Should Sister's Death Be Mentioned to Colleges?

Question: I’m looking for some advice on how to handle an unusual situation regarding a family tragedy we faced (and are facing) and my daughter’s college applications.

Last year, my 15-year-old daughter died suddenly – almost overnight – due to an infection (she was diabetic). To make things worse, a month later, our community was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. We lost power and all other services for almost three weeks, couldn’t get gasoline, and saw many nearby homes destroyed. Our house had some flood damage as well, but we were able to repair it for about $10,000. We struggled for weeks to become functional again, and it was months before life in our area became basically normal. At the same time, we were still reeling from our daughter’s death. That whole period was an incredible struggle for our family, as you can imagine.

The question I have is regarding my older daughter. She’s now going into her senior year, and I’m wondering if colleges should be told about what she experienced. She coped with losing her sister and best friend by working even harder in school and still staying just as active in all her school activities. Her academic performance remained steady. In fact, she is ranked 10th in a class of 500 at a very good public school.

I’ve heard contradictory statements regarding whether our tragedy should be mentioned to colleges or not.

One side says that colleges don’t want to take the risk of having someone who has been through a significant trauma because they might fall apart when facing all of the new stresses that being at a top college brings on. I’ve seen this mentioned on College Confidential more than a few times.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard that a college may see her response to the tragedy and her uninterrupted continuation of academic progress as a sign of resilience and character. If it is mentioned, we would have her guidance counselor mention what happened in the counselor’s report, because I don’t think my daughter would feel comfortable writing an essay about what happened.

If you could give me an idea whether you think that colleges should be told about this in my daughter’s applications, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

My heart goes out to you and your family. But no, I really can’t imagine the horror that you faced as you grieved the loss of your daughter and endured the destruction of Hurricane Sandy at the same time.

I definitely believe that your family tragedy should be part of your older daughter’s college process. However, I will also address your concerns about how it could raise antennae in admission offices.

The college counselor is the perfect person to explain what your daughter has been through. You might want to present the counselor with a letter that outlines some of the positive ways that your daughter has responded to her loss. (Before you begin, ask the counselor if this would be helpful. Most counselors and teachers welcome input that they can “borrow” for their references.)

A handful of colleges (including Smith, where I used to work) also invite parents to write their own references. Should you be given this option, you should certainly use it to tell some stories of your daughter’s strength. (I once suggested that all parents write such letters, even when they’re not requested, because parents always see a side of their child that school officials and teachers miss. But I’ve since found that some admission officials are rather snarky about this and don’t give parents the credibility that I feel they deserve. So I’ve backed off on that recommendation.)

Your daughter may eventually decide that she does want to write about this tragedy in her essay … or in a supplemental one (where she isn’t bound by specific prompts). If her feelings do change, she might want to consider creating an anecdotal piece about her younger sister that focuses on their relationship and from which the reader can infer the enormity of the loss. She need not describe the accident and its aftermath directly.

Your concern about your daughter being viewed by admission officials as vulnerable to college stresses is certainly a legitimate one. Thus the counselor’s reference should clearly state that your daughter is ready to start the next chapter of her life and should thrive in a new environment.

There are definitely times when crises are best not revealed in applications (as long as there’s no way that the admission folks can sniff them out anyway from erratic performance that’s evident on the transcript). But these sorts of situations include suicide attempts, mental health problems, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. Colleges can indeed be reluctant to bring students to campus who are going to bring big problems with them. (Even if the law insists that they cannot discriminate in this way, it’s almost impossible to prove that a denial by a selective college was based on a health or mental health concern.) Your daughter, on the other hand, will be viewed with empathy by admission committees and with respect for her resilience.

Thus, as she proceeds with her applications, you should encourage her to allow her story to be told, even if she is uneasy about telling it herself. Meanwhile, please do accept my condolences on your unthinkable loss, as well as my wishes for a summer with no stormy weather of any sort.