This post is another in my series on how to address the college application essay prompts from the Coalition App. This year, you have five prompts from which to choose as an anchor for your essay. Each prompts presents its unique possibilities and challenges. Today we will look at the “obstacle/failure” prompt. This a fairly straightforward prompt that allows you both to tell a good story and to reflect on how your experiences have shaped your beliefs, your expectations, and your understanding of what it is to be human.
Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
Meaningful Contribution to Others
The story you must tell in this essay is one in which you did something that made life better for someone else. You took action to give something to someone else. That something might be material or immaterial: it could be an actual object, or it could be more like a feeling. However, this contribution must be significant—to you or to the recipient or both. Your story here is a discrete anecdote in which you improved the life of someone else.
Greater Good Was Your Focus
Community service is now considered an essential element of preparation for college admission. College admissions officers love stories in which teens perform selfless acts. But one of the paradoxes of modern secondary school life is that many teens are motivated to do service only because of a perceived “requirement,” whether explicit or implied, to add this service to your resume. This prompt specifically wants you to tell a story in which your primary motivation was the “greater good.” Admissions officers would like to see this dedication to service for the sake of service—not as a check box to tick on the way to college.
One of the most common and often least effective topics for this essay is service you rendered as part of a school trip, mission trip, or international experience organized by others to make it easy for you to do community service. In order for these experiences to work well, you must demonstrate your own motivations. Why was this organized trip the best way for you to improve the lives of others, and how can you prove that the “greater good” was the impetus for your participation in this experience?
Challenges and Rewards
Not every attempt to improve the lives of others actually works out as intended. Sometimes the contributor encounters stumbling blocks. Sometimes they even fail miserably. This prompt invites you to evaluate your actions, and to reflect upon how well you actually were able to serve the “greater good.” Keep in mind that sometimes we gain the most through our mistakes, so there is no harm (and sometimes great benefit) in assessing your actions honestly and forthrightly. But if your contributions clearly and unequivocally improved the lives of others, by all means take credit for your successes.
Educational consultant and admissions expert