For those of you scrutinizing the common application essay options as though your life (or worse, your college admissions chances) depends on it, the second prompt may give you pause: "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?" Don't panic! It's not a sadistic ploy concocted by admissions officers. Answering this prompt is not a one-way, express ticket to the doomed rejection pile. In fact, although elaborating on your shortcoming and mistakes may seem counterproductive, common application essay #2 is likely the most misunderstood and unappreciated of the prompts. Like any topic, it is an open door replete with opportunity as well as hazards and pitfalls. With the proper tools, you can wield this prompt to produce a distinctive, engaging, and effective essay that will annihilate the competition.
First and foremost, be ORIGINAL. Place yourself at the desk of an admissions officer as he or she drowns in stale, uninspired applicant essays. The tired tale of an athletic setback that taught you the value of perseverance or the hackneyed story of a failing grade that cured your procrastination are probably not the best choices to write about. You are the sum total of seventeen or eighteen years of life experience; there's a gold nugget in there somewhere, you just have to dig for it! Failure is a broad term that does not necessarily have to be a life-altering catastrophe or complete defeat. It could include anything from an incident in which you failed to act, a time where you did not take the opportunity to move beyond your comfort zone, or a detrimental lapse in judgment. Don't be afraid to think outside the box. However, if you're reading this, racking your brain, and still do not have anything unique, there's still hope! You can flavor your essay with originality by finding an unexpected lesson in a common failure. Surprise admissions officers from their stupor with a clever, fresh take on an old (and not so favorite) topic.
Secondly, "recount an incident" means...it's story time! You have been handed a creative license; don't waste it. Give the reader a snapshot of your life by providing a personal, entertaining, and detailed description of your failure in narrative form. If you're uncomfortable with storytelling or the closest you've come to creative writing is changing the font of your research paper, read the following tips and instantly become a professional:
Let it flow. Forget the rigid five paragraph structure. Ignore the looming word count. Just write. This will activate your creative juices. Write away.
Details, details, details. What were you feeling? What were you thinking? Was the grass simply green or did its dew-covered, emerald tips glisten in the early morning sun? Don't be afraid to add dimension to your writing with imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices. A good story is always in the details.
It's all about you. Yes, you can say this and not feel guilty. Others can play secondary roles in your tale, but you're the star. Admissions officers want to get to know you, so everything you write must give some insight into your thoughts or character.
Finally, the second half of the prompt ("How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?") is the most important part. An essay simply delineating a failure is just that, a failure. What did it teach you about yourself? Did it alter your perspective or behavior? How did it shape your future endeavors and decisions? This is definitely not the place for cookie-cutter morals or clichés. Admissions officers are seeking a PERSONAL reflection that demonstrates growth and maturity. This essay should not only provide insight into your character but also your ability to cope with and appropriately respond to setbacks and errors.
However, if you're still not sold on this prompt's potential for success, allow me to make one final pitch. Prior to reading your essay, admissions officers fashion a fictitious image based entirely on the dry data of test scores, grades, and extensive lists of extracurriculars and achievements. This essay option lends you a golden opportunity to incorporate a human, if not vulnerable element, to the persona you present. The humility required to own one's mistakes is an endearing quality that the vast majority of people appreciate. Furthermore, the introspection and confidence necessary to confront and evaluate your shortcomings are qualities that excite every admissions officer. So, take the leap, pull out all the stops, go for it, and most importantly... dare to fail!