This post is another in my series on how to address the college application essay prompts from the Common App. This year, you have seven prompts from which to choose as an anchor for your essay. Each prompts presents its unique possibilities and challenges. Today we will look at the “obstacle/failure” prompt. This a fairly straightforward prompt that allows you both to tell a good story and to reflect on how your experiences have shaped your beliefs, your expectations, and your understanding of what it is to be human.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Obstacle / Challenge / Setback / Failure
The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals. Sometimes we are able to overcome the obstacle. Sometimes we are not: we fail. Thus, the first order of business in addressing this prompt is to clearly identify the goal you were trying to achieve. What was it you wanted? What was the objective? What hopes did you have? Then the second order of business is to clearly identify the obstacle (or challenge or setback or failure) that rendered the achievement of your goal more difficult—or even impossible.
Incident or Time
As with any essay, you need to tell a story. Whereas the previous prompt uses the word “story”, this prompt invites you to “recount” this process of setting a goal and having trouble meeting it. This is the story of how things did not go according to plan. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. But it must be brief.
Learning From The Experience
Whenever we fail—and we all do—we have to figure out how to respond to that failure. Often we gain something from the experience. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson. Perhaps we redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps we have developed a greater understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses. The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or greater understanding of the world around you.
Fundamentally, a good college essay will do two things. First, it will recount an interesting story in which you are the main character. Then the essay will give meaning to that story through the reflections you share with your reader. Together, the story and reflection will provide a window onto your strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow the reader to have a fuller picture of who you are.
Have fun writing!
Educational consultant and admissions expert
Filed Under: Application Tips, College EssaysTagged With: 2017-2018 applications, best college essay, college essay advice, Common App, great college essay, Ivy league admissions essay
College Application Essays: Tell a Story to Answer Prompt 2
When Messing Up is a Good Thing
I almost like Prompt #2 as much as Prompt #1 of the new essay questions for The Common Application: 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 lessons did you learn.
This essay prompt is music to my storytelling ears!
Why? Because first it literally asks you to tell a story (“recount an incident or time”) in your essay, which I think creates the most engaging and meaningful essays!
And secondly, it wants you to tell a story about a time you “failed.”
I know you might think the last thing you want to tell your college about is a time you screwed up, but it’s actually perfect.
I’ve talked many times in this blog how problems make the best stories.
Well, a failure is a type of problem, and a terrific one at that.
Problems (including failures) are naturally interesting to read about—who doesn’t love a juicy problem?
It’s much more fun to read about things that go wrong than when they go smoothly.
Think about the news, or your favorite movie or T.V. show!
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,
but in rising up every time we fail.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
So right out the door, this prompt is setting you up to find a compelling story about “a time” you failed, which you can then use to explain how you recovered and what you learned in the process.
That is essay gold!
The beauty of writing about a time you failed at something is that you also naturally present yourself as very human, humble and vulnerable, and someone with the maturity to recognize when you messed up.
You almost can’t help but come across as a very likable person (as opposed to students who write about their accomplishments and achievement, which risk them coming across as “all that” and not so likable.)
The more I think about it, I couldn’t have come up with a better prompt to help you write a standout essay about yourself!
The key, I believe, is to spend a few minutes expanding your definition of failure to see how may directions you could take this essay.
Literally, it means “lack of success.”
Note that it does not mean a complete failure, as in failing a test and getting an F.
It’s more the idea that you tried something, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out.
You didn’t have to experience a total flop, or a catastrophe or a complete defeat. Also, the reason whatever you tried wasn’t a success could have been your fault, or not your fault. It could have been someone else’s fault, or the fault of the situation.
In fact, there doesn’t even have to be anyone or anything to blame—as long as you turned a problematic (challenging, difficult, unpleasant) experience into something positive.
So try to expand your idea of what failure means when you think of past experiences you could relate as stories (incidents or times) in your essay.
I would suggest not even looking for a time you “failed,” but a time you didn’t succeed, or win, or finish, or complete something, or get what you wanted, or do what was expected, or when something went sideways, or you changed something about yourself.
I can think back to some great essays written by past students that could have addressed this prompt.
One student wrote about his love of tying knots and how he got stuck in a tree; and how he used his problem-solving skills to get down.
That could have been a failure.
Another student wrote about not getting the star role in a school musical, and what she learned playing a less important role. Another failure.
If you wrote about a phobia or bad habit–that’s a failure (to deal with it or get over it).
The more I think about it, a failure can be construed as almost any type of problem that you either thought you couldn’t get over or solve or handle. If you want to try to write about this prompt, I would suggest you read my Jumpstart Guide or even better, try How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.
Just keep in mind all the ways a “failure” can be the same thing as a problem when you read it. Both these posts will also tell you how to use a story about that problem, in the form of an anecdote, to write your essay.
I also wrote several posts to help you learn how to write your stories, or anecdotes.
And here are Some Sample Essays to Inspire You.
I never thought failure could sound so sweet!
If you want help on The Common Application’s Prompt #1, read THIS POST.
If you want help on The Common Application’s Prompt #4, read THIS POST.
Tomorrow I’m writing about how Oprah Winfrey talked about the nature of failure in the commencement address she gave the 2013 graduating class at Harvard University this past weekend.
You will see another reason it makes a great topic!
This is my post about Oprah and failure.
If you want some AWESOME advice, and ideas on how to think about the nature of failure, watch this short video: