key role — i.e. a young cake decorator in the family bakery.
This is your story to tell, and it’s a tale of venue shifts. How has moving from point A to point B (and perhaps C, D, E, F, and G) affected your life and outlook?
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…
Great versions of these essays show adaptability. “When my dad/mom was suddenly transferred to a new position within his/her company, we moved from our lovely home in Town X to an apartment in City Y. At first, I focused on all that I missed from X, but as time went on I came to realize how I’d underestimated Y because…” You get the idea, but this example is general. Your essay should be full of specific experiences. It can also be surprising. Maybe you truly hate the new locale and can provide compelling reasons for it. A fresh take on the “moving” essay can be funny and insightful—just try not to sound bitter.
The unconventional essays about moving often revolve around tragedies: the loss of a loved one, family financial troubles, or leaving home at a young age. In this case, unlike the parent’s job transition, the reason for the move is central to the story. Still you must not forget that at its heart, the essay is your story. The cause for the move is less important than how you changed (or kept true to yourself) in its wake.
One example that sticks out to me was written by an applicant raised by her strong grandmother, who passed away suddenly one night in her sleep. The applicant couch surfed with friends to finish out her current year of high school, then was taken in by a cousin who lived three states away and didn’t share the same values as the applicant, to put it mildly. The essay was a straightforward narrative. There were no phrases like, “What changed me the most was” or “I grew from this experience because,” since all of that was implied. What was most effective was the clarity and maturity with which the applicant reviewed the earth-shattering events in her life. The overwhelming sense the essay gave the reader was that this was a resourceful young woman who was ready to tackle the complexities of college life and beyond. Better yet, she was looking forward to these challenges.
Moving is a tricky topic, but it can be tackled as long as you make it about something more than the move.
The final topic of change is sickness, for the most part personal. Many applicants want to write about the illness of a parent or grandparent, but unless the applicants are the central caregivers (or one of them) in the narrative, I’d recommend steering clear of this as a topic.
The reason to generally avoid writing about someone else’s sickness is because lots of these essays come off as forced. The applicant is relying on the inherent gravity of the loved one’s sickness to carry the essay. Unless it reveals some deep truth about the applicant’s character, it won’t tell admissions officers much—other than the fact he/she is mining someone else’s burden for anticipated essay gold. It’s the same principle behind why admissions committees don’t like the “One-Week Mission Trip to a Developing Nation.” Yes, visiting a poorer country and helping build a house can afford a sense of perspective, but at the end of the trip, you can leave. It’s not your life, the same way a loved one’s illness is not your struggle.
Okay, so let’s say you’re writing about your own struggles with being sick. While I hope this isn’t even a potential topic for you, sickness should only be written about if it’s something that has had (or is currently having) a lasting impact on your life. That time you got the flu on the class trip to Washington D.C. or when you had mono for a month and kept falling asleep in class don’t make the cut.
Ask yourself these two questions. “Did the illness impact my life for an extended period of time? Is my life different because of it?” If you answered yes to both, then you are probably dealing with/have dealt with something worth writing about. As someone who has endured a chronic illness since high school, I empathize with your struggle. Writing has always been therapeutic for me, and addressing this topic in a personal statement can be cathartic.
Imagine your weakest moment, where you felt most vulnerable and scared. Your instinct is not to write about the moment, right? It’s too personal. Maybe admissions committees will think you’re oversharing.
Wrong. Write about that.
Vulnerability makes us human, and allowing ourselves to recognize our weaknesses ultimately facilitates growth. Showing your personality and demonstrating maturity are two vital aspects of successful admissions essays.
Example: a student I worked with survived stage three cancer, including several rounds of chemotherapy. His essay took the reader through his darkest moments, from the gut punch of diagnosis to an entire day’s worth of vomiting after treatment, a low point when he wondered if all his suffering was really worth it. His conclusion wasn’t as cut and dry as you might think. There was no over-the-top inspirational message, like, “I kicked cancer’s ass, and now I’m totally awesome!” It was somber and meditative. More than that, it was honest. He expressed gratitude for those who were with him every step of the way, especially his parents. Did he learn and mature from the experience? Absolutely. Would he go back and do it all over again? Absolutely not.
One final note. There’s a big difference in writing to elicit sympathy and writing with compelling details that tell your story. Check out these two examples and decide which one is better.
“‘Hey Brian! You did great,’ the surgeon yelled as I was coming to. Everything was blurry. Tubes were attached to my body like some kind of science experiment. I thought about how the incision gash would leave a scar. Not many seventeen-year-olds have to endure what I did.”
“Coming out of anesthesia, the first thing I remembered was the surgeon saying, ‘Hey Brian! You did great.’ I didn’t feel great. My mouth was drier than a cotton ball. My head throbbed. I touched the bandages over the incision. I wasn’t great, but for the first time, I felt lucky to be okay.”
“Brian! Your double dimple implant is complete. Look at that smile!”
FINALLY, ALL ESSAY TOPICS DON’T NEED TO BE HUGE
“What if I haven’t had one of these three experiences?” you ask.
You’re lucky! Also, most successful essays are written about topics other than death, moving, and illness. I simply introduced these as fertile ground for topic selection.
If you haven’t experienced any of these things or you believe another of your experiences tells a stronger story about you, go with that. It’s not like the titular character in The Book of Job asked for all those things to happen to him.
But if you ever find yourself in a wager with the Devil, battling for your soul, you’d be crazy not to write an essay about it. Or at least a country song.