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: 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 have 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!

“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 from it 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! This is the next best thing to the old, open-ended “Topic of Choice” option, which The Common Application folks nixed this year.

 

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–just how you turned a problematic (challenging, difficult, unpleasant) experience back 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 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. Just keep in mind all the ways a “failure” can be the same thing as a problem when you read it. It 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.

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.

 

3 Responses to The Beauty of Failure: How to Answer Prompt 2 of The Common Application

  1. Andy says:

    Hi, I was reading your article on prompts 1 and 2 for the common app. I need help with writing my essay. Could writing about getting through my difficulty of having OCD be one and what I have learned from it.

  2. John says:

    Ho=i. For this essay, I was thinking of writing about making a false assumption about a new classmate. Do you think that this will work for this prompt?

  3. John says:

    Hi. For this essay, I was thinking of writing about making a false assumption about a new classmate, but then this classmate ends up being one of my best friends now & changing the way I look at people. Do you think that this will work for this prompt?

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