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:
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.
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?
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?
Hi. This might be a silly question, but how much of the essay should be story-telling and how much should be reflection? I’ve written my essay on this prompt, but looking back I feel it might tell too much of a story and too little of what I learned. Thanks for any help!
It’s probably too late to help you, but in general, I would make no more than a third or less about the actual story, and the rest about how you handled it, what you learned and why that mattered. Best of luck, JR
So sorry for the late response, but if it still matters, here’s my answer: You are right to worry if too much of your essay is about your personal story. A rule of thumb would be to make sure it is no more than half, and ideally more about a third. The rest should be about how you felt, thought and learned from that experience or moment, and why that matters. Best of luck on your college application essays! Janine Robinson
(And your question is actually an awesome one, and I’m even working on a post now just about that issue! So thanks!!)
What if you don’t know what failure to write about? I have one in mind, but it just seems too depressing and I feel like the readers might just think I’m hopeless.
Hi, the good news is there are four other prompts you can choose from to write your Common App essay! So just don’t worry about Prompt 2 and finding a failure. I like Prompt 1 the most since it’s the most open-ended. Check out my post on ideas on how to brainstorm for this prompt:http://www.essayhell.com/2013/05/how-to-answer-prompt-1-of-the-new-common-application/
Good luck! Janine
Hi, would it be a good idea to extend the example of one failure into my personal story and elaborate how I overcame the problems in my life? Would that be stretching it too far from focusing on one failure? Thanks in advance!
Another great question! I think you are smart to include a “failure” that involved your personal story. Those are the most interesting and meaningful. I would be careful about trying to pack too many failures into this essay. I would think of one that best illustrates the point you want to showcase about you (a defining quality you used or developed to deal with that failure.) If you have other similar failures that support the same main point you want to share about yourself, yes, include them as well (maybe just touch on them later in your essay.) What will give your essay a tight focus is if you know exactly what you want highlight about yourself in dealing with that failure. Good luck!! Janine
Hi!I do not want to make my essay so “uptight.” What kind of failures can I write about? Would failing my permit test be a good one?
If you simply describe your failure, or what happened during your permit test, I bet it will be great! We’ve all been there, right? Just make sure to shift quickly into how you handled your failure, and what you learned in the process. Try to write like you talk and just be straightforward and not sound impressive or flowery. I bet it will turn out better than you expect! Janine Robinson
Hi, I wanted to write about how a certain sport played a great role in my life and was fond with it ever since i could remember. But even though i worked hard and gave it my all, the coach never selected my in the team.
Woud this make a good essay?
In general, sports-themed essays are overdone and often cliche. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a great essay involving sports. If you can find something unexpected or different about your experience, and show something about yourself (something you learned), that could work. Give it a try and see if you showcase one of your defining qualities in the process. What did you learn from trying so hard and yet never being chosen for the team? It’s those lessons that could make your essay meaningful and effective. Good luck! JR
Hey, I wanted to write about the experience I had when I found out I was going to be a father at a very young age of 19. The challenges I had and sill have and how things were at a first.. Would this be considered as a failure? And how will I make it more captivating and touching? Should I go for it?
Yes, that experience as a young father could make an outstanding essay. In fact, I would highly recommend your write about it. One way to gauge if a topic idea could help set you apart, is to try to think how many other students are likely to have had a similar experience or a similar topic. I could say very few teenagers are fathers. Also, this experience can’t help but have affected you on many deep levels. I don’t think of being a young father as a failure. Why don’t you just line it up with Common App Prompt 1, which is very general and your essay would line up easily with it. So, to answer your question, YES, GO FOR IT!! Best of luck, Janine Robinson
Hi I need your help it’s about the essay I’m gonna write for my common application and I choose the topic about failure and I want you to help me on this topic so that I can write the good one and I have tried so many times but that was not enough and I need some help
Could failed expectations of oneself in life work? Speaking from being a little older and applying as a transfer student. It sounds vague but I believe it can be written concisely and it’s a deep rooted issue so it has the emotion behind it.
Hi Cam, I’m probably answering this way too late to help you, however, for anyone else who can relate to your awesome question: I think you could write about this, but you would want to make sure to put a positive spin on this. If you share your “failed expectations,” make sure to provide specific examples, and then QUICKLY to into what you did about those and what you learned about yourself. And where you intend to head next and why. Good luck!
Would it makes sense to describe my failure in not being able to fully participate within a sport that I enjoyed because of my disability and how this failure made me aware of my hidden feelings about myself living with this condition and how becoming more self aware of my feelings I began to change the way I looked at life in a new positive perspective.
Would it be okay if I wrote about someone else’s failure and then talk about how I learned from it? For example, my sister didn’t do so well in highschool and didn’t go to college. Could I talk about how I learned from it?
Hi Lily, I would try to write about a failure that you experienced, if possible. Good luck, Janine
Is it corny if I write about how I overcame my fear of people like it was a genuine phobia and how it affected my childhood connections