how to write college essays

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.

Own it

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.

Follow through

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.

Essay-Pitfalls-CTA

Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.