How to Write the Perfect College Essay for the Common Application–Writing About Failure

It’s the middle of the summer.  Wouldn’t a nice, cool, glass of lemonade hit the spot?

This year the Common Application is asking students to address one of five new prompts around which to build their college essay.  In our last installment, we looked at the prompt asking  you to relate your “background or story.”  Today we will examine the second prompt, which focuses on the subject we all wish we could avoid—but cannot:  FAILURE. Here’s how the prompt reads:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Again, I have highlighted the key words that help give us some guideposts on how to address this prompt.

Incident or time:  You are being asked for a specific event in time. Thus you will again tell a story to your reader.  It should be a very succinct story, but it should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  You want to give enough detail that your reader can follow the narrative, but not so long that you get boring—or worse, go over the word count limit.

Affect:  What was the impact of this failure?  How did it make others see you?  How did you see yourself after this incident?  Be reflective. Examine your emotions.  Did it make you angry, embarrassed, disappointed, secretly thrilled, or downright sad?  What was the immediate impact of your failure?  This is perhaps the hardest part of answering this prompt:  you have to go into that mess of feelings that you’ve tried to put behind you.  But the admissions office is asking you to share, so share you must.

Lessons:  This seems obvious, but these lessons can be hard to articulate.  So begin with a list:  how many things can you pinpoint that you learned from this mistake?  Think about how you can learn things at different times, too. Sometimes we learn things from failure immediately. Other lessons take longer to sink in.  Again, you have to be analytical.  I recommend that you come up with three solid lessons for this essay.

The ultimate direction of this essay should be positive and optimistic.  You should not worry too much about the nature of the mistake:  we’ve all made them, and admissions officers, frankly, have seen them all.  The point of this is to allow you to demonstrate your maturity, your humility, and your ability to turn a bad experience into a good one.

As they say, when life give you lemons, make lemonade!



Writing About Failure

Writing About A Belief or Idea

Writing About A Place or Environment

Writing About the Transition to Adulthood

Writing About Your Background Story



Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

Join the Conversation


  1. “The ultimate direction of this essay should be positive and optimistic” – great advice. Failure is fine, as long as it’s used as an opportunity for growth.

  2. When I refer to an incident of failure , is it necessary that it has to be an event in which I was not able to achieve something(literal meaning of failure), as in, is it necessary that the event should be an experience where I literally faced failure. Cant it be an incident that i experienced over a period of time , which taught me alot of things?

  3. Hi.
    There is no firm rule here. It would help, however, to understand the incident you have in mind. Failure, as you point out, can take many forms. Your job is to define it in the context of your life. It can be something that occurred over time, at least in theory.
    Hope this helps!

  4. Yes, Kelly, that would be okay. But the important thing is to explain what you gained from the experience of the failure. Sometimes, when you are in the midst of a muddle, it is harder to step back and recognize the growth you have made as a result of the trials and tribulations. Remember this is not an essay about your failures. Rather, it’s an essay about what your failures have taught you that will be useful in the future.
    Best of luck!

  5. I have chose this topic because I felt like it told a lot about me. I am planning to write about teamwork and how it is a big component in my life. As for my story, I am thinking about using the sport of basketball to illustrate the picture (because I play basketball). I am sitting here, on my chair, for hours, and I only wrote down 3 sentences.

    “Teamwork is an essential component in life; it beholds the power to make things much easier or much harder. It can either help things move easily or roughly. We, as people, possess this potential to use it to our benefits or to our detriments.”

    How can I introduce my topic even further?

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