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On Failure: 4 Hints on How to Answer Common Application Question #2

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Oct 4, 2021 12:52:16 PM


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?

When I was a faculty advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, the admission essays about failure were much more memorable than those about success. 

I remember one essay, in particular, from a young woman who wrote about her mother having her when she was in high school, and how she had decided very early in life not to repeat her mother's mistakes. My hands shook as she traced her decision to be the first person in her family to attend college. “I want to have children later,” her essay concluded, “but not now.” 

It was a very simple essay, more about her sense of failure and inadequacy -- what we might call "imposter syndrome" -- than about any specific mistake or failure. The essay talked about decisions she had made and doubted at the time, but believed had been right for her. It definitely took on the part of this question that asks "what did you learn?" 

I looked around the table, and one of the committee members whispered, “Wow.” No one from her high school had ever been admitted to Rutgers before. Her grades weren't perfect; she had no standardized test scores; her most important activity was babysitting her two younger siblings. But she had a clear sense of purpose. 

It takes a lot of courage to write honestly about your own moments of doubt or failure. If you have a story about failure that changed you, I recommend you write that story out -- or tell it out loud using our free StoryBuilder app. Once it's out on paper, you can decide if you want to send it to colleges. 

Here are some tips to write successful essays about moments when you experienced failure:

  • Write without judgments or excess emotions: Tell what happened from inside the experience. Use details, dialogue and description to connect with your reader.
  • Avoid the obvious: No essays about learning how to study and then getting an A in Calculus. This is too predictable, too cliché, and too boring.
  • No grandstanding: There are few things more annoying than someone who thinks they are done learning! Whatever else you learned, show some humility too.
  • No happily ever after ending: Draw your reader in, tell a story that shares your experience with them. Trust them to get the message about what you learned. Avoid the temptation to sum it up for them at the end.

One more hint: This question is really asking "What can we count on you for as a result of your learning?" Can you find a later experience that shows what you learned from your mistake? Learning that results in transformed action is infinitely more powerful than a lesson that takes place only in your own mind. 

Want more tips for Common App essay prompts? Check out 4 Great Personal Statement Examples and Why They Worked.

Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story2 and author of Write Out Loud, has taught students around the world–from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs–how to tell stories out loud and write essays that help them gain admission and scholarships to their top-choice colleges. #AMA @carolbarash

Topics:college admission