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Last updated March 31, 2023

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Should You Write Your College Essay About Losing a Loved One?

Key Takeaway

Deciding whether to write your college essay about losing a loved one can be a tough choice. It may be too personal or emotional, or you may find that the topic is the best way to tell your story to an admissions officer.

Losing a loved one, especially in high school, can upend how you view the world.

It’s only natural that you’d want to write your Common Application personal statement about it.

Writing about death is always difficult, and it is especially difficult in a college application essay. It can take twice the time and effort to craft a personal statement about so emotional a topic.

Since it’s a more challenging topic, you should be sure that writing about the death of a loved one is the right choice for you.

While some advice may say otherwise, writing about traumatic experiences does not increase your chances of admission, so don’t feel forced to write about the death of a loved one just because you think that’s what admissions offices want to see.

You should write about your loss if it’s the topic that will allow you to tell your most authentic story.

So before you begin writing, consider a few critical questions to determine whether (and how) you should write your college essay about losing a loved one.

Questions to ask yourself before writing your college essay about death

As much as admissions officers are humans who care about your wellbeing, they also have criteria with which they must evaluate your personal statement. While they will empathize with your grief, at the end of the day, your essay still needs to hold its own against thousands of others.

Sometimes essays about death can do just that, poignantly and with heart. But other times, students aren’t ready. And that’s okay too.

Ask yourself the following questions and think honestly about your answers.

1. Are you really ready to think, write, and revise critically?

Grief can muddle your ideas into incomprehensible gray blobs. Your heightened sensitivity may also make the critical revision process exhausting.

But your college essay still has to shine with clarity and coherence.

It’s important that you ask yourself if you’re ready to do the detailed writing and editing that is required of personal statements.

2. Can you find a respectful balance that allows you to center yourself?

Students most frequently make the mistake of writing essays that center the person who has passed rather than themselves.

While a tribute to your loved one is a beautiful thing, your college essay has a major job to do. It needs to tell admissions officers about you.

For whatever reason, if you can’t bring the focus to yourself, you might consider writing about another topic.

3. Will you be able to process before and while writing? And if it’s not that hard to process, should you consider a different topic?

Writing is a powerful way to process tragedy. The very act can help you heal and find new direction. But the process can be intimate, and you may not want to share the information with strangers.

Your college essay also requires you to go beyond reflection to craft a thoughtful and organized essay.

So be sure that you’ve reached a point in your journey where you feel comfortable working through and writing about difficult emotions.

Alternatively, some students write about losing people who they weren’t close to and whose deaths didn’t significantly impact them. They do this solely because they think that writing about trauma helps you get into college, but it doesn’t. If you find that writing about your loss does not actually have a profound effect on your emotions, then there is likely a different essay topic awaiting you.

4. What should you do if you’ve decided you’re not ready to write your college essay about losing a loved one but still want the admissions committee to know?

You could consider how your story fits into any supplemental essays you’re writing. Or you can use the Common Application “Additional Information” section. Feel free to include whatever context you are comfortable sharing. This section can be a simple explanation and does not need to follow a specific format.

How you can write a college essay about losing a loved one

If you’ve decided that writing your college essay about losing a loved one is the right choice for you, then we have a few tips.

1. Determine what this topic should reveal about you to the admissions committee.

Begin your writing process by asking yourself what you want the admissions committee to learn about you from this story of loss.

2. Pinpoint specific examples, details, memories, or vignettes.

Root your narrative in specifics rather than generalities about you and your loved one to show, not tell your admissions officers why they were important to you.

3. End on a note of hope, resilience, or forward movement.

The reality is that even with a sad topic, you want your admissions officers to leave your essay thinking about you in a positive way so that they can picture you being an active member of their campus. Your personal statement should therefore conclude on some kind of hopeful or resilient note.


Be gracious about your limits. Write about your loss only if you feel ready and if you truly believe that it’s the story you need to tell admissions committees.

If you do choose to write your college essay about losing a loved one, then you should start early and leave plenty of extra time for writing and revision. What you’ve been through is surely difficult, so be gentle on yourself as you write and revise.

You can find more about writing your personal statement on our How to Write a College Essay post.

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