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Write a Great College Essay for the Common App – The Obstacle / Challenge / Failure Prompt

This post is another in my series on how to address the college application essay prompts from the Common App.  This year, you have seven 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.

 

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Obstacle / Challenge / Setback / Failure
The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals. Sometimes we are able to overcome the obstacle. Sometimes we are not: we fail. Thus, the first order of business in addressing this prompt is to clearly identify the goal you were trying to achieve. What was it you wanted? What was the objective? What hopes did you have? Then the second order of business is to clearly identify the obstacle (or challenge or setback or failure) that rendered the achievement of your goal more difficult—or even impossible.
Incident or Time
As with any essay, you need to tell a story. Whereas the previous prompt uses the word “story”, this prompt invites you to “recount” this process of setting a goal and having trouble meeting it. This is the story of how things did not go according to plan. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. But it must be brief.
Learning From The Experience
Whenever we fail—and we all do—we have to figure out how to respond to that failure. Often we gain something from the experience. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson. Perhaps we redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps we have developed a greater understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses. The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or greater understanding of the world around you.
Need a Hook for your College EssayFundamentally, a good college essay will do two things.  First, it will recount an interesting story in which you are the main character.  Then the essay will give meaning to that story through the reflections you share with your reader.  Together, the story and reflection will provide a window onto your strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow the reader to have a fuller picture of who you are.

Have fun writing!

Mark Montgomery
Educational consultant and admissions expert

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