college application essay


Yesterday, I wrote about how you can answer Prompt #2 of The Common Application and write about recovering from a failure.

Coincidentally, our favorite motivator Oprah Winfrey stood up in front of the graduating class at Harvard University just last weekend and talked about the same topic.

As you see, failing has an upside.

If you decide to “recount an incident or time” when you experienced failure for your college application essay, I presented some ideas in my last post on how to find a compelling story.

I advised you to think in broad terms about failure, and how almost any problem you have faced could fall into that category.

But once you recount a story about a time you “failed” in some way in your essay, you will also need to address the second part of the prompt: How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Telling an engaging story at the beginning is important for a standout essay because it serves to grab your reader and hook their attention at the start.

But the second part of the essay, where you explain what that experience meant to you, is equally important. This is where you can show admissions officers how you think, what you care about and how you learn.

In her talk, Winfrey explored the nature of failure, and focused on how it’s not a bad thing in life, as long as you learn from it.

She shared her own ideas and analysis of the nature of failure, which can give you some ideas on how to examine and reflect on your own failure story.

It doesn’t matter how far you might rise — at some point, you are bound to stumble. Because if you’re constantly doing what we do — raising the bar — if you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages predicts that you will, at some point, fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.

Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. . . . And when you’re down in the hole, when that moment comes, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while — give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost — but, then, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

And then, figure out what is the next right move. 


So when you find your own story–about a time you made a mistake or weren’t able to accomplish something you wanted–don’t forget to include how you recovered from this experience, and how you thought about it along the way, and what you learned from it.

I would suggest that you explore what you learned about yourself, what you learned about others, and what you learned about the nature of life and the world in general.

In a way, Oprah’s commencement speech wasn’t that unlike a college essay. If you want more inspiration, watch Oprah’s entire commencement address.

Here’s my post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompt 1.). It costs $9.98 and you can order using the button below.

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