How to Tackle 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompt #2

The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #2 reads as follows:

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? 

This is a great essay prompt to choose if you want to showcase your character and resilience. Colleges want to build classes of students who are not only academically intelligent but also emotionally intelligent. Humility, growth, and perseverance in the face of hardships and failures are great personal characteristics to highlight that demonstrate emotional maturity. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #2:

1. Pick a real challenge, setback, or failure.

This prompt is not for you if you have never experienced any significant challenges, setbacks, or failures in your life. If you grew up in a loving family and home, had access to great educational and material resources your whole life, and have always thrived and succeeded at whatever you put your mind to, those are wonderful blessings to have experienced. But it might also mean that you have a dearth of significant experiences to write about. You may have lived much of your childhood in a comfortable and unremarkable bubble. It takes a bit of self-awareness and maturity to know if you have truly experienced some real challenges, setbacks, and failures in your life. For someone who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, getting a B+ on an English paper might seem like the end of the world. Or unrequited teenage love might seem like an extraordinary setback. Or not getting into that elite boarding school that was your first choice might have led to days of despair and self-pity. My goal is not to minimize the importance of these experiences, many of which--for teenagers--are important opportunities to grow and learn from. My ultimate goal is to encourage you to have some perspective on your experiences and think about what your experiential selection says about you and your privilege. Check your privilege at the door, or in this case, before you write.

There is an important flip side to all of this. If you have indeed endured real hardships and difficulties in your life, you don't want to just play the victim card and throw a giant pity party. Someone who has actually learned and grown from difficult experiences usually has gained greater perspective on her life and usually does not embrace a "woe is me" mentality. It is a difficult balance to strike because you want your experience to be significant and meaningful enough (to avoid looking like a privileged kid who has never experienced any challenges) but you also want your experience not to sound like you're whining and complaining about the bad hand that life has dealt you. If, as you write about your experience, you seem to fall into this victim complex, then maybe it is a sign that you are not yet ready to discuss this experience in an essay. Maybe you are still learning the lessons from this experience and have not quite overcome the setback because you are still processing it emotionally. If the experience is too recent, then you don't have the benefit of hindsight to see the growth potential and the bigger picture. Reopening scabs when your wounds have just barely healed is not good for you and is not good for your essay. It will lead to an overly emotional and dramatic essay that lacks perspective, insight, and tact.

2. Focus on the personal growth rather than the initial failure or the subsequent success.

The delta, the change, the growth that you experienced is key for this essay. You will be tempted to focus most of your essay on recounting your challenge, setback, or failure and the subsequent success that you experienced. But that would be missing the point of this prompt. This essay is about analyzing how a difficult experience affected you and what you learned from it. Colleges care about your failures and successes, but they care more about how you have changed. The fact that you have changed and grown from difficult experiences says much more about you and your character than the fact that you succeeded after an initial failure. It shows that you are flexible and adaptable and teachable. It shows that you are humble, grateful, and open-minded. It shows that you are ready for a college environment, in which you will experience great independence and freedom to face new highs and lows.

Instead of focusing on what happened before and what happened after, focus on the whys and the hows. Why was this challenge, setback, or failure so significant or meaningful to you? Why do you believe you experienced this challenge, setback, or failure? Why did you think this particular experience was even a challenge, setback, or failure? Why did you think it important to overcome this challenge, setback, or failure? Why did you respond the way you did to this particular challenge, setback, or failure? Why did you respond the way you did to the subsequent success? Why did you deem this subsequent experience a success? Why did you pursue this particular form of success? How did you first respond to this challenge, setback, or failure? How did you subsequently respond to overcome this challenge, setback, or failure? How did you respond when you finally did achieve success? How did your attitude change? How did your approach to these types of situations change? And ultimately, how did you grow and change? You don't have to answer all of these questions, but these questions should help you think about the bigger picture and purpose of this prompt.

The journey matters (often more than the destination), and colleges want to see the journey that you have taken, limited it may be. Just as colleges are interested to see upward trajectories in your grades, test scores, extracurricular involvement, etc., they are also interested in seeing this upward trajectory in your personal growth. Because although they are ultimately building an academic community of scholars and intellectuals, colleges are mission-oriented and see themselves as incubators of future leaders of the world--people with great character, judgment, and skill. Personal growth and change do not happen overnight. And showing, specifically and concretely, how you have changed and grown as a result of negative experiences will demonstrate how you persevere over time and have become a better person over time.

3. Provide a specific and concrete example that demonstrates the personal growth you have experienced.

It is not enough to just say that you have changed or grown in X, Y, and Z ways as a result of whatever challenge, setback, or failure you have experienced. Just talking about how much you have learned without actually providing a specific and concrete example is not persuasive. So even though you don't need to spend too much time on the subsequent success you have experienced after changing and growing from this negative experience, you should provide a specific and concrete example of the personal growth you have experienced. And the example does not need to be a resounding success that you experienced. It can be an experience that simply demonstrates how you now respond differently to similar situations as a result of everything you have learned. A before-and-after illustration of yourself.

This again highlights the importance of balancing showing and telling in your essay. Too much of one without the other leads to essays that are less than fully compelling. It also highlights the importance of being specific and concrete, which I will emphasize repeatedly in all of my posts. When you write generally and abstractly, your point is not only more difficult to understand but also less memorable. Something very specific and concrete--and vivid--will linger in your reader's memory and imagination and help you stand out immediately.

Let's take a silly but simple example. Suppose you write your essay about a relationship failure where you got really angry and said some very hurtful things to a friend. And let's say that you write in your essay about how this experience made you feel very bad and how you learned that you needed to manage your anger more effectively and develop greater patience and understanding for others. A mediocre essay stops there. A stronger essay might provide an example of how you actually applied these lessons learned. For example, maybe a month after this incident, you had an opportunity to exercise greater restraint with your friend. Maybe your friend was provoking you. But instead of lashing out, like you did previously, maybe you employed some new tactics to maintain better self-control. Maybe you picked up a counting technique that allowed your anger to subside before you spoke--and you describe this in your essay. Maybe you carried a stress ball or smooth stone that calmed you down--and you vividly represent your hand finding relief through this object. Maybe you learned a new technique in listening and responding, focusing on repeating others' words back to them as a means of improving understanding and communication--and you use dialogue in your essay to show this. These examples may not necessarily be groundbreaking "successes," but they do demonstrate specifically and concretely how you changed and grew from your initial experiences. Be honest and vulnerable and show your personal evolution, and be ready to experience extraordinary success with your essay.

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