Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #2: Failure

Ahow to write 2015 common app failure essayre you looking for advice on how to write a great college application essay?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this series of posts, I show you how to figure out which 2015 Common Application essay prompt is right for you.


Are you ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Lessons”…”Failure”“Affect you“...”Learn”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, or made a decision that turned out to be faulty.
  • AND you learned from your experience.
  • AND you can examine (analyze) your failure objectively.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • Don’t wallow in your failure. This answer isn’t really about failure; it’s about how the failure affected you and what you learned from it. Mention the failure and move on.
  •  Don’t overlook keywords. This question has three parts: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.

Example of a Successful Topic:

A student started a snowplow business using his ATV. But the ATV couldn’t plow deep snow, and one night, when eight inches of snow fell, the plow got stuck in his driveway. The student knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV.  After that, he realized he needed to better serve his customers by upgrading his equipment. Eventually, the student traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. He also decided that he wanted to pursue a business career.

Is This Topic Successful? Yes.

•    All the keywords are addressed. The student 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 (see the next paragraph).

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing a Failure? DON’T BE. Colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.

  • You could face some significant challenges in the next four years and schools want to understand how you might handle them. They don’t have a crystal ball, so they’ll look to see how you’ve dealt with previous challenges. Now, if you write your essay on why your personality is like all the colors of your shoes (please don’t), they probably won’t have a clue about how you’ll manage when the going gets tough. But, if you write about the lessons you learned from failure, you can demonstrate that you’re ready to handle a college — and professional — career.
  • Showing colleges how you’ve weathered adversity can give them a good reason to want to accept you.
    As the prompt says, the lessons learned from failure can be “fundamental to later success.Remember, it’s not about the failure; it’s about what you learned from it. 

TIP: Stay away from failures that include anything illegal (such as drugs and underage drinking) and very risky behavior.

Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #3.

Also in this series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
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: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

For the entire list of 2015 Common App essay prompts click here.


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.