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.
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.
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.
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.