Have you ever faced an obstacle and had to figure out how to get through it? Did you succeed—or maybe not?
Have you ever failed at something? I mean really tanked.
Did you learn from your experience?
Then Common Application Essay prompt #2 may be for you.
This is the second in my series on how to write the 2017 Common Application essay prompts. In this post, I teach you what you need to know to write Common Application Essay prompt #2. We’ll discuss the question, the keywords, the pitfalls to avoid, and I’ll give you a successful essay topic example.
Are you ready for Common Application Prompt #2? Here we go…
Common Application Essay Prompt #2:
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Is This Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:
Why Should You Consider This Topic?
Colleges like character building experiences. Overcoming a challenge requires determination and perseverance, which are excellent character traits. This is the essay that checks that box—that shows the schools how you act, think, and make decisions when you’re up against it, and what you’ve learned when life hasn’t gone so well.
Failure Isn’t the Only Option!
This question used to only be about failure. But that was a problem—some students weren’t sure if their experiences qualified as true “failures.” Others tried to create failures out of experiences that weren’t. It got messy.
This is a much better question. Now, if your experience required grit or courage to handle but doesn’t qualify as a failure, you can write about it.
Do the Keywords Apply to You?
Answer yes IF
- You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
- AND you learned from your experience.
- AND you can reflect on how it affected you.
Pitfalls to Avoid:
- This question has three parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.
- Are you writing about a failure? Don’t wallow in it. This essay isn’t really about what happened—it’s about the character building experience that came out of it. So mention the failure and move on.
- Academic challenges often don’t make the best essays. Many students end up with a bad grade or marking period, but this is rarely the place to write about it. The risk is that your essay will sound like a lot of other essays. (“I worked hard and learned that I could persevere.”) Remember: Always look for an original approach to your essay—fully explore why this topic is meaningful to you and show how you pushed through this challenge. If your gut says it’s a common topic, sounds boring, or doesn’t differentiate you from other applicants, then choose another topic. If you need to explain a bad grade or marking period, think about using the additional information section of your application instead.
Successful Essay Topic Example:
When he was 15, Andrew started a snowplow business using his ATV. But the ATV couldn’t plow deep snow, and one night, after eight inches of snow fell, the ATV got stuck in his driveway. Andrew knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV. After that difficult and embarrassing experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment so he could serve his customers better. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. One thing that he learned from this experience was that he wanted to pursue a business career.
Why this Topic Succeeds:
• All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
• It also showed that he had good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.
Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?
DON’T BE. Remember, colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.
In fact, Christine Hamilton, who is Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Sacred Heart University, tells me she sees a lot of failure essays and that’s okay with her. She learns a lot about the character of incoming students by hearing how they’ve coped with failure.
Seeing How You’ve Weathered Adversity Can Give Schools a Good Reason to Want to Accept You.
CAUTION: Never write about failures that include very risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving).
Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #3.
Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts
For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.
Sharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.
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April 21, 2017 at 3:35 pm
Can we write about multiple failures or multiple failures with different lessons to learn from but had one unified effect or point?
April 21, 2017 at 5:16 pm
Hi Brahma, that’s a great question. The answer is that this question does ask for one thing. However, if your topic doesn’t fit into one question you can always use it to answer question #1 or #7 (topic of your choice). But let me tell you why I’d like you to think about your idea: This essay is short – you only have 650 words. You have many different things to write about, and different lessons, which means you could end up dividing your essay into such small parts that it would sound like a list and you’d just end up telling what happened in several short stories instead of concentrating on one. Instead, try to find a perspective on your story that gives you the time to show the reader what happened, how you faced it, what you thought, what decisions you made, and what you learned. Give yourself enough space to discuss and reflect, and you’ll be able to show the schools who you are, how you think, and why they should admit you.
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