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:
Check Out These Related Posts!
How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt About Failure
Today we continue our series of posts on common application essay topics. The second prompt asks students to, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you and what lessons did you learn?”
While most essay topics offer an open door for you to relate an accomplishment, moment of triumph, or positive personal attribute, this one asks instead that you to begin with failure. This isn’t some trap that the Common App has laid for unsuspecting students, nor is it an opportunity for you to score extra humility points with an admission office. It is, however, a prompt that requires care and thoughtfulness in its execution. A well-written “failure” essay can demonstrate remarkable growth and maturity, while a flippant or shallow version will cause you to lose ground with application readers.
Here are four tips for approaching this challenging but potentially rewarding topic:
Don’t force it
For this prompt in particular, it’s important not to force an event in your life to fit the topic. If you spend ten minutes brainstorming and are struggling to identify a major failure in your life, then you should probably move onto another topic. And don’t even think about masquerading one of your accomplishments as a failure. It’s as bad as saying in an interview that your biggest weakness is that you work too hard.
Once you’ve identified the event that will be the subject of your essay, fully commit to it. While other essays might allow you to introduce and dismiss a failure in a pair of sentences, this topic asks you to make it the launching point for your essay. Describe why you consider the event a failure. Identify the challenges that you encountered and the feelings that developed in response to those challenges. Perhaps most importantly, ensure that you take ownership of your failure rather than passing it off on friend, coach, parent, or teacher.
It’s a Personal Statement, not a personal statement
There are certain categories of failure that are relevant for a personal statement: missing an opportunity to defend a friend in need, losing an election, running a bad race, or making a false assumption about a new classmate. These failures are connected to your academic or extra-curricular self, and are the elements of your personality that are relevant to your candidacy for admission. Readers will want to know how you respond to these kinds of challenges because these are the sorts of obstacles you will undoubtedly encounter in college.
There are other categories of failure, however, that will make an admission officer uncomfortable just at the mere mention of it. If you’re writing about the time you were dumped by your girlfriend or got caught sneaking out at night, you’ve selected the wrong topic for your essay. You want this piece of writing to be a net positive for you, and showing poor judgment on the incident you choose to highlight can be even more damaging than poor execution.
The payoff for this essay comes from your response to failure, so don’t make the mistake of tacking on a mere one-paragraph “moral to the story” at the end of a lengthy description of your failure. Notice that the prompt asks you to recount both how you were affected and what lessons you learned, but there’s no requirement you wait until the final paragraph to begin to address these questions. Be your present self throughout your essay, relating the tale of your past self with the maturity that you’ve gained in the wake of the event. Too many students betray immaturity by reflecting on their failure superficially, or with a tone of entitlement, which is one of many college application essay writing pitfalls.
Your reflection is the most important part of the essay, and should receive as much thought and care as you can give to it. In the end, the lessons that you’ve learned should be powerful enough that they help inform your approach to the essay. Otherwise, colleges will wonder whether you’ve actually learned anything at all.