Cancer Battle as College Essay Topic?

Question: My daughter survived leukemia when she was 12. She is now a senior and a good student living a healthy, normal life. She wants to write her application essay on her battle against cancer, but I fear that even a well-written essay on that topic might suggest to admission committees that accepting her will pose a risk. Should she choose another topic?

We’re so glad that your daughter is thriving. An application essay about her successful fight against cancer shouldn’t have any negative effect on her admission decisions and could, in fact, have a positive one. That is, the vast majority of admission committees will see her as a survivor–not a victim or a high-risk candidate-and perhaps also view her as someone who is better prepared than many students to discern between what’s really important and what’s not. (In other words, she won’t be the one whining about the college cafeteria food or the reduced hours in the sauna!)

What we would suggest, however, is that if your daughter chooses to write about her illness in her primary, required essay, instead of presenting a broad history of her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, she might instead focus on one aspect of the experience that can serve as something of a symbol or metaphor for everything she endured. For instance, I have a friend who also survived a childhood cancer. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, her mother set aside a small sun porch in their home as a safe haven for her and a retreat from her noisy brothers. The room was very spare–just a futon and a tape player and a soft light for cloudy days. My friend called it the “Wishing Room,” because she would go in there to think about everything she wanted to do when she was healthy again.

Perhaps your daughter, too, has a special and specific memory that might make a stronger essay than a broader remembrance of her ordeal. In any case, she should avoid explicitly stating cliché conclusions (“Because I suffered I appreciate my family and my life more” or “Now that I’ve beat cancer I know I can tackle anything I set my mind to”) no matter how true they may be.

Your daughter also may want to consider writing her main essay on a topic not related to her cancer and then submitting an unsolicited supplementary one on her illness. The message that the dual essays would send is, “Yes, I had this awful disease and it has played a big part in my life, but there are other facets of my life that are significant, too.”

In any case, don’t worry that, if admission officials get wind of what your daughter has been through, they will somehow view her as “damaged goods,” because the likelihood is great that, instead, they will be rooting for her all the way.