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Learning From Failure Essay Example

Common App Personal Essay - Prompt 2

Prompt: 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?

Common App Personal Essay Example - Prompt 2 Example

When I decided to select this essay prompt, some of my friends told me I was crazy. After all, why would I admit to people, especially college admissions officers, that I had actually failed at something? Besides, how do we define failure? Does it mean not measuring up to standards, as in a grade or even a restaurant? Or does it simply mean making an attempt without achieving the desired outcome? Indeed, some people's failures could be others' successes.

Still, as high school students, we tend to think we're infallible. I can state that firsthand based on my experience with standup paddle, or SUP. I am very interested in studying environmental science, and many of the best colleges for the major are located near bodies of water. When I went looking at campuses, I saw that SUP was all the rage; at some colleges, it was not only a sport but a credit-bearing course! The students I spoke with told me, "If you're serious about applying here, you've got to get good at paddle!" I looked at some videos online and figured that as a good swimmer, I would not find standup particularly challenging. After all, I'm relatively thin, have lean muscles, and eat plenty of protein. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I learned the truth at the end of the summer, when I participated in a four-mile fundraiser to support beach conservation. I had signed up on a dare from a friend who knew of my interest in learning to paddle by the time I got to college. To prepare for the race, I watched YouTube videos and downloaded SUP magazine. When I showed up on race day, I was stunned to see a crowd on hand and realized that pros on the SUP circuit were racing. There were participants of various ages, some of whom had brought along children and pets.

Next, volunteers checked me in and gave me a board, but the rest was up to me, up being the word of choice. While I was able to stand on the board, I couldn't stay on it. Just a moment of hesitation was all I needed to . . . fall! The more I fell, the more I thought about falling, which meant of course that I was getting farther and farther behind the pack. While we were not in an ocean, there was a slight current, and boats in the distance created waves. I continued to "fall" behind. As I approached the midway point, contestants were already paddling their way back, including a woman with her labradoodle positioned confidently at the front of her board! I felt alone. Out of breath and bruised, I made a U turn and boarded back to shore. I hadn't even completed the entire race course. In my mind, I had failed. But my parents always taught me, as did my junior year English teacher Ms. Cavuto, that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Since my incident with SUP, I have appreciated athletes whose sports are different from my own. I don't assume that since I'm younger and more slender that I'm necessarily more athletic. I helped keep the beach clean, and I stopped my bad habit of judging others based on their appearance. I also realize that taking risks also increases the likelihood of failing. When I go to college, I know there will be more "failures": a poor test grade, a roommate mishap, or even a bad SUP race. And I realize that before I get too deep into my studies, I had better get a grip on the science of currents and take a course in water safety.

College Application Essays: Tell a Story to Answer Prompt 2

When Messing Up is a Good Thing


I almost like Prompt #2 as much as Prompt #1 of the new essay questions for The Common Application: 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 lessons did you learn.

This essay prompt is music to my storytelling ears!

Why? Because first it literally asks you to tell a story (“recount an incident or time”) in your essay, which I think creates the most engaging and meaningful essays!

And secondly, it wants you to tell a story about a time you “failed.”

I know you might think the last thing you want to tell your college about is a time you screwed up, but it’s actually perfect.

I’ve talked many times in this blog how problems make the best stories.

Well, a failure is a type of problem, and a terrific one at that.

Problems (including failures) are naturally interesting to read about—who doesn’t love a juicy problem?

It’s much more fun to read about things that go wrong than when they go smoothly.

Think about the news, or your favorite movie or T.V. show!

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,
but in rising up every time we fail.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson


So right out the door, this prompt is setting you up to find a compelling story about “a time” you failed, which you can then use to explain how you recovered and what you learned in the process.

That is essay gold!

The beauty of writing about a time you failed at something is that you also naturally present yourself as very human, humble and vulnerable, and someone with the maturity to recognize when you messed up.

You almost can’t help but come across as a very likable person (as opposed to students who write about their accomplishments and achievement, which risk them coming across as “all that” and not so likable.)

The more I think about it, I couldn’t have come up with a better prompt to help you write a standout essay about yourself!

The key, I believe, is to spend a few minutes expanding your definition of failure to see how may directions you could take this essay.

Literally, it means “lack of success.”

Note that it does not mean a complete failure, as in failing a test and getting an F.

It’s more the idea that you tried something, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out.

You didn’t have to experience a total flop, or a catastrophe or a complete defeat. Also, the reason whatever you tried wasn’t a success could have been your fault, or not your fault. It could have been someone else’s fault, or the fault of the situation.

In fact, there doesn’t even have to be anyone or anything to blame—as long as you turned a problematic (challenging, difficult, unpleasant) experience into something positive.

So try to expand your idea of what failure means when you think of past experiences you could relate as stories (incidents or times) in your essay.

I would suggest not even looking for a time you “failed,” but a time you didn’t succeed, or win, or finish, or complete something, or get what you wanted, or do what was expected, or when something went sideways, or you changed something about yourself.

I can think back to some great essays written by past students that could have addressed this prompt.

One student wrote about his love of tying knots and how he got stuck in a tree; and how he used his problem-solving skills to get down.

That could have been a failure.

Another student wrote about not getting the star role in a school musical, and what she learned playing a less important role. Another failure.

If you wrote about a phobia or bad habit–that’s a failure (to deal with it or get over it).

The more I think about it, a failure can be construed as almost any type of problem that you either thought you couldn’t get over or solve or handle. If you want to try to write about this prompt, I would suggest you read my Jumpstart Guide or even better, try How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.

Just keep in mind all the ways a “failure” can be the same thing as a problem when you read it. Both these posts will also tell you how to use a story about that problem, in the form of an anecdote, to write your essay.

I also wrote several posts to help you learn how to write your stories, or anecdotes.

And here are Some Sample Essays to Inspire You.

I never thought failure could sound so sweet!

If you want help on The Common Application’s Prompt #1, read THIS POST.

If you want help on The Common Application’s Prompt #4, read THIS POST.

Tomorrow I’m writing about how Oprah Winfrey talked about the nature of failure in the commencement address she gave the 2013 graduating class at Harvard University this past weekend.

You will see another reason it makes a great topic!

This is my post about Oprah and failure.

If you want some AWESOME advice, and ideas on how to think about the nature of failure, watch this short video:

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