Common App Essay 2 Tips

Want to write about a challenge, setback or failure experience? The Common App Essay Prompt #2 is the one for you!

Common App Essay Prompt #2

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

General Tips

This the go-to Common App essay prompt for most people. Based on many published college application essays, most people think the personal statement is synonymous with a story about overcoming a difficult past or a failure.

And, it’s a popular essay prompt for a reason! Choosing to write about a failure or a setback gives you the opportunity to demonstrate many aspects of your personality: perseverance, courage, or patience, to name a few.

So, what constitutes as a good “challenge, setback or failure”? This is where many applicants have difficulty. Many students feel as though they haven’t experienced enough failures to write a strong essay. It doesn’t take a life-threatening setback for you to write a winning application essay. You can write about a mental illness you’re suffering from, or about how you can’t ride a bike. Admissions officers aren’t there to judge how much you’ve been through. Truthfully, it’s not even about the challenge or failure you faced, it’s about how it affected in and what you learned from it.

The most common mistake you see students make when responding to this prompt is focusing too much on the details of the challenge or the failure. While it’s important to share what the issue is, there’s no need to spend paragraphs on what happened. The focus of the essay should be on how it influenced you. How did it make you feel? What did you do about it? Now, looking back, what did you learn from your experience? By using the challenge or setback as a framework for your personal statement, you can share your emotions, thought process and hopes for the future.

To help you better understand what I’m referring to, here are a few successful personal statement essays with the same essay topic. One talked about heavy difficult family issues, while another wrote about her hatred for eating vegetables. Again, regardless of the chosen setback or challenge, they were all able to provide insight into who they are as a person and as a student.

Essay Example 1: I Don’t Want to Ask for Help

Bluedevil25, Duke University ‘21

“I only realized my embarrassing mistake when I stood up and my pajamas were soaked. Although both the babysitter and my brother were home, I could not muster up the confidence to ask them for help with my drenched onesie.

Growing up, the same juvenile attitude about not asking for help would often manifest itself. Whether it was having to ask for rides because of my mom’s visual impairment forced her to stop driving or seek out my math teachers when I struggled, it always felt uncomfortable to impose on others for assistance.”

Unlock his full Duke successful college application file to read how he came to learn the virtue of help in his personal statement!

Essay Example 2: Building a HS Hackathon - StuyHacks

Sharon Lin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘21

“A malfunctioning Parrot drone grazed the side of my face as I huddled over a broken Macbook Air, the sounds of overheated CPUs interlacing with the blaring EDM. Just as the volume in the room reached its peak, the elevator door opened to reveal yet another dozen attendees arriving with an armload of hardware and equipment.

The day had hardly even begun, and yet the hackathon was already a bevy of chaos.”

Unlock her full MIT successful college application profile to read how she overcame the challenges to form and lead a student hackathon.

Essay Example 3: Research Internship

Christina C, University of Southern California ‘19

“On the first day of summer, instead of sleeping in or playing at the beach with my friends, I drove for an hour to [internship place]. I sat in Dr.’s office where he explained my internship project. He sputtered terms like “GtgyjbH” which I would come to know as the string of letters representing the name of the bacterial protein under scrutiny; but, at the time it simply sounded like literal “gibberish”.”

Unlock her full USC successful college application profile to read how she dealt with a setback during her research internship.

Essay Example 4: Vegetables are My Enemies

Minierm92, Harvey Mudd College ‘19

“I had many enemies as a child.

Spiders, nail clippers, eye drops - such were the demons that set out to ruin my life. Btu none - not one single thing - did I despise as much as I did vegetables. My hatred toward vegetables wasn’t th eshallow, momentary fear of a child, nor was it a short-lived attempt to be rebellious.”

Unlock her full Harvey Mudd successful college application profile to see how what simple challenges can teach you in life.

Essay Example 5: Family Background

Marrs, Barnard College ‘20

“No matter what I did, it was as if I would never be good enough. Sure the word love was thrown around every now an then, but it was never shown. Emotional and physical abuse were daily aspects in my everyday life. He had no patience and always assumed he was right, so as a young child, it was as if my own voice was taken away from me. I became a shell of my former happy self, but no one took notice because of the smile I forced myself to on every time I life home, the place I dreaded returning to.”

Unlock her full Barnard successful college application profile to stepped out of the dark shadow casted by her family and took control of her own future.

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Hope this was helpful for those of you writing your Common Application personal statements. Want to read these common application essays? Unlock all of them in one go with our Challenge, Setbacks or Failures Package! 

Our premium plans offer different levels of profile access and data insights that can help you get into your dream school. Unlock any of our packages or search our undergraduate profile database to find specific profiles that can help you make an informed choice about where to apply! We have 60,000+ successful college application files uploaded by college students. See how they got in, and how you can too!

 

About The Author

Frances Wong

Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.




The college admissions process can be stressful, and drafting a 650-word essay that’s supposed to explain who you are can seem daunting. We hope that the following quick guide on how to draft a compelling response to the Common App essay prompt #2 will help ease your burdens! For additional resources regarding other Common App essay prompts and the college admissions process, generally, feel free to visit our Resources Page and our College Admissions Editing Page.

 

 

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” 1. IDENTIFY A CONFLICT THAT JEOPARDIZES YOUR PASSIONS. Describe something you enjoy or care about immensely. The activity doesn’t need to be extraordinary. Rather, be genuine. Also, make sure to identify an issue that threatened your ability to continue pursuing the passion you identified. Show the stakes you thought you could have lost if you couldn’t have resolved the problem. Topics can cover any aspect of your life, but be careful when addressing potentially offensive or emotionally charged content. 2. SHOW GROWTH IN HANDLING THE ISSUE. Now that you’ve introduced the dilemma and why it was significant to you, explain how you reacted to the matter, what steps you took to address the issue, and, most importantly, how the experience altered your perspectives on the issue and expanded your viewpoints of the world? How did this “setback” help you become a more well-rounded person? Think of personal development issues like learning to change your perspective, building perseverance, or becoming aware of your own prejudices or shortcomings.3. PROVE YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED. How did solving the dilemma or reaching that epiphany change or reinforce your values? Would what you have learned help you to thrive in a college environment where you’d assuredly meet people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives? How do you intend to apply what you have learned to life in college and beyond? Show how your experience helped shape who you are and the personal goals you have set for yourself. Identify a couple of courses and extracurricular activities you’d tackle with your new outlook on life. Stylistically, end your essay by coming full circle. Combine elements in your opening paragraph with an optimistic future outlook. Remember you’re telling YOUR story. Each word should focus on personal growth. Resilience and perseverance are the hallmarks of success. Do you have what it takes to succeed? If so, prove it!

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