Be grateful you don’t have a tragic college essay story

gratitude-happiness-2“That must have made a great college essay,” said Lizzie, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the more insensitive high achievers I ever met.

I was a Graduate Fellow, a glorified resident assistant, while I was at Penn Law School. I was presiding over an opening meeting of the dormitory I ran. Students were given the opportunity to say a few things about their background.

Tran had just finished telling us his story. He had come from Cambodia to California. He and his family had fled due to the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. He lived in refugee camps. Many people he knew were killed. His family had to start over in America. His tale was tragic and inspiring.

Lizzie’s remark could be judged as evidence of extreme tactlessness. But it is also symptomatic of the crazy way that students’ view the college essay.

“I don’t have any real story,” said Matthew, a senior at Branford High School. He continued to describe his good fortune of having an intact family, good health, and no major life traumas.

I jokingly asked him if he would prefer to have tragedy in his life so that he could write a more compelling college essay.  He laughed and understood my point.

The college essay does not need to be a tale of woe to be a great. Be grateful if you don’t have a horrible life story to tell.