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!
Common App 2: Failure and Success
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?
The grass wads up between my fingers. My knuckles are crimson with clotting blood, and I know there's only more pain ahead of me. I hear the snap of the ball, and then it's the cacophony of bodies hitting one another. A lineman barrels into me, and I fall to the earth, my bones rattling with the impact.
Behind me, I can hear the quarterback being taken down, hammered to the ground again. I struggle to rise, but I do. I glance at the scoreboard, and remind myself that this isn't just a loss. It's an historic loss, and I feel every yard in my aching body.
We never had a chance against them. While our team isn't bad, these are the reigning state champs, and most people who speculate on those things believe they will be playing at state again. We were nothing more than a bump in the road for them. A very painful bump in the road, as my punished body can attest.
We didn't go in thinking we were going to lose. We never prepared to get trounced. Coach had a game plan: we were to protect the quarterback and use a passing offense. Their defensive line, known for its speed, would not be able to keep up. All they needed was the offensive line, including me, to dig in and delay them. It was a good idea in theory, but theory is not the gridiron.
The defensive line plowed through us like we were made of tissue paper. My role in the plan was an utter failure. No matter what I did, what reserves of strength I tried to draw upon, they weren't enough. I was not big enough. I was not fast enough. I was not good enough. In short, I failed, and our team suffered for it. For an entire game, I was flattened over and over again by players that were larger, stronger, faster, and better than I was.
After the game, I had never felt worse. It wasn't just the physical aspects, though my aches, pains, and cuts exacerbated my feelings. It was the sense of failure, of personal failure. Had I held the line as I was supposed to, we would have won. There was no way around it.
Coach said something afterwards that completely changed my feelings. He told me he was proud of the way we had played. We were knocked down, he said, but we never stayed down. There's no shame in failure. There's only shame in never trying.
Had we won that day, I never would have learned anything. Had I somehow been able to hold that line as I was intended to, I would still be the same person. By failing, I was able to grow.
I could not stop them from coming through the lines on every play, but I didn't stop trying. This was the most important aspect of what happened. To a person who has never experienced failure, a single setback can be crippling. Failure, though, teaches you how to persevere in the face of adversity. My experience was painfully literal, but because of it, I can apply it to less physical areas of my life. Because of what I did, and how Coach made me understand its importance, I know that getting knocked down isn't important. Getting back up is what counts.
Why This Essay Works
Remember: the people reading college essays have a giant stack of them. They're reading them one after the other, so it's vital to grab them from the beginning with a hook. What's so effective about the introduction of this essay is that it puts you right into the middle of the action, using evocative language to create a sense of time and place.
After the introduction sets the stage, the full story unfolds. The body of the essay plays well against type. For a sports-related prompt, the reader might expect a lot of posturing. This essay is quite clear that the player is not at the top of their game, and there is no shame in that. The writer is introspective about what they regard as a failure, in a thoughtful manner that might surprise a reader expecting a more arrogant voice.
Sure, the moral is a tad cliché, but life is a little cliché sometimes. Also, when talking about success and failure, it's a little hard to not be cliché. That's why this works.
Additionally, the body continues the use of evocative language, but scales back on the intense scene-setting of the introduction. By letting the words breathe, the point comes across. Failure is not the end of the world, and for this writer, it's the beginning of understanding.
Lastly, the conclusion sums everything up. The writer re-states the prompt in their own words, and lays out precisely what they learned. With the final sentence, they end with a short, pithy comment, summing everything up in a way that should stick in the reader's mind.