How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt About Failure
Today we continue our series of posts on common application essay topics. The second prompt asks students to, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you and what lessons did you learn?”
While most essay topics offer an open door for you to relate an accomplishment, moment of triumph, or positive personal attribute, this one asks instead that you to begin with failure. This isn’t some trap that the Common App has laid for unsuspecting students, nor is it an opportunity for you to score extra humility points with an admission office. It is, however, a prompt that requires care and thoughtfulness in its execution. A well-written “failure” essay can demonstrate remarkable growth and maturity, while a flippant or shallow version will cause you to lose ground with application readers.
Here are four tips for approaching this challenging but potentially rewarding topic:
Don’t force it
For this prompt in particular, it’s important not to force an event in your life to fit the topic. If you spend ten minutes brainstorming and are struggling to identify a major failure in your life, then you should probably move onto another topic. And don’t even think about masquerading one of your accomplishments as a failure. It’s as bad as saying in an interview that your biggest weakness is that you work too hard.
Once you’ve identified the event that will be the subject of your essay, fully commit to it. While other essays might allow you to introduce and dismiss a failure in a pair of sentences, this topic asks you to make it the launching point for your essay. Describe why you consider the event a failure. Identify the challenges that you encountered and the feelings that developed in response to those challenges. Perhaps most importantly, ensure that you take ownership of your failure rather than passing it off on friend, coach, parent, or teacher.
It’s a Personal Statement, not a personal statement
There are certain categories of failure that are relevant for a personal statement: missing an opportunity to defend a friend in need, losing an election, running a bad race, or making a false assumption about a new classmate. These failures are connected to your academic or extra-curricular self, and are the elements of your personality that are relevant to your candidacy for admission. Readers will want to know how you respond to these kinds of challenges because these are the sorts of obstacles you will undoubtedly encounter in college.
There are other categories of failure, however, that will make an admission officer uncomfortable just at the mere mention of it. If you’re writing about the time you were dumped by your girlfriend or got caught sneaking out at night, you’ve selected the wrong topic for your essay. You want this piece of writing to be a net positive for you, and showing poor judgment on the incident you choose to highlight can be even more damaging than poor execution.
The payoff for this essay comes from your response to failure, so don’t make the mistake of tacking on a mere one-paragraph “moral to the story” at the end of a lengthy description of your failure. Notice that the prompt asks you to recount both how you were affected and what lessons you learned, but there’s no requirement you wait until the final paragraph to begin to address these questions. Be your present self throughout your essay, relating the tale of your past self with the maturity that you’ve gained in the wake of the event. Too many students betray immaturity by reflecting on their failure superficially, or with a tone of entitlement, which is one of many college application essay writing pitfalls.
Your reflection is the most important part of the essay, and should receive as much thought and care as you can give to it. In the end, the lessons that you’ve learned should be powerful enough that they help inform your approach to the essay. Otherwise, colleges will wonder whether you’ve actually learned anything at all.
To achieve the greatest success, you have to embrace the prospect of failure.
The sweetest victory is the one that’s most difficult. The one that requires you to reach down deep inside, to fight with everything you’ve got, to be willing to leave everything out there on the battlefield—without knowing, until that do-or-die moment, if your heroic effort will be enough. Society doesn’t reward defeat, and you won’t find many failures documented in history books.
The exceptions are those failures that become steppingstones to later success. Such is the case with Thomas Edison, whose most memorable invention was the light bulb, which purportedly took him 1,000 tries before he developed a successful prototype. “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” a reporter asked. “I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” Edison responded. “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Unlike Edison, many of us avoid the prospect of failure. In fact, we’re so focused on not failing that we don’t aim for success, settling instead for a life of mediocrity. When we do make missteps, we gloss over them, selectively editing out the miscalculations or mistakes in our life’s résumé. “Failure is not an option,” NASA flight controller Jerry C. Bostick reportedly stated during the mission to bring the damaged Apollo 13 back to Earth, and that phrase has been etched into the collective memory ever since. To many in our success-driven society, failure isn’t just considered a non-option—it’s deemed a deficiency, says Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list,” Schulz says. “It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.”
Related:10 Things Successful People Never Do Again
Failure Is Life’s Greatest Teacher
When we take a closer look at the great thinkers throughout history, a willingness to take on failure isn’t a new or extraordinary thought at all. From the likes of Augustine, Darwin and Freud to the business mavericks and sports legends of today, failure is as powerful a tool as any in reaching great success. “Failure and defeat are life’s greatest teachers [but] sadly, most people, and particularly conservative corporate cultures, don’t want to go there,” says Ralph Heath, managing partner of Synergy Leadership Group and author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. “Instead they choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again. They operate under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention; no one will yell at them for failing because they generally never attempt anything great at which they could possibly fail (or succeed).”
However, in today’s post-recession economy, some employers are no longer shying away from failure—they’re embracing it. According to a recent article in BusinessWeek, many companies are deliberately seeking out those with track records reflecting both failure and success, believing that those who have been in the trenches, survived battle and come out on the other side have irreplaceable experience and perseverance.
“The quickest road to success is to possess an attitude toward failure of ‘no fear.’ ”
They’re veterans of failure. The prevailing school of thought in progressive companies—such as Intuit, General Electric, Corning and Virgin Atlantic—is that great success depends on great risk, and failure is simply a common byproduct. Executives of such organizations don’t mourn their mistakes but instead parlay them into future gains. “The quickest road to success is to possess an attitude toward failure of ‘no fear,’ ” says Heath. “To do their work well, to be successful and to keep their companies competitive, leaders and workers on the front lines need to stick their necks out a mile every day.
They have to deliver risky, edgy, breakthrough ideas, plans, presentations, advice, technology, products, leadership, bills and more. And they have to deliver all this fearlessly—without any fear whatsoever of failure, rejection or punishment.”
Reaching Your Potential
The same holds true for personal quests, whether in overcoming some specific challenge or reaching your full potential in all aspects of life. To achieve your personal best, to reach unparalleled heights, to make the impossible possible, you can’t fear failure, you must think big, and you have to push yourself. When we think of people with this mindset, we imagine the daredevils, the pioneers, the inventors, the explorers: They embrace failure as a necessary step to unprecedented success. But you don’t have to walk a tightrope, climb Mount Everest or cure polio to employ this mindset in your own life.
When the rewards of success are great, embracing possible failure is key to taking on a variety of challenges, whether you’re reinventing yourself by starting a new business or allowing yourself to trust another person to build a deeper relationship. “To achieve any worthy goal, you must take risks,” says writer and speaker John C. Maxwell. In his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he points to the example of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, who set several records and achieved many firsts in her lifetime, including being the first female pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean.
Although her final flight proved fateful, Maxwell believes she knew the risk—and that the potential reward was worth it. “[Earhart’s] advice when it came to risk was simple and direct: ‘Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying.’ ” Of course, the risks you take should be calculated; you shouldn’t fly blindly into the night and simply hope for the best. Achieving the goal or at least waging a heroic effort requires preparation, practice and some awareness of your skills and talents.
Easing Into a Fearless Mindset
“One of the biggest secrets to success is operating inside your strength zone but outside of your comfort zone.”
“One of the biggest secrets to success is operating inside your strength zone but outside of your comfort zone,” Heath says. Although you might fail incredibly, you might succeed incredibly—and that’s why incredible risk and courage are requisite. Either way, you’ll learn more than ever about your strengths, talents and resolve, and you’ll strengthen your will for the next challenge. If this sounds like dangerous territory, it can be. But there are ways to ease into this fearless mindset.
Related:21 Quotes About Failing Fearlessly
Maintain a Positive Attitude
The first is to consciouslya mintain a positive attitude so that, no matter what you encounter, you’ll be able to see the lessons of the experience and continue to push forward. “It’s true that not everyone is positive by nature,” says Maxwell, who cites his father as someone who would describe himself as a negative person by nature. “Here’s how my dad changed his attitude. First he made a choice: He continually chooses to have a positive attitude.
Reading and Listening to Motivational Material
Second, he’s continually reading and listening to materials that bolster that attitude. For example, he’s read The Power of Positive Thinking many times. I didn’t get it at first, so once I asked him why. His response: ‘Son, I need to keep filling the tank so I can stay positive.’ ” Heath recommends studying the failures and subsequent reactions of successful people and, within a business context, repeating such histories for others. “Reward them and applaud their efforts in front of the entire organization so everyone understands it is OK to fail.
So employees say to themselves, ‘I see that Bill, the vice president of widgets, who the president adores, failed, and he is not only back at work, but he is driving a hot new sports car. I can fail and come to work the next day. Bill is proof of it.’ ” Finally, Heath stays motivated by the thought that, “if I become complacent and don’t take risks, someone will notice what I am doing and improve upon my efforts over time, and put me out of work. You’ve got to keep finding better ways to run your life, or someone will take what you’ve accomplished, improve upon it, and be very pleased with the results. Keep moving forward or die.”
Related:Fail Often and Fast
Seth Godin: ‘I’ve Failed Way More Times Than I’ve Succeeded’
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2010 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.