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

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Aug 11, 2016 5:00:00 AM


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

I remember an admissions essay from a young woman who wrote about getting pregnant and choosing to have an abortion. 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.”

I looked around the table, and one of the committee members was wiping her eyes; another whispered, “Wow.” One by one, we shook our heads yes, and we admitted her. No one from her high school had ever been admitted to Rutgers before.

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?

Face it: it takes a lot of courage to write honestly about your own moments of failure. If you have a moment of failure that changed the way you look at the world, you need to write that essay out, and Story2 EssayBuilder walks you through a proven process, step by manageable step, to help you do that. Afterwards, 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 he or she knows everything. Whatever else you learned, show you learned some humility too.
  • No tidy morals at the end: Draw your reader in and share your experience with them. Trust them to get the message. Avoid the temptation to sum it up for them at the end.

The most important thing to show is what you learned from failing. Often this can be conveyed through a later experience that shows a different outcome. Learning that results in transformed action is much more powerful than a lesson that takes place only in your own mind.

One final 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 our Guide to the Common App.

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Topics:college admission