Sob Stories: Should You Tell Them?

Sandra is from Serbia. She’s multilingual and also survived some ferocious circumstances in the war-torn Balkans during the early ’90s. Will those help her win money for college?

When it comes to students who speak English as their second language, how helpful is it to colleges to accept students of different cultural backgrounds? Personally, I came to the states 13 years ago, and I speak Serbian and English with great fluency.

sob stories
If you grew up in the middle of a genocide, is it OK to talk about that in your essays? Yes it is.

Most major universities actively seek students with a variety of cultural backgrounds, sure. You have to get to the level of very small regional or vocational schools before you can find the ones who really don’t care about that sort of thing.

I got my way up to AP Spanish Language and after that course I stopped. Do colleges see that as a good attribute to a student?

That you took Spanish, or that you stopped? 🙂 Speaking multiple languages is a wonderful thing, and it will absolutely help you get into colleges (and after that, it’ll help you get jobs). It’s always a good thing.

I’ve also considered writing in my scholarship essays about the hardships and memories that have stuck with me as a result of the war my family had gone through in the early 1990’s (which actually push me even harder to do well in my studies in America) but i feel that judges might think i’m trying to make them feel bad for me, and lure them into giving me a chance at scholarship money…. any helpful advice?

Absolutely. (Imagine that, readers — a scholarship question! It’s 2009 all over again. 🙂

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about the things you lived through in Serbia; in fact, I’d encourage it.

You say that you’re worried the judges might think you’re trying to make them feel bad so they’ll give you money. And in a way, you are, but that’s no big deal. Everyone who applies for scholarships is trying to make judges feel however they need to feel in order to give them money. 🙂

The difference between making a good case for yourself as a scholarship recipient and simply telling a “sob story” is your record of achievement and how you present it.

If you emphasize your hardships and little else, then that’s a sob story. If you talk about your hardships in terms of how they’ve helped form the rest of your experience and how they’ve inspired you to achieve whatever it is you’ve achieved, then that’s a good essay.

In both cases, you complete the effective task of tugging on the judges’ heartstrings, but in the second case you give them a much stronger argument for selecting you by showing them how you took those difficult circumstances and used/still use them to inspire yourself to great things.

Make sense? Hope that helps. Thanks for the note!

— What about you guys — any thoughts about telling your hardship stories in college applications or scholarship essays? Let us know in the comments below!

14 thoughts on “Sob Stories: Should You Tell Them?”

  1. Hardships are a good thing to talk about if you use them right. Personally, my type of hardships aren’t the type scholarship judges consider hardships, so I haven’t written about any.

  2. Yes, exactly as Josh says. You are the kind of student they want to help. Look where you are at today due to your perseverance. This will show them you have a great potential to succeed in college and their investment in you will be well spent and positive results will come from it.

  3. Talk about your hardships, but present them with what you’ve learned from them, how you’ve overcome them, and what you will take from them in your future actions.

    1. I agree telling your hardship and staying what you have learned from it or how it is effecting you to want to go to school i see no problem with go for it

  4. Sandra,

    I agree with Josh. For instance, I include my hardships in my essays. Granted I didn’t have to live through a war, but I did have obstacles to overcome to get where I am.

    For instance, I was raised by a single mother of two, that worked her way through college so she could provide for me and my brother. She worked two jobs while attending school full time, one full time and one part-time job. When I was old enough to go off to college myself I and in the middle of going she became ill. She is disabled with MS (nuerological disease), and I became her full time care giver–dropping out of college. I have been her care giver for going on 19 years now, and went back to college in 2005.

    I am now a junior at Seattle University full time, her full time care giver, etc… I also have a 3.0 GPA and am looking for a part-time job to fund a study aboard trip.

    I used my hardships to show that I don’t let difficulties stop me from pursuing my dreams. Sure because of them I often need to take the long way around but I don’t give up. My hardships showed me that I have drive, determintaion, and dedication to my education I didn’t know I had before.

    So yeah, you should/can write about what you have overcome. But don’t do the poor me thing. Instead say how overcoming that has given you drive, focus, and a direction for your dreams. That you are using that rocky start to do great things, etc… It makes you look like a winner and not a whinner.

    Also remember the attitude of graditude. Sure it can be hard to turn a negative into something you are garteful for, but it can be done. I’m gratfeul that I had the struggles I’ve had because it taught me things I didn’t know about myself. It helped me realize how capable I am and that even bad times are temporary.

    Good luck to you in your pursuits:)

  5. Hey Sandra,

    I have a slightly different take on this and that’s because I too came from a country that was war-torn about 13 years ago. I came from the Kurdish region of Iraq. Now, I don’t know if you know but Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds and Shiite Muslims when he was the leader of the country. It was genocide against us Kurds and many other minority groups. Now, my parents and my family went through difficult times, absolutely. I applaud them for coming here and working so hard to raise me and my siblings. But when it comes to scholarship and college essays, it really is difficult to put down that I grew up with many obstacles and worked hard so that they did not get in the way of my education (I was only 7 when I came here). The only obstacle I had to overcome was learn a whole new language, which I did in a couple of months thanks to the ESL teachers. I may be wrong and your case might be different, maybe you were much older when you were in Serbia. The fact is that you have to really realize what your obstacles were, if you overcame them, how, and why they’re important in your life. I feel like I didn’t overcome any obstacles, I didn’t go and fight against the government or join a protest or hide leaders of our own group in my home so they are not taken to jail and abused/killed. I merely survived.

    I hope you understand where I’m coming from. I don’t want to put you down, but if you are a typical 17/18 year old applying to college for the first time, what obstacles did you face in Serbia 13 years ago?

    Judge Josh, please let me know if my thinking is wrong. I want to know because my sister is also applying to colleges and scholarships and she’s having a difficult time with these essays. She also doesn’t think she should put the past (our country and its events) in any of these essays. What do you think?


  6. This is really very helpful information. As someone who took several years off in between years of college to “find myself” I always find it useful and interesting to know what sorts of explanations and stories college scouts and scholarship companies are most swayed by.
    I have a different, but related question…how do I best explain the Fs I received during a period in which I was suffering from both a physical and a mental illness?

  7. Hi Sandra:

    I think everyone has made good points. Like Josh and others said, make sure that you demonstrate SPECIFICALLY how hardships made you a better, stronger student, that YOU are the ONE whom the scholarship committees can feel that is a ‘sure bet’.

    If you really listen to what Grey_GirlPTK is saying, you will likely go far in your essays/aps. She is challenging you on solid points that those reviewing you applications may consider – and so you should address these points. (I don’t think she is saying that you didn’t go through anything?but challenging you to demonstrate what affect these had on you.) And perhaps she has blocked-out some of the horror that perhaps she didn?t see, but it is possible (likely) that she had to hear about and feel.

    In any event, Americans love a come-from-behind story. Look at movies like “Rudy” and others, and you’ll see.

    For example, years ago one of my sons was the favored Wrestler to win the state championship. A week before the event, he was hospitalized for a drug-resistant bacterial infects he’d gotten from a mat into his finger mail cuticle. None of the meds worked, and he was 24 hours away from dieing.

    There were only two IV meds left to try and one of them worked. The day of the event, in a weakened state after having lost 18 lbs, he insisted to competing at the event.

    The head coach of US Olympic wrestling was there, and asked about my son. I told him what had happened.

    In the end, my son lost the championship, but many major newspapers carried the story.

    When he completed his college aps and essays, his focus was that he ?faced down? his fear to what was likely a sure loss, but had the guts to do it, and made it all the way to the final event and only lost by seconds, even though he was literally unplugged from a hospital IV hours earlier, grossly underweight, and ill.

    He ended up being one of the #1 wrestling recruits in the country, even though he lost — with full scholarship offers.

    The Olympic coach said that this is exactly the kind of athlete they look for; the ?guts? they can?t teach and my son had already proven his technical skills by getting to that level of competition; but too often, coaches/schools have to take chances on ?unproven? athletes (students) who have never faced fear and adversity in the face, with everything against them, and strived to overcome it.

    Even if you arrived here at age 6 or 7 or 8 years old, you have a background that is unique, and you are a survivor — even if those survivor skills were gleaned from your parents/extended family and their fears and methods to survive. As you said, you can still remember “hardships and memories that have stuck with me as a result of the war my family had gone through in the early 1990?s (which actually push me even harder to do well in my studies in America…”

    Tell the committees a few examples what these were and explain, using specific instances, of how going through this lifestyle helped you over one or more (specific) events.

    Paint the picture in vivid detail. Never assume anyone can imagine your unique experiences or your abilities.

    FYI: My family is from modest means, yet all three of my kids were recruited by major universities with scholarship offers (not financial aid). The better you paint the picture, the more your audience can identify with you and your potential success.

    Hope that helps.

  8. Don’t expect an objective response when you discuss your hardships. Once you state something that is commonly stereotyped, the majority will lock you in some simplistic picture and blame you for the condition; even if they are educated.

    I had to leave a school near Grand Rapids Michigan when I shared my hardship story. The school invited me to tell my story as the only way to help me and then they used the information I submitted to justify harassment. Dont share your information with everyone, evaluate their ability to understand first.

  9. Sandra, I say go for it. As what Josh said awhile back, there are two different types of suffering found in essays. One is the typical, I had a full course load, walked too far to the bus stop, could not beat my favorite video game because I had too much homework hardship.

    What you have is reasonable to bring up.

    @Sara Merely survived? That’s a grand understatement. Even if you were only seven when you came to America, you grew up in an extremely unstable environment during a critical development period in your life. Your ability and will to get into college is a mini miracle within itself. Not to mention that the English language, in my opinion, is the most difficult to grasp.

  10. I am in agreement with Josh, telling people (scholastic folk) your experiences in life, and how they have shaped you, is a good thing. If I were in those same circumstances, or any adverse situation, especially if I have excelled, I’d be singing like a bird to any scholastic entity in order to further my education. Our life experiences is what makes us who we are, and putting it “out there” will serve as encouragement to others. Adversity may make us stronger, and it is important on many levels to overcome adversity if and when it hits you smack in the face.

  11. I agree with Josh. You can tell a sob story or you can tell of your perseverance to overcome the obstacles that have been put in front of you. You have to let people know that you have done all of that and you can do even more if they allow you to attend their university. don’t speak as though you want them to be sympathetic, but as you want them to envy all that you can do and you have accomplished

  12. Hi everyone – would love to hear some advice. Josh hasn’t gotten me an answer for a long time despite his promise to answer within a couple of days if we publicize this site via social media sites. I guess he’s busy.

    I’ll keep it as short as I can. Thanks for your advice in advance…

    I will be a senior this fall at Alfred University, on track to graduate with a BS in Marketing. Unfortunately, after classes and a couple of internships, I realize that I detest the concept and practice of marketing. My passions, I believe, lie in writing and thinking about “softer” fields including sociology/psychology, theology, and ethics.* I have 35k in debt so far.

    But at this point, I wonder if I should just make the smartest decision financially and pursue a field that I won’t kill myself doing like marketing/selling.

    Should I switch majors to Accounting, costing me another 10k in debt and year of school plus whatever else for a CPA? Or–my brother is a mechanical engineer at Cornell, I come from a long line of engineers, and I’m pretty bright–should I go for a second bachelor’s in engineering after graduating with my Marketing degree? That option might run me another 40k in debt and 4 years’ time, but pay out better than accounting in the long run.

    Other options I’ve played out in my head include joining the peace corps to forgive some loans, starting my own PR business after graduating, studying for a Master’s in philosophy in the UK on a full-ride (fingers crossed for that scholarship)…feeling overwhelmed. What’s the smartest call here, you think?

    *One last note on “following your passion,” which I hope you’ll include as I think applies broadly to a lot of the questions you receive on here. While it’s true that an English major can–to the relief of many English majors–be employable after all (in advertising, technical writing, etc.), I don’t believe that any fiction writer is thinking “press release” when asked about her true passion.

    I just question the logic in many of the comments saying “less money is worth following your dreams”…I mean, yeah, hypothetically, I’d consider writing essays on my theological musings for a 30k salary the rest of my life instead of doing some ******** for 60k. An exciting/interesting gig is probably worth that 30k difference per year in overall happiness points…

    …but I doubt I can get paid anything to be an essayist. More likely, well-meaning students write essays for 4 years in college (“following their passion”), then for the next 40 years write sparingly trying to impress consumers, publications, etc. or write soulless freelance how-to articles, kissing ass, teaching, and/or some other b.s. for that lower salary that they had assumed would be worth the tradeoff in extra fulfillment of “following their bliss.” Point is, when you realistically appraise what you can get paid to do, I’m wondering if anybody besides rock stars actually get paid to do what they love…I don’t know if writing for the sake of writing is worth the 30k difference I could be making as an engineer/accountant.

    That is a bare-bones assumption that all your theater/art/English Lit/philosophy/anthropology student advisees should think about quantitatively: What’s the value on the fulfillment I’ll get from a career loosely related to my passion (like writing advertisements), as opposed to a better-paying gig that is unrelated to my passion (like accounting)? Will your job’s loose connection to your true passion for 40 hours per week REALLY offer you more happiness overall than an extra 30k in salary in an unrelated field?

    After all, happiness is the end-game here.

    Is a job just a job, and might we all be better off doing something tolerable and challenging for the most money per hour possible?

    Thanks for your thoughts on my situation! Your site is a godsend for indecisive students like me and many others.

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