Essay Prompt #2: 2016/17 Common Application

2. 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 did you learn from the experience?


It’s often hard to admit our mistakes.

But showing humility and realizing one’s shortcomings is a great character trait. Everyone will experience setbacks during college, so schools want down-to-earth people who can adapt from failure.


Essentially, this essay prompt is about personal growth.


The three biggest parts of this prompt:

  • When have you experienced failure?
  • How did it affect you and what did you learn from it?
  • How did you translate what you learned into future change?


If a moment in your life genuinely shows that you were able to bounce back from failure much stronger than before, then this prompt will highlight your strengthsif you write it correctly.


How should you write it?

Prompt #2 calls for some kick-ass anecdotes and serious self-analysis. It should contain the following main ingredients.


  • An excellent hook. Preferably one that throws the reader immediately into the action of the first anecdote. If your first anecdote doesn’t contain action, try a more measured approach with provocative imagery. Use color when describing a deep red carpet or a silvery glass or your coach’s awkwardly long white socks. Another approach is to use dialogue. A quick quotation that draws in the reader can be super effective.


  • An anecdote containing your failure, citing exactly what was your mistake/misjudgment. Don’t be too harsh on yourself and conversely don’t downplay your error. Find a healthy medium, perhaps with a sprinkling of good-hearted self-deprecating humor. Be specific, but don’t use up too much of your word count with summarization.


  • A quick explanation of your reaction immediately following the failure. This can be shock, bewilderment, disgust, sorrow, or really any other feeling, but make it apparent to the reader.


  • A transition from the first anecdote to the key lessons you learned. Don’t make it clunky, but clearly state how you changed as a result of your failure.


  • A display of how you changed after the failure. This can be an anecdote or a more in-depth analysis of your reaction. This part is the real meat of your essay.


  • A unique conclusion that ties back to first anecdote, puts a spin on a repeated theme/line from the essay, or concludes the essay assertively. The conclusion may take a lot of time to hammer out right, but it’s a critical part of the essay; allocate your writing time wisely.


As always, customize the organization however you see fit. Remember, this essay is all about you.
The Personal Essay is meant to be personal. Feel free to write about topics that you may not openly talk about with others.


With Prompt #2, you should turn a shortcoming into a strength… but don’t be cliche about it. One last tip to keep in mind: well-executed risks in writing are often rewarded.

Gabe Cederberg

Gabe is an elementary school troublemaker turned assiduous student. He engages in a variety of academic, artistic, and athletic activities, and will study at Harvard University following his gap year. Gabe enjoys making videos, learning languages, and fighting fires. Follow his articles to learn some of his tips and methods for achieving success.