How to Deal with Horrible Tragedies when Applying to College

events_bookcov-1e64a219902c8d76ac92253e1e03bd4c288fda27-s6-c30Everyone experiences tragedies at some point in life, but for those who experience them in high school they can be especially trying, and schoolwork can sometimes fall by the wayside. If you have had to deal with something really horrible during high school (i.e. – the death of someone in your immediate family, your parents’ divorce, a natural disaster, the loss of your home, being diagnosed with a life threatening disease, etc.), you may be worried now that a resulting drop in your grades may affect your prospects when it comes time to apply for college.

Of course, the best way to avoid these problems is to keep your grades up even while you are dealing with personal tragedies. While tests and homework may seem unimportant compared to the circumstances you face, they still will be the most important part of your college application, and if going to a good college is important to you, you should try to keep schoolwork a priority even when sorting through everything else.

If your grades slip a little, though, there are things you can do to let colleges know that lapses like these were due to extraordinary circumstances beyond your control. Before we talk about these remedies, however, we should first discuss the things that you definitely SHOULD NOT do.

In most cases, you should avoid writing about your trials and tribulations in your essays, and you should never try to use them to explain your grades. Now, if you can turn your experiences into an uplifting and inspiring story about overcoming adversity that shows off your own positive character traits and personality, then you could potentially write a fantastic essay about your difficult experiences. All too often though, real life doesn’t fit into the neat storyline of a Hollywood movie, and there may not be a satisfying resolution to your story or a nice lesson you can give your readers at the end. Remember what the goal of your essay is: to make the reader like you and find you interesting and even impressive. The overall tone of your essay should be positive, and your essay should never be depressing, especially at the end.

There may be a part of your application that asks you to explain any additional information that you think college admissions departments should know about. The Common Application, for instance, has an optional section called “Additional Information,” which instructs you to “Please attach a separate sheet if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.” This is the place where you can potentially mention hardships that you have had to deal with during high school. If you choose to mention them here, you should not mention a corresponding fall in grades or try to explain a fall in grades. Just briefly, clearly, and unemotionally explain what happened and when it happened, saying that you feel this only makes your accomplishments more meaningful. If there was a corresponding fall in grades, admissions officers will be able to put two and two together when they see your transcript.

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Callous as it may seem, admissions officers would prefer a student who got straight As even when dealing with trying circumstances in life to one who let his or her grades drop as a result of similar circumstances. Success in the face of adversity is inspiring; the reality of not being able to juggle everything at once isn’t. Of course, if the stuff you are going through is bad enough, admissions officers will be willing to overlook some flaws on your application – if you tell them correctly. So, how do you explain these things without sounding like you’re making excuses or without defining yourself as a victim and making your readers feel depressed?

You don’t. You let your teachers and counselors do this for you.

When you try to explain that the reason you made a bunch of Bs sophomore year was because a hurricane destroyed your family’s house halfway through the fall semester, it sounds like you’re making excuses (admittedly, it’s a pretty good excuse, but, in the end, it’s still an excuse). When you don’t say this and your teacher does in your recommendation, it makes you seem like a stoic hero facing life’s blows with equanimity. Furthermore, having someone else argue on your behalf is always more persuasive than arguing on your own behalf. It means that you have already managed to persuade at least one other person that your case is a good one – which might lead others to follow suit. Also, while you clearly have something to gain by arguing on your own behalf, when another person with nothing to gain argues on your behalf it seems as if your case really must be persuasive if this other person is going out of his or her way to champion your cause. In short – why make excuses for yourself when other people can do it for you?

But – how are your teachers and counselors going to know what to say? You are going to tell them. When you ask your teachers and counselors for recommendations, you should definitely give them written notes about things you want them to include in your recommendation. If your teacher has time, you might even ask to meet with him or her to discuss the recommendation in person.

The written notes should include a resume, a list of all your accomplishments, awards, leadership positions, and extracurricular activities, accompanied by brief descriptions and explanations, plus a list of your accomplishments in that teacher’s particular class and a brief anecdote or two from your time in that teacher’s class. You can even include a sample recommendation letter that you wrote for yourself and/or one written for you by your parents. The idea is to do as much of your teachers’ work for them as possible. Your teachers may have dozens of recommendation letters to write, so they will definitely appreciate all the help they can get. Additionally, even if your teachers don’t know you that well, with all of these notes to help them it will sound like they do.

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Of course, you want to ask teachers whose courses you did well in and preferably teachers who like you and have gotten to know you a bit. This is especially true if you want them to write about hardships you have faced during high school, since these may be somewhat personal and you need to be comfortable with sharing them with your teacher. Note that you don’t have to ask the teacher whose class you made a B in to write your recommendation (in fact you probably shouldn’t). Teachers can argue for you even about things that happened outside their own classes. A teacher is not limited to writing about what you did in his or her own class – your teacher can write about anything and everything you have done in high school. After all, you are supposed to ask teachers who know you well to write your recommendations, so it makes sense that they would write about things you did outside of their specific classes.

Chances are your teachers will be happy to write you glowing recommendations, since a success for you is also a success for them – if you get in to Harvard, then they can say that they must be excellent teachers since they send their students to Harvard. Your teachers are on your side and want to help you succeed, so as long as you pick a teacher whose class you did well in everything should be fine.

Everything said above also goes for counselors as well, only you don’t get to pick your counselor, so that part is easier. Especially if you go to a large school where counselors don’t have much of a chance to get to know their students, providing your counselor with written notes can be very helpful to them when they are writing your recommendation.

If you have had a rough time of it in high school, my heart goes out to you and I hope that this post can at least be of some help to you when it comes time to apply for college. Best wishes, and good luck!

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The writers and  college admission experts at College Compass offer a great, free information service called Ask Test Masters. Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters! You can see previous questions here; who knows, maybe your question has already been answered.


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