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How to Write the Overcoming Challenges Essay + Example

April 17, 2023

overcoming challenges essay college

At some point, most college-bound students are tasked with writing an overcoming challenges essay. The prompt crops up in various forms, as a supplemental short essay about overcoming a challenge, and in as the main essay itself.

Some students may feel inclined to write about a dramatic experience (say, spotting a grizzly bear outside the kitchen window), mistaking the drama of the moment for a significant challenge. Others may get to work, only to realize they don’t have much to say about the time they got a C in P.E. (that dreaded frisbee unit). Students who’ve overcome unspeakable difficulties, like a death in the family, may find that reducing the tragedy to 650 words feels insufficient, or worse—as if they’re attempting to profit from suffering. One or two students may stare down the blank computer screen as their entire existence shrinks to the size of a 12-point font. Should they write about the challenge of writing about the challenge of writing an overcoming challenges essay??

Don’t worry. Focusing first on how to tackle the essay will help any student decide what they should write about. In fact, how the essay is written will also prove more influential than the challenge itself in determining the strength of the essay.

Decoding the Prompt

Let’s take a look at the overcoming challenges essay question included among the seven 2023-24 Common App Essay Prompts :

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?

Notice how the prompt places an immediate emphasis on the “lessons we take,” rather than on the obstacles themselves, or any potential success. This is because the challenge itself often says less about the student than the way the student chose to tackle it, or the way they now reflect on it. In other words, obstacles often come at us randomly; it’s our personal response to the circumstances which reveals something of who we are.

While studying a prompt for clues, it’s helpful to think from the perspective of the admissions officer (the essay reader). What can they glean from an overcoming challenges essay?  A lot, actually. A thoughtfully written essay may tell them about the student’s personality, as well as things like problem-solving techniques, rigor, persistence, creativity, and courage. These insights can work to prove to the admissions officers that the student has what it takes to overcome challenges in college, too. These future challenges may range from the inevitable academic obstacles that occur with heavy courseloads, to social and moral challenges that arise as college students form their adult identities.

Picking Your Topic: A Brainstorming Activity

With the question of identity in mind, let’s now approach the overcoming challenges essay backwards, by brainstorming the final message the student wants it to contain.

For this three-part exercise, the student will first set a five-minute timer. With the clock ticking, they’ll jot down character traits, values, and any descriptive words or terms that say something about who they are. If stumped, change perspective. The student may imagine what their best friends, parents, coaches and siblings would say. (For example, tenacious , logical , scientific , peacemaker .) Even mild criticism can be helpful, as long as it’s not cruel. While a student’s brother may call him a “perfectionist,” perhaps this word will trigger other relevant words, like persistent and detail-oriented.

Next, the student will set the timer for another five minutes, pull out a second sheet of paper, and jot down any challenges, obstacles, setbacks, failures, and achievements that come to mind. Don’t hold back here or overanalyze. (For example: underdog at state swim meet , getting lost on the family hike , petitioning for a school compost system …)

Lastly, the student will place the two pages side by side, and draw lines between the items on the list wherever connections occur. One student may draw lines between persistent , curious , gamer , passionate about electronics , and saved the day during the power outage. Another set of lines might connect caring, observant, creative thinker , and helped sister leave abusive cult . Whatever ideas are sparked here, the goal is to identify which challenges will demonstrate something essential about the student to an admissions officer.

Topics to Avoid

The internet is rife with advice on what not to write when writing an overcoming challenges essay. Yet this advice can be confusing, or downright hypocritical. For instance, some may advise against writing about death. Yet a student who lost their father at an early age may be capable of writing a poignant essay about their search for an alternative father figure, and how they found one in their soccer coach.

I suggest avoiding guides on what not to write until after the student has done a thorough round of brainstorming. Otherwise, they risk censoring themselves too early, and may reject a promising idea. Once they’ve narrowed down their list to three ideas or less, they may want to check our guide on College Application Essay Topics to Avoid .

The reason why certain types of overcoming challenges essays miss the mark is that they emphasize the wrong aspect of the experience, which turns the topic into a cliché. While it’s generally a good idea to avoid trivial topics (again, that C in P.E.), any topic has the potential to be compelling, if it’s animated through personal opinions, insight, and description. Details bring an experience to life. Structure and reflection make an essay convincing. In other words, how the story is told will determine whether or not the topic is worth writing about.

So, rather than avoid specific topics, consider avoiding these scenarios: if you can’t show the essay to your best friend or grandmother, it’s probably not ready to show a college admissions officer. If you must write a clichéd topic, don’t choose a typical structure.

Techniques to Hone

Techniques that animate an overcoming challenges essay are the same ones used in storytelling. Think setting, visuals, sounds, dialogue, physical sensations, and feelings. “Showing” instead of “telling.” Crafting the essay with these inner and external details will bring the challenge to life, and catch the reader’s attention.

Another technique which works well when trying to avoid the trappings of cliché involve subverting the reader’s expectations. In storytelling terms, this is a plot twist. The student who got a C in P.E. may actually have a stellar essay on their hands, if they can break away from the “bad grade” trope (working harder to improve their grade). Perhaps this student’s story is actually about how, while sitting on the bleachers and not participating in the game, they found themselves watching the frisbee spin through the air, and realized they had a deep interest in the movement of astronomical bodies.

Some of the strongest overcoming challenges essays demonstrate what students have learned about themselves, rather than what they’ve learned about the obstacle they confronted. These essays may show how the student has come to see themselves differently, or how they’ve decided to change, thanks to the challenge they faced. These essays work because the reflection is natural and even profound, based on the student’s self-awareness.

Writing the Overcoming Challenges Essay, or Drafts, Drafts, Drafts

Everyone writes differently, some by outlining (never a bad idea), some by free-styling (good for capturing sensations and memories), some by lighting a candle—but don’t procrastinate too much. The only “must” is to revise. After a first draft, the student should begin to look for several things:

1) Clarity and Detail. Is the challenge recounted with precision? Is it personal?

2) Structure. Consider mapping the structure, to visualize it better. Does the structure suit the story? Can it be changed for clarity, or to keep the reader more engaged?

3) Cliché. Identify words, sentences, and ideas that are dull or repetitive. Mark them up, and in the next draft, find ways to rewrite, subvert, condense, and delete.

4) Lesson Learned. Has the student reflected adequately on the lesson they learned from overcoming a challenge? To add more reflection, students might ask themselves what they have felt and thought about the experience since. Would they do something differently, if faced with the same challenge? Has their understanding of the experience evolved over time?

By the final draft, the experience and the reflection should feel equally weighted. To get there, it may take five or six drafts.

Overcoming Challenges Essay Sample

The Happiness Hotline

First there were reports. Then we were told to stop socializing, go inside, wait. Covid struck. Everyone knows what ensued. It probably looked different from where we were all (separately) standing, even though we faced the same thing. Those first weeks, I stood at my bedroom window. It was dark by early evening in Oregon. The weirdest part—after the fact that we were collectively sharing the loneliest experience of our lives—was the silence.

… it was really quiet.

So quiet, I could hear my mom sigh downstairs. (So quiet, I couldn’t remember if I’d hummed aloud, or if I’d just heard myself in my head.) When I looked out the window, I could hear the stoplight at the end of our street. Green to yellow. Click.

Before going on, you should know three things. First, this is not a Covid essay. This is about melancholy, and the “sadness that has taken on lightness,” to quote Italo Calvino. Second, from my bedroom window, I can see down a row of oak trees, past the hospital, to my friend Carlo’s house. Third, Carlo is a jazz singer. Maybe that sounds pretentious, a freshman kid being a jazz singer, but that’s Carlo, and I wouldn’t be me without Carlo being Carlo. He’s someone who appreciates the unhinged rhythm of a Charlie Parker tune. He’s an extrovert who can bring introverts like me out of my shell. He convinced me to learn trombone, and together we riff in the after-school jazz club.

In the first month of the pandemic, we called each other nightly to talk rap albums, school stuff. At Carlo’s house, he could hear a white-crowned sparrow. He could also hear his parents talking numbers behind the bathroom door. The death toll was mounting. The cost of living was going up too. As the month wore on, I began to hear something else in our calls, in the way Carlo paused, or forgot what he was saying. Carlo was scared. He felt sad, isolated, and without his bright energy, I too, felt utterly alone.

Overcoming Challenges Essay Sample (Continued)

After some dark days, I realized that to help ourselves we needed to help others. It was pretty obvious the more I thought about it. People are social creatures, supposedly, even introverts. Maybe our neighbors needed to remember the noisiness of life.

We built a happiness hotline. That sounds fancy, though essentially, we provided three-way calls on my parents’ landline. The harder part involved making flyers and putting them up around town, in places people were still going. Grocery stores, the post office. We made a TikTok account, and then—the phone rang. Our first caller.

For months, if you called in, you could talk to us about your days in lockdown. People went really deep about the meaning of life, and we had to learn on the spot how to respond. I’d become a journalist and a therapist before becoming a sophomore. After chatting, the caller would request a song, and if we knew how to play it, we would. If not, we improvised.

Now we’re seniors in high school. Carlo visits the hospital with band members. As for myself, I’ve been working on a community music book, compiling our callers’ favorite tunes. I don’t want to forget how important it felt to make these connections. Our callers taught me that loneliness is a bit like a virus, a bit like a song. Even when it stops it can come back to haunt you, as a new variant or an old refrain. Still, sadness can take on lightness when voices call through the dark: sparrows, friends, strangers. I learned I’m good at listening into the silence. Listening isn’t only a passive stance, but an open line of receiving.

Analysis of the Overcoming Challenges Essay Sample

This student uses their musical passion to infuse the essay with vivid detail. There’s a focus on sound throughout, from the bird to the stoplight. Then there are the callers, and the clever way the student conceived of breaking through the silence. The narrator’s voice sharpens the piece further, elevating a clichéd Covid essay to a personal story of self-discovery.

In fact, the essay briefly breaks with structure to tell the reader that this is not a Covid essay. Although techniques like this should be used sparingly, it works here by grabbing the reader’s attention. It also allows the student to organize their thoughts on the page, before moving the plot along.

Outwardly, the student is overcoming the challenge of loneliness in a time of quarantine. Yet there seems to be an inner, unspoken challenge as well, that of coming to terms with the student’s introverted personality. The essay’s reflection occurs in the final paragraph, making the essay experience-heavy. However, clues woven throughout point to the reflection that will come. Details like the Italo Calvino quote hint at the later understanding of how to alleviate loneliness. While some readers might prefer more development, the various themes are threaded throughout, which makes for a satisfying ending.

A Last Word on the Short Essay About Overcoming Challenges

The short essay about overcoming a challenge requires the same steps as a longer one. To write it, follow the same brainstorming activity, then focus more on condensing and summarizing the experience. Students who’ve already written a longer overcoming challenges essay can approach the short essay about overcoming a challenge by streamlining. Instead of deleting all the extra bits, keep two interesting details that will flavor the essay with something memorable and unique.

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Kaylen Baker

With a BA in Literary Studies from Middlebury College, an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, and a Master’s in Translation from Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Kaylen has been working with students on their writing for over five years. Previously, Kaylen taught a fiction course for high school students as part of Columbia Artists/Teachers, and served as an English Language Assistant for the French National Department of Education. Kaylen is an experienced writer/translator whose work has been featured in Los Angeles Review, Hybrid, San Francisco Bay Guardian, France Today, and Honolulu Weekly, among others.

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Blog: How to Write an Overcoming Challenges College Essay

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

college essay examples challenge overcome

As deadlines and deadlines creep up on us this year, you might be thinking to yourself: my biggest challenge is college application season. And you’re not wrong nor alone in that feeling; applying to universities is indeed a massive undertaking. When you’re confronted by a question like, “What is the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?” it’s easy to start spiraling out—what if my biggest challenge isn’t significant enough? What if I haven’t overcome any challenges?

No fear, Cassandra’s here with 4 tips on how to write this challenging essay.

1. Don’t Look for “Big,” Look for Authentic

Some of the best “challenge” essays I’ve read are about the smaller moments in life, like not landing a dream role in a school musical or conquering stage fright. Your topic doesn’t have to be grandiose or somber or life-altering in order for this to be a good essay. In fact, if you try to force your essay into something that it’s not, your admissions officer will be able to see through that quickly; inauthenticity is the last thing you want in your essays.

Your officers know that everyone’s lives are different; what might be a huge challenge for one person might not be challenging for another, and that’s okay. What’s important here is that you choose a topic or story that you genuinely felt like was challenging to you. Forget about the scope—let’s just make it authentic to you and your voice.

Specificity is key. Even if you’re choosing a “cliche” topic, for example, challenges in the sports world, you can still make this essay sing by putting in details only you could’ve written. Everybody’s point of view is unique. Describe your situation/world in a way that has your fingerprints and lens on it.

college essay examples challenge overcome

2. Show the Struggle AND the Victory

Remember that you are telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. I like to think of it as a classic plot structure for a movie or a book. Take a look at this chart above

. See how much of the struggle or the rising action takes up? Ideally, your essay should aim for 70% struggle, 10% turning point, and 20% celebration/lessons learned. Paint us a picture of the blood, sweat and tears you went through. Let us feel the difficulty of this challenge. You might think that these details are too insignificant but if you spend time showing and not telling us the story, we’re right there in the trenches with you. We’ll empathize with you every step of the way.

A turning point in the essay is important. Often, I find that it might be an epiphany, a realization that something’s not quite working in your initial approach to overcoming a challenge. Once you write that in, this will logically and naturally propel us to the last 20%, which is showcasing the New You: what do you look like after overcoming this challenge? Have you emerged from this difficulty stronger? Braver? More equipped? Don’t tell us that, SHOW us. If you had shaky hands at the beginning before taking your first hang gliding lesson, end on an image of steady hands guiding the glider through the skies. And don’t forget to give us a taste of that sweet victory celebration too. In the same way we feel your struggle, we also want to feel your euphoria and glee at overcoming the struggle.

3. Avoid Summary

The biggest mistake I see students make is including a conclusion paragraph that neatly summarizes all the lessons learned from overcoming this challenge. Why is that a mistake? It’s a waste of real estate. If you did your job correctly, that is, SHOW and not TELL us a story of your struggle, we should implicitly understand the lessons that you’ve absorbed and how you’re a better, different person now.

It’s good that you wrote the summary/conclusion paragraph—now copy and paste it into a new document as a lamppost for your next draft. Make sure your essay reflects it; if you’re struggling to meet a word count, hold up every sentence to this lamppost and ask yourself, “does this help achieve what I want my readers to implicitly take away?”

4. Don’t Forget to Answer The Question

Some essay questions ask for more than just telling us a time where you overcame a challenge. It might ask you to make a connection to your academics and what you hope to study in the future; it might ask you to draw a line between what you overcame and how you plan to contribute to student life on their campus. Whatever it may be, make sure you answer ALL parts of the question!

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Essay Samples on Overcoming Challenges

Navigating life's roller coaster: the ups and downs.

Life is a journey filled with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, moments of triumph and challenges that test our resilience. The ebb and flow of experiences—the ups and downs—shape the tapestry of our lives. This essay delves into the profound significance of embracing both...

  • Overcoming Challenges

How to Overcome Challenges in Life: Becoming Stronger

Life is a journey filled with ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. Throughout our lives, we inevitably encounter various challenges that test our resilience and determination. Overcoming these challenges requires a combination of mindset, strategies, and support. This essay explores effective ways how to overcome...

  • Overcoming Obstacles

Overcoming Obstacles and Challenging Situations on the Way to Passion

July 8, 2013, is a day that I will never forget. At approximately 1:15 p.m., a 911 dispatcher's frantic voice came over my radio: 'Medic 908, emergency response for a one-month-old not breathing.' My partner and I rushed to the ambulance and then to the...

Overcoming Adversity: A Challenge That Makes You Grow as a Person

Adversity is life’s hardships or misfortunes. Almost everyone will face adversity several times in their lives. It will either bring the best out of you or the worst. It is up to us to decide that. There are different types of adversity, such as financial...

Challenges Of Overcoming Bulimia

In the vicinity of the world, 4.7 million females and 1.5 million males have their lives dangered by bulimia, a potentially deadly disorder, which has been distinguished in patients as young as six years old (Ouellette). Bulimia gives a flawed feeling of “self-esteem, competence, and...

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Best topics on Overcoming Challenges

1. Navigating Life’s Roller Coaster: The Ups and Downs

2. How to Overcome Challenges in Life: Becoming Stronger

3. Overcoming Obstacles and Challenging Situations on the Way to Passion

4. Overcoming Adversity: A Challenge That Makes You Grow as a Person

5. Challenges Of Overcoming Bulimia

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, writing a narrative about overcoming challenges.

I need some help brainstorming for my college essay. I'm thinking about writing a narrative about overcoming a significant challenge in my life. Can you share any tips or examples to help me get started?

Sure, I'd be happy to help you brainstorm for your college essay. Writing about overcoming challenges can make for an engaging and compelling narrative, as it shows your resilience, growth, and/or problem-solving skills. Here are a few tips and examples to help you get started:

1. Reflect on your life and identify a few challenges that you've faced. They can be academic, personal, or extracurricular in nature. Some examples might include dealing with a health issue, working through a family conflict, or overcoming a fear.

2. Choose one challenge that had a significant impact on your life, and focus on the process you went through to overcome it. Be specific about the steps you took and the feelings you experienced during this process. This will help you create an engaging story that demonstrates your personal growth.

3. Show, don't tell. Use descriptive language and vivid details to paint a picture of the challenge and how you overcame it. This will help your reader connect with your experiences and emotions.

4. Consider the impact that overcoming the challenge had on your life. Did it teach you a valuable lesson, change your perspective, or shape your character? Be sure to link this growth to your future goals or ambitions, showing how your experiences will contribute to your success in college and beyond.

For instance, let's say you faced a challenge with financial hardship which affected your ability to participate in extracurricular activities. Instead of giving up, you came up with innovative ways to continue pursuing your interests: by becoming actively involved in affordable or free community programs, connecting with like-minded individuals online, and building your own projects. In this essay, you could discuss your determination and resourcefulness, how these experiences enriched your life, and how they influenced your desire to give back to your community in college and beyond.

Another example could be about overcoming a language barrier after moving to a new country. The essay could revolve around your struggles with the language, the help you received from teachers and peers, and the various strategies you employed to improve your language skills. You could then discuss the sense of accomplishment and confidence you gained, and how those qualities would enable you to actively engage in diverse communities and enrich the campus life during your college years.

Remember to keep your essay focused on your experiences and the lessons learned, rather than writing about the challenge itself. This will ensure that your essay is engaging, personal, and relevant to the goals and values of the colleges you are applying to.

Good luck with your essay, and I hope these tips help you craft a powerful narrative about overcoming challenges!

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Essays on Overcoming Challenges

Prompt examples for "overcoming challenges" essays, personal growth through adversity.

Share a personal experience in which you faced a significant challenge or adversity. Describe the impact it had on your personal growth, the lessons you learned, and how it changed your perspective on life.

The Role of Resilience

Discuss the concept of resilience in the face of challenges. How do individuals develop and demonstrate resilience, and what role does it play in overcoming difficult situations?

Overcoming Academic Obstacles

Explore the challenges students often encounter in their academic journeys. Describe a specific academic hurdle you faced, how you addressed it, and the strategies you used to succeed in your studies.

Challenges in the Workplace

Discuss challenges that individuals may encounter in their professional careers. Share a personal or professional experience in which you faced a workplace obstacle and describe how you navigated it to achieve success.

Health and Wellness Journey

Reflect on a health-related challenge, whether it's a physical ailment, mental health issue, or lifestyle change. Describe the steps you took to address this challenge, improve your well-being, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Overcoming Adversity in Sports

Discuss how athletes often face physical and mental challenges in their sports careers. Share a personal or sports-related story in which you or someone you know overcame adversity in athletics, highlighting the determination and perseverance required.

Challenges in Relationships

Explore the challenges that can arise in personal relationships, such as friendships, family dynamics, or romantic partnerships. Share a personal experience or case study, detailing how communication and resilience played a role in overcoming relationship challenges.

Obstacles in Pursuit of Goals

Describe a specific goal or dream you have pursued and the obstacles you encountered along the way. Explain the strategies you employed to overcome these obstacles and achieve your objectives.

Contributions to Community

Discuss how individuals can overcome challenges to make positive contributions to their communities. Share a personal or community-based initiative you were involved in that addressed a significant challenge or issue.

Lessons from Adversity

Reflect on the life lessons you have learned from overcoming challenges. How have these experiences shaped your values, beliefs, and approach to future obstacles?

Johnny Cade Obstacles

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Overcoming Challenges in My Life: Dyslexia

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Most high school students don’t get a lot of experience with creative writing, so the college essay can be especially daunting. Reading examples of successful essays, however, can help you understand what admissions officers are looking for.

In this post, we’ll share 16 college essay examples of many different topics. Most of the essay prompts fall into 8 different archetypes, and you can approach each prompt under that archetype in a similar way. We’ve grouped these examples by archetype so you can better structure your approach to college essays.

If you’re looking for school-specific guides, check out our 2022-2023 essay breakdowns .

Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Note: the essays are titled in this post for navigation purposes, but they were not originally titled. We also include the original prompt where possible.

The Common App essay goes to all of the schools on your list, unless those schools use a separate application platform. Because of this, it’s the most important essay in your portfolio, and likely the longest essay you’ll need to write (you get up to 650 words). 

The goal of this essay is to share a glimpse into who you are, what matters to you, and what you hope to achieve. It’s a chance to share your story. 

Learn more about how to write the Common App essay in our complete guide.

The Multiple Meanings of Point

Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

The first obvious strength of this essay is the introduction—it is interesting and snappy and uses enough technical language that we want to figure out what the student is discussing. When writing introductions, students tend to walk the line between intriguing and confusing. It is important that your essay ends up on the intentionally intriguing side of that line—like this student does! We are a little confused at first, but by then introducing the idea of “sparring,” the student grounds their essay.

People often advise young writers to “show, not tell.” This student takes that advice a step further and makes the reader do a bit of work to figure out what they are telling us. Nowhere in this essay does it say “After years of Taekwondo, I made the difficult decision to switch over to ballet.” Rather, the student says “It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers.” How powerful! 

After a lot of emotional language and imagery, this student finishes off their essay with very valuable (and necessary!) reflection. They show admissions officers that they are more than just a good writer—they are a mature and self-aware individual who would be beneficial to a college campus. Self-awareness comes through with statements like “surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become” and maturity can be seen through the student’s discussion of values: “honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet.”

Sparking Self-Awareness

Prompt: 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? (250-650 words)

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery (and beautiful!), the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates her family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feel perfectly justified after she establishes that she was pondering her failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling. 

Why This College?

“Why This College?” is one of the most common essay prompts, likely because schools want to understand whether you’d be a good fit and how you’d use their resources.

This essay is one of the more straightforward ones you’ll write for college applications, but you still can and should allow your voice to shine through.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This College?” essay in our guide.

Prompt: How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (650 words).

Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics, said, “caring is the human mode of being.” I have long been inspired by Sister Roach’s Five C’s of Caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion, and confidence. Penn both embraces and fosters these values through a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum and unmatched access to service and volunteer opportunities.

COMMITMENT. Reading through the activities that Penn Quakers devote their time to (in addition to academics!) felt like drinking from a firehose in the best possible way. As a prospective nursing student with interests outside of my major, I value this level of flexibility. I plan to leverage Penn’s liberal arts curriculum to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges LGBT people face, especially regarding healthcare access. Through courses like “Interactional Processes with LGBT Individuals” and volunteering at the Mazzoni Center for outreach, I hope to learn how to better support the Penn LGBT community as well as my family and friends, including my cousin, who came out as trans last year.

CONSCIENCE. As one of the first people in my family to attend a four-year university, I wanted a school that promoted a sense of moral responsibility among its students. At Penn, professors challenge their students to question and recreate their own set of morals by sparking thought- provoking, open-minded discussions. I can imagine myself advocating for universal healthcare in courses such as “Health Care Reform & Future of American Health System” and debating its merits with my peers. Studying in an environment where students confidently voice their opinions – conservative or liberal – will push me to question and strengthen my value system.

COMPETENCE. Two aspects that drew my attention to Penn’s BSN program were its high-quality research opportunities and hands-on nursing projects. Through its Office of Nursing Research, Penn connects students to faculty members who share similar research interests. As I volunteered at a nursing home in high school, I hope to work with Dr. Carthon to improve the quality of care for senior citizens. Seniors, especially minorities, face serious barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique use of simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, classes in Penn’s nursing program allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterward through a video system. Participating in this activity will help me identify my strengths and areas for improvement regarding crisis management and medical care in a controlled yet realistic setting. Research opportunities and simulations will develop my skills even before I interact with patients.

COMPASSION. I value giving back through community service, and I have a particular interest in Penn’s Community Champions and Nursing Students For Sexual & Reproductive Health (NSRH). As a four-year volunteer health educator, I hope to continue this work as a Community Champions member. I am excited to collaborate with medical students to teach fourth and fifth graders in the city about cardiology or lead a chair dance class for the elders at the LIFE Center. Furthermore, as a feminist who firmly believes in women’s abortion rights, I’d like to join NSRH in order to advocate for women’s health on campus. At Penn, I can work with like-minded people to make a meaningful difference.

CONFIDENCE. All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence. Each student summarized their experiences at Penn as challenging but fulfilling. Although I expect my coursework to push me, from my conversations with current Quakers I know it will help me to be far more effective in my career.

The Five C’s of Caring are important heuristics for nursing, but they also provide insight into how I want to approach my time in college. I am eager to engage with these principles both as a nurse and as a Penn Quaker, and I can’t wait to start.

This prompt from Penn asks students to tailor their answer to their specific field of study. One great thing that this student does is identify their undergraduate school early, by mentioning “Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics.” You don’t want readers confused or searching through other parts of your application to figure out your major.

With a longer essay like this, it is important to establish structure. Some students organize their essay in a narrative form, using an anecdote from their past or predicting their future at a school. This student uses Roach’s 5 C’s of Caring as a framing device that organizes their essay around values. This works well!

While this essay occasionally loses voice, there are distinct moments where the student’s personality shines through. We see this with phrases like “felt like drinking from a fire hose in the best possible way” and “All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence.” It is important to show off your personality to make your essay stand out. 

Finally, this student does a great job of referencing specific resources about Penn. It’s clear that they have done their research (they’ve even talked to current Quakers). They have dreams and ambitions that can only exist at Penn.

Prompt: What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Coin collector and swimmer. Hungarian and Romanian. Critical and creative thinker. I was drawn to Yale because they don’t limit one’s mind with “or” but rather embrace unison with “and.” 

Wandering through the Beinecke Library, I prepare for my multidisciplinary Energy Studies capstone about the correlation between hedonism and climate change, making it my goal to find implications in environmental sociology. Under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Arielle Baskin-Sommers, I explore the emotional deficits of depression, utilizing neuroimaging to scrutinize my favorite branch of psychology: human perception. At Walden Peer Counseling, I integrate my peer support and active listening skills to foster an empathetic environment for the Yale community. Combining my interests in psychological and environmental studies is why I’m proud to be a Bulldog. 

This answer to the “Why This College” question is great because 1) the student shows their excitement about attending Yale 2) we learn the ways in which attending Yale will help them achieve their goals and 3) we learn their interests and identities.

In this response, you can find a prime example of the “Image of the Future” approach, as the student flashes forward and envisions their life at Yale, using present tense (“I explore,” “I integrate,” “I’m proud”). This approach is valuable if you are trying to emphasize your dedication to a specific school. Readers get the feeling that this student is constantly imagining themselves on campus—it feels like Yale really matters to them.

Starting this image with the Beinecke Library is great because the Beinecke Library only exists at Yale. It is important to tailor “Why This College” responses to each specific school. This student references a program of study, a professor, and an extracurricular that only exist at Yale. Additionally, they connect these unique resources to their interests—psychological and environmental studies.

Finally, we learn about the student (independent of academics) through this response. By the end of their 125 words, we know their hobbies, ethnicities, and social desires, in addition to their academic interests. It can be hard to tackle a 125-word response, but this student shows that it’s possible.

Why This Major?

The goal of this prompt is to understand how you came to be interested in your major and what you plan to do with it. For competitive programs like engineering, this essay helps admissions officers distinguish students who have a genuine passion and are most likely to succeed in the program. This is another more straightforward essay, but you do have a bit more freedom to include relevant anecdotes.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This Major?” essay in our guide.

Why Duke Engineering

Prompt: If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as a first year applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke (250 words).

One Christmas morning, when I was nine, I opened a snap circuit set from my grandmother. Although I had always loved math and science, I didn’t realize my passion for engineering until I spent the rest of winter break creating different circuits to power various lights, alarms, and sensors. Even after I outgrew the toy, I kept the set in my bedroom at home and knew I wanted to study engineering. Later, in a high school biology class, I learned that engineering didn’t only apply to circuits, but also to medical devices that could improve people’s quality of life. Biomedical engineering allows me to pursue my academic passions and help people at the same time.

Just as biology and engineering interact in biomedical engineering, I am fascinated by interdisciplinary research in my chosen career path. Duke offers unmatched resources, such as DUhatch and The Foundry, that will enrich my engineering education and help me practice creative problem-solving skills. The emphasis on entrepreneurship within these resources will also help me to make a helpful product. Duke’s Bass Connections program also interests me; I firmly believe that the most creative and necessary problem-solving comes by bringing people together from different backgrounds. Through this program, I can use my engineering education to solve complicated societal problems such as creating sustainable surgical tools for low-income countries. Along the way, I can learn alongside experts in the field. Duke’s openness and collaborative culture span across its academic disciplines, making Duke the best place for me to grow both as an engineer and as a social advocate.

This prompt calls for a complex answer. Students must explain both why they want to study engineering and why Duke is the best place for them to study engineering.

This student begins with a nice hook—a simple anecdote about a simple present with profound consequences. They do not fluff up their anecdote with flowery images or emotionally-loaded language; it is what it is, and it is compelling and sweet. As their response continues, they express a particular interest in problem-solving. They position problem-solving as a fundamental part of their interest in engineering (and a fundamental part of their fascination with their childhood toy). This helps readers to learn about the student!

Problem-solving is also the avenue by which they introduce Duke’s resources—DUhatch, The Foundry, and Duke’s Bass Connections program. It is important to notice that the student explains how these resources can help them achieve their future goals—it is not enough to simply identify the resources!

This response is interesting and focused. It clearly answers the prompt, and it feels honest and authentic.

Why Georgia Tech CompSci

Prompt: Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (300 words max)

I held my breath and hit RUN. Yes! A plump white cat jumped out and began to catch the falling pizzas. Although my Fat Cat project seems simple now, it was the beginning of an enthusiastic passion for computer science. Four years and thousands of hours of programming later, that passion has grown into an intense desire to explore how computer science can serve society. Every day, surrounded by technology that can recognize my face and recommend scarily-specific ads, I’m reminded of Uncle Ben’s advice to a young Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Likewise, the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed with AI’s far-reaching presence in society; and I believe that digital fairness starts with equality in education.

The unique use of threads at the College of Computing perfectly matches my interests in AI and its potential use in education; the path of combined threads on Intelligence and People gives me the rare opportunity to delve deep into both areas. I’m particularly intrigued by the rich sets of both knowledge-based and data-driven intelligence courses, as I believe AI should not only show correlation of events, but also provide insight for why they occur.

In my four years as an enthusiastic online English tutor, I’ve worked hard to help students overcome both financial and technological obstacles in hopes of bringing quality education to people from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’m extremely excited by the many courses in the People thread that focus on education and human-centered technology. I’d love to explore how to integrate AI technology into the teaching process to make education more available, affordable, and effective for people everywhere. And with the innumerable opportunities that Georgia Tech has to offer, I know that I will be able to go further here than anywhere else.

With a “Why This Major” essay, you want to avoid using all of your words to tell a story. That being said, stories are a great way to show your personality and make your essay stand out. This student’s story takes up only their first 21 words, but it positions the student as fun and funny and provides an endearing image of cats and pizzas—who doesn’t love cats and pizzas? There are other moments when the student’s personality shines through also, like the Spiderman reference.

While this pop culture reference adds color, it also is important for what the student is getting at: their passion. They want to go into computer science to address the issues of security and equity that are on the industry’s mind, and they acknowledge these concerns with their comments about “scarily-specific ads” and their statement that “the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed.” This student is self-aware and aware of the state of the industry. This aptitude will be appealing for admissions officers.

The conversation around “threads” is essential for this student’s response because the prompt asks specifically about the major at Georgia Tech and it is the only thing they reference that is specific to Georgia Tech. Threads are great, but this student would have benefitted from expanding on other opportunities specific to Georgia Tech later in the essay, instead of simply inserting “innumerable opportunities.”

Overall, this student shows personality, passion, and aptitude—precisely what admissions officers want to see!

Extracurricular Essay

You’re asked to describe your activities on the Common App, but chances are, you have at least one extracurricular that’s impacted you in a way you can’t explain in 150 characters.

This essay archetype allows you to share how your most important activity shaped you and how you might use those lessons learned in the future. You are definitely welcome to share anecdotes and use a narrative approach, but remember to include some reflection. A common mistake students make is to only describe the activity without sharing how it impacted them.

Learn more about how to write the Extracurricular Essay in our guide.

A Dedicated Musician

My fingers raced across the keys, rapidly striking one after another. My body swayed with the music as my hands raced across the piano. Crashing onto the final chord, it was over as quickly as it had begun. My shoulders relaxed and I couldn’t help but break into a satisfied grin. I had just played the Moonlight Sonata’s third movement, a longtime dream of mine. 

Four short months ago, though, I had considered it impossible. The piece’s tempo was impossibly fast, its notes stretching between each end of the piano, forcing me to reach farther than I had ever dared. It was 17 pages of the most fragile and intricate melodies I had ever encountered. 

But that summer, I found myself ready to take on the challenge. With the end of the school year, I was released from my commitment to practicing for band and solo performances. I was now free to determine my own musical path: either succeed in learning the piece, or let it defeat me for the third summer in a row. 

Over those few months, I spent countless hours practicing the same notes until they burned a permanent place in my memory, creating a soundtrack for even my dreams. Some would say I’ve mastered the piece, but as a musician I know better. Now that I can play it, I am eager to take the next step and add in layers of musicality and expression to make the once-impossible piece even more beautiful.

In this response, the student uses their extracurricular, piano, as a way to emphasize their positive qualities. At the beginning, readers are invited on a journey with the student where we feel their struggle, their intensity, and ultimately their satisfaction. With this descriptive image, we form a valuable connection with the student.

Then, we get to learn about what makes this student special: their dedication and work ethic. The fact that this student describes their desire to be productive during the summer shows an intensity that is appealing to admissions officers. Additionally, the growth mindset that this student emphasizes in their conclusion is appealing to admissions officers.

The Extracurricular Essay can be seen as an opportunity to characterize yourself. This student clearly identified their positive qualities, then used the Extracurricular Essay as a way to articulate them.

A Complicated Relationship with the School Newspaper

My school’s newspaper and I have a typical love-hate relationship; some days I want nothing more than to pass two hours writing and formatting articles, while on others the mere thought of student journalism makes me shiver. Still, as we’re entering our fourth year together, you could consider us relatively stable. We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences; at this point I’ve become comfortable spending an entire Friday night preparing for an upcoming issue, and I hardly even notice the snail-like speed of our computers. I’ve even benefitted from the polygamous nature of our relationship—with twelve other editors, there’s a lot of cooperation involved. Perverse as it may be, from that teamwork I’ve both gained some of my closest friends and improved my organizational and time-management skills. And though leaving it in the hands of new editors next year will be difficult, I know our time together has only better prepared me for future relationships.

This response is great. It’s cute and endearing and, importantly, tells readers a lot about the student who wrote it. Framing this essay in the context of a “love-hate relationship,” then supplementing with comments like “We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences” allows this student to advertise their maturity in a unique and engaging way. 

While Extracurricular Essays can be a place to show how you’ve grown within an activity, they can also be a place to show how you’ve grown through an activity. At the end of this essay, readers think that this student is mature and enjoyable, and we think that their experience with the school newspaper helped make them that way.

Participating in Democracy

Prompt: Research shows that an ability to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with success in college. What was your greatest learning experience over the past 4 years that took place outside of the traditional classroom? (250 words) 

The cool, white halls of the Rayburn House office building contrasted with the bustling energy of interns entertaining tourists, staffers rushing to cover committee meetings, and my fellow conference attendees separating to meet with our respective congresspeople. Through civics and US history classes, I had learned about our government, but simply hearing the legislative process outlined didn’t prepare me to navigate it. It was my first political conference, and, after learning about congressional mechanics during breakout sessions, I was lobbying my representative about an upcoming vote crucial to the US-Middle East relationship. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents.

As I sat down with my congresswoman’s chief of staff, I truly felt like a participant in democracy; I was exercising my right to be heard as a young American. Through this educational conference, I developed a plan of action to raise my voice. When I returned home, I signed up to volunteer with the state chapter of the Democratic Party. I sponsored letter-writing campaigns, canvassed for local elections, and even pursued an internship with a state senate campaign. I know that I don’t need to be old enough to vote to effect change. Most importantly, I also know that I want to study government—I want to make a difference for my communities in the United States and the Middle East throughout my career. 

While this prompt is about extracurricular activities, it specifically references the idea that the extracurricular should support the curricular. It is focused on experiential learning for future career success. This student wants to study government, so they chose to describe an experience of hands-on learning within their field—an apt choice!

As this student discusses their extracurricular experience, they also clue readers into their future goals—they want to help Middle Eastern communities. Admissions officers love when students mention concrete plans with a solid foundation. Here, the foundation comes from this student’s ethnicity. With lines like “my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents,” the student assures admissions officers of their emotional connection to their future field.

The strength of this essay comes from its connections. It connects the student’s extracurricular activity to their studies and connects theirs studies to their personal history.

Overcoming Challenges

You’re going to face a lot of setbacks in college, so admissions officers want to make you’re you have the resilience and resolve to overcome them. This essay is your chance to be vulnerable and connect to admissions officers on an emotional level.

Learn more about how to write the Overcoming Challenges Essay in our guide.

The Student Becomes the Master

”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

Growing Sensitivity to Struggles

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? (650 words)

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here you can find a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

Community Service/Impact on the Community

Colleges want students who will positively impact the campus community and go on to make change in the world after they graduate. This essay is similar to the Extracurricular Essay, but you need to focus on a situation where you impacted others. 

Learn more about how to write the Community Service Essay in our guide.

Academic Signing Day

Prompt: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

The scent of eucalyptus caressed my nose in a gentle breeze. Spring had arrived. Senior class activities were here. As a sophomore, I noticed a difference between athletic and academic seniors at my high school; one received recognition while the other received silence. I wanted to create an event celebrating students academically-committed to four-years, community colleges, trades schools, and military programs. This event was Academic Signing Day.

The leadership label, “Events Coordinator,” felt heavy on my introverted mind. I usually was setting up for rallies and spirit weeks, being overlooked around the exuberant nature of my peers. 

I knew a change of mind was needed; I designed flyers, painted posters, presented powerpoints, created student-led committees, and practiced countless hours for my introductory speech. Each committee would play a vital role on event day: one dedicated to refreshments, another to technology, and one for decorations. The fourth-month planning was a laborious joy, but I was still fearful of being in the spotlight. Being acknowledged by hundreds of people was new to me.     

The day was here. Parents filled the stands of the multi-purpose room. The atmosphere was tense; I could feel the angst building in my throat, worried about the impression I would leave. Applause followed each of the 400 students as they walked to their college table, indicating my time to speak. 

I walked up to the stand, hands clammy, expression tranquil, my words echoing to the audience. I thought my speech would be met by the sounds of crickets; instead, smiles lit up the stands, realizing my voice shone through my actions. I was finally coming out of my shell. The floor was met by confetti as I was met by the sincerity of staff, students, and parents, solidifying the event for years to come. 

Academic students were no longer overshadowed. Their accomplishments were equally recognized to their athletic counterparts. The school culture of athletics over academics was no longer imbalanced. Now, every time I smell eucalyptus, it is a friendly reminder that on Academic Signing Day, not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.

This essay answers the prompt nicely because the student describes a contribution with a lasting legacy. Academic Signing Day will affect this high school in the future and it affected this student’s self-development—an idea summed up nicely with their last phrase “not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.”

With Community Service essays, students sometimes take small contributions and stretch them. And, oftentimes, the stretch is very obvious. Here, the student shows us that Academic Signing Day actually mattered by mentioning four months of planning and hundreds of students and parents. They also make their involvement in Academic Signing Day clear—it was their idea and they were in charge, and that’s why they gave the introductory speech.

Use this response as an example of the type of focused contribution that makes for a convincing Community Service Essay.

Climate Change Rally

Prompt: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? (technically not community service, but the response works)

Let’s fast-forward time. Strides were made toward racial equality. Healthcare is accessible to all; however, one issue remains. Our aquatic ecosystems are parched with dead coral from ocean acidification. Climate change has prevailed.

Rewind to the present day.

My activism skills are how I express my concerns for the environment. Whether I play on sandy beaches or rest under forest treetops, nature offers me an escape from the haste of the world. When my body is met by trash in the ocean or my nose is met by harmful pollutants, Earth’s pain becomes my own. 

Substituting coffee grinds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale. I often found performative activism to be ineffective when communicating climate concerns. My days of reposting awareness graphics on social media never filled the ambition I had left to put my activism skills to greater use. I decided to share my ecocentric worldview with a coalition of environmentalists and host a climate change rally outside my high school.

Meetings were scheduled where I informed students about the unseen impact they have on the oceans and local habitual communities. My fingers were cramped from all the constant typing and investigating of micro causes of the Pacific Waste Patch, creating reusable flyers, displaying steps people could take from home in reducing their carbon footprint. I aided my fellow environmentalists in translating these flyers into other languages, repeating this process hourly, for five days, up until rally day.  

It was 7:00 AM. The faces of 100 students were shouting, “The climate is changing, why can’t we?” I proudly walked on the dewy grass, grabbing the microphone, repeating those same words. The rally not only taught me efficient methods of communication but it echoed my environmental activism to the masses. The City of Corona would be the first of many cities to see my activism, as more rallies were planned for various parts of SoCal. My once unfulfilled ambition was fueled by my tangible activism, understanding that it takes more than one person to make an environmental impact.

Like with the last example, this student describes a focused event with a lasting legacy. That’s a perfect place to start! By the end of this essay, we have an image of the cause of this student’s passion and the effect of this student’s passion. There are no unanswered questions.

This student supplements their focused topic with engaging and exciting writing to make for an easy-to-read and enjoyable essay. One of the largest strengths of this response is its pace. From the very beginning, we are invited to “fast-forward” and “rewind” with the writer. Then, after we center ourselves in real-time, this writer keeps their quick pace with sentences like “Substituting coffee grounds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale.” Community Service essays run the risk of turning boring, but this unique pacing keeps things interesting.

Having a diverse class provides a richness of different perspectives and encourages open-mindedness among the student body. The Diversity Essay is also somewhat similar to the Extracurricular and Community Service Essays, but it focuses more on what you might bring to the campus community because of your unique experiences or identities.

Learn more about how to write the Diversity Essay in our guide.

A Story of a Young Skater

​​“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

This response is a great example of how Diversity doesn’t have to mean race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, or ability. Diversity can mean whatever you want it to mean—whatever unique experience(s) you have to bring to the table!

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Finding Community in the Rainforest

Prompt: Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke (250 words).

I never understood the power of community until I left home to join seven strangers in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Although we flew in from distant corners of the U.S., we shared a common purpose: immersing ourselves in our passion for protecting the natural world.

Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns. My classmates debated the feasibility of Trump’s wall, not the deteriorating state of our planet. Contrastingly, these seven strangers delighted in bird-watching, brightened at the mention of medicinal tree sap, and understood why I once ran across a four-lane highway to retrieve discarded beer cans. Their histories barely resembled mine, yet our values aligned intimately. We did not hesitate to joke about bullet ants, gush about the versatility of tree bark, or discuss the destructive consequences of materialism. Together, we let our inner tree huggers run free.

In the short life of our little community, we did what we thought was impossible. By feeding on each other’s infectious tenacity, we cultivated an atmosphere that deepened our commitment to our values and empowered us to speak out on behalf of the environment. After a week of stimulating conversations and introspective revelations about engaging people from our hometowns in environmental advocacy, we developed a shared determination to devote our lives to this cause.

As we shared a goodbye hug, my new friend whispered, “The world needs saving. Someone’s gotta do it.” For the first time, I believed that someone could be me.

This response is so wholesome and relatable. We all have things that we just need to geek out over and this student expresses the joy that came when they found a community where they could geek out about the environment. Passion is fundamental to university life and should find its way into successful applications.

Like the last response, this essay finds strength in the fact that readers feel for the student. We get a little bit of backstory about where they come from and how they felt silenced—“Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns”—, so it’s easy to feel joy for them when they get set free.

This student displays clear values: community, ecoconsciousness, dedication, and compassion. An admissions officer who reads Diversity essays is looking for students with strong values and a desire to contribute to a university community—sounds like this student!  

Political/Global Issues

Colleges want to build engaged citizens, and the Political/Global Issues Essay allows them to better understand what you care about and whether your values align with theirs. In this essay, you’re most commonly asked to describe an issue, why you care about it, and what you’ve done or hope to do to address it. 

Learn more about how to write the Political/Global Issues Essay in our guide.

Note: this prompt is not a typical political/global issues essay, but the essay itself would be a strong response to a political/global issues prompt.

Fighting Violence Against Women

Prompt: Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay. (250-650 words)

“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” 

– Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. 

The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus. 

My feet stride quickly down the sidewalk, my hand grasps on to the pepper spray my parents gifted me for my sixteenth birthday. My eyes ignore the surrounding city life, focusing instead on a pair of tall figures walking in my direction. I mentally ask myself if they turned with me on the last street corner. I do not remember, so I pick up the pace again. All the while, my mind runs over stories of young women being assaulted, kidnapped, and raped on the street. I remember my mother’s voice reminding me to keep my chin up, back straight, eyes and ears alert. 

At a young age, I learned that harassment is a part of daily life for women. I fell victim to period-shaming when I was thirteen, received my first catcall when I was fourteen, and was nonconsensually grabbed by a man soliciting on the street when I was fifteen. For women, assault does not just happen to us— its gory details leave an imprint in our lives, infecting the way we perceive the world. And while movements such as the Women’s March and #MeToo have given victims of sexual violence a voice, harassment still manifests itself in the lives of millions of women across the nation. Symbolic gestures are important in spreading awareness but, upon learning that a surprising number of men are oblivious to the frequent harassment that women experience, I now realize that addressing this complex issue requires a deeper level of activism within our local communities. 

Frustrated with incessant cases of harassment against women, I understood at sixteen years old that change necessitates action. During my junior year, I became an intern with a judge whose campaign for office focused on a need for domestic violence reform. This experience enabled me to engage in constructive dialogue with middle and high school students on how to prevent domestic violence. As I listened to young men uneasily admit their ignorance and young women bravely share their experiences in an effort to spread awareness, I learned that breaking down systems of inequity requires changing an entire culture. I once believed that the problem of harassment would dissipate after politicians and celebrities denounce inappropriate behavior to their global audience. But today, I see that effecting large-scale change comes from the “small” lessons we teach at home and in schools. Concerning women’s empowerment, the effects of Hollywood activism do not trickle down enough. Activism must also trickle up and it depends on our willingness to fight complacency. 

Finding the solution to the long-lasting problem of violence against women is a work-in-progress, but it is a process that is persistently moving. In my life, for every uncomfortable conversation that I bridge, I make the world a bit more sensitive to the unspoken struggle that it is to be a woman. I am no longer passively waiting for others to let me live in a world where I can stand alone under the expanse of darkness on a city street, utterly alone and at peace. I, too, deserve the night sky.

As this student addresses an important social issue, she makes the reasons for her passion clear—personal experiences. Because she begins with an extended anecdote, readers are able to feel connected to the student and become invested in what she has to say.

Additionally, through her powerful ending—“I, too, deserve the night sky”—which connects back to her beginning— “as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky”—this student illustrates a mastery of language. Her engagement with other writing techniques that further her argument, like the emphasis on time—“gifted to me for my sixteenth birthday,” “when I was thirteen,” “when I was fourteen,” etc.—also illustrates her mastery of language.

While this student proves herself a good writer, she also positions herself as motivated and ambitious. She turns her passions into action and fights for them. That is just what admissions officers want to see in a Political/Global issues essay!

Where to Get Feedback on Your College Essays

Once you’ve written your college essays, you’ll want to get feedback on them. Since these essays are important to your chances of acceptance, you should prepare to go through several rounds of edits. 

Not sure who to ask for feedback? That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review resource. You can get comments from another student going through the process and also edit other students’ essays to improve your own writing. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools.  Find the right advisor for you  to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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college essay examples challenge overcome

How to Answer the Essay Prompt "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

How To Answer Tough College Essay Prompts

Late fall is officially college admissions season! Some students have already sent in their early decision applications and are working hard on those regular decision deadlines, which means it may be time to work on your essays.

These essays from the Common App , Coalition App , or your prospective school’s specific format can vary in topic, and you may get to choose what you write about. But no matter the school or set of schools to which you’re applying, you will likely come across a version of the “Describe a Challenge You Overcame” or “Overcoming a Challenge” essay prompt.

For some people, the answer to this could be evident. But if you have no idea what to write about, the first rule is:

Don’t panic

So many students are plagued with questions like: What if I’ve never overcome an obstacle? Is my life boring? What if I have nothing to write about, and the admissions officers hate me? What if they judge me for what I've been through?

Deep breath.

All of these fears are normal, but everyone has overcome some sort of challenge or obstacle, whether small or completely overwhelming. By being authentic to yourself, yours will be compelling to readers and help them get to know the kind of student you are now and will be at their college or university.

You will need more than panicking to help you write an essay. Remember that everyone has something valuable to say, and the obstacle you choose will matter less than your ability to write about it and highlight your resilience.

Brainstorm an authentic but impactful challenge

The first thing you'll need to do is think through some challenges you’ve faced . 

A challenge can be as seemingly simple as learning to trust yourself after a failure in school or an extracurricular activity or as complicated as overcoming significant discrimination and prejudice.

You had to overcome a specific fear to succeed at an activity you love. You may have had to rebuild your life after losing a relative. Maybe your family moved, which shook up your life. Or, receiving one terrible grade or criticism led you to change your outlook on life and motivated you to work harder than ever.

Whatever the obstacle you face (no inventing, please), it should be impactful.

That means thinking of a challenge that changed something about you. As a result of overcoming this obstacle, you should have learned significant lessons about yourself or the world around you and made changes in your life.

Colleges and universities want to know what traits you possess that will help you succeed in college and your future career, so the obstacle you choose to share should have helped you develop one of your defining traits. They will care more about your reaction to this challenge, how it shaped you, and how you articulate it than what the problem was in the first place.

Generally, the obstacle you choose to share should also be pretty recent or have had a current impact on your life, rather than a challenge that happened when you were very young that doesn’t impact you today.

Begin at the end

The opening sentence of your essay about overcoming a challenge should be compelling and make the reader want to continue. It can be tempting to tell the story chronologically, but it can sometimes be adequate to start with the ending or a positive memory.

So, think about when you overcame your challenge or realized that you had improved after facing an obstacle. You might even share a moment when you realized your chosen barrier significantly. Recount this moment as your introductory hook in some way.

You can even preview the lessons you learned in your introduction. That way, readers already know that you will share what you’ve learned rather than just share a story recounting a terrible moment or difficult challenge in your life. This can also make them want to keep reading to see how you got to that place.

Share context about the situation but make it brief

You want the reader to learn about you and your challenges rather than overdoing it in detail. They don't need to know every step of the process or every player in the story.

Of course, you should share the context behind what happened to you that challenged you and changed your life or perspective, but you should not dwell too much on the details. Provide only the ‘need to know’ moments and how they led to changes in your life.

With this kind of essay, readers want to know less about what happened and more about what you learned due to your experience.

Focus on what you learned

Your reflection about what you learned due to your experience should be your primary focus within your essay. This section will help readers understand how you’ve changed after facing your challenge or obstacle to become the stellar student you are today. It can also show the maturity and self-reflection colleges may seek in a student.

By sharing lessons learned in this type of essay, you also share how you will contribute to any college campus with your newly acquired traits and perspectives.

If you had to move from one city to another, perhaps you learned to be flexible or met new friends who helped you discover your fascination with science and technology. If you faced bullying, maybe you learned how to respect yourself without outside validation and gained resilience. Whatever the challenge, the lessons associated with overcoming it are most important.

Share actions you took as a result of overcoming the challenge

To help readers understand how you overcame the challenge and how the lessons you learned tangibly affected your life, you should also consider your actions after overcoming your obstacle.

For example, if you witnessed discrimination at school, you could have founded an anti-bullying campaign or student organization. If you lost a family member to a specific disease, you may have volunteered with an organization to help fund research for a cure.

Remember, all of this information needs to be authentic to your experience. Even the most minor actions can be impactful. So, truth is always best, even if you just learned to treat your family better or significantly improve your grades after facing this obstacle.

Connect the lessons you learned to your future

Finally, you can strengthen your response even more by connecting the lessons you learned and actions you took with your future goals.

Think about how you will show up in college after facing this challenge. And consider how you are better equipped now to achieve your future goals because of the lessons you learned. You can then tie this into how attending each college will help you reach those goals.

Seek support!

Admissions officers should never be the first people to read your essay. Get help from a teacher or college counselor, your parents or guardians, an online college essay writing site like Prompt , or fellow scholars like other NSHSS members   before you hit "submit." 

Have them read your essay and provide you with constructive feedback about content and structure. If you're stuck, you can ask for some "overcoming an obstacle" essay examples or ideas from those who know you well.

Then, submit your essay and enjoy that feeling of accomplishment!

Answering the essay prompt "Describe a Challenge You Overcame" offers a unique opportunity to showcase your resilience, growth, and problem-solving skills. By focusing on the specifics of the challenge, the steps you took to overcome it, and the lessons you learned, you'll answer the prompt effectively and make a lasting impression on the admissions team.

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One Expert's Advice to Help You Write a Strong Overcoming Adversity Essay

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Leslie Tucker PhD, Jun 07, 2021

Learn how to pick the right adversity story and write an impressive overcoming adversity essay

Whether you’re working on college or scholarship applications, you’re bound to come across the overcoming adversity essay sooner or later. While every type of college application essay is unique, the overcoming adversity essay presents particular challenges for students.

What’s the best way to talk about the adversity in your life? What if you come off as too whiny? What if you don’t have any significant obstacles to write about? Will you be at a disadvantage?

Every year, my students ask me how to tackle this tricky part of their college applications. Luckily for you, I’ve developed a fool-proof approach for writing the overcoming adversity essay , and I’m eager to share it.

Keep reading to learn why the adversity essay is important, how to choose the best topic, and how to write an impactful overcoming adversity essay.

Why the overcoming adversity essay is important

When colleges ask you to write a personal hardship essay, what are they trying to learn? Many students think they’re trying to find and admit the applicants who have faced the most adversity. Not true! Trust me, the adversity essay is NOT a competition to see who has it worse.

The purpose of the overcoming adversity essay is to reveal how you respond to difficult situations. Think about it. College is hard—not everyone has what it takes to succeed. Colleges want to accept students who have the skills and resilience to persevere through the adversity they’re bound to face.

So when an admissions officer reads your adversity essay, they’re trying to answer these questions:

●      How do you manage stress?

●      How do you attempt to resolve adversity?

●      How do you reflect on the challenges you face?

●      How do you apply lessons to your life?

If you can successfully answer these questions, you’ll write a stand-out overcoming adversity essay.

Not sure how to recognize an overcoming adversity essay prompt? Here are a few examples.

The Common App

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?

The University of Miami

Considering your ability to control your own motivation and behavior, how have past experiences helped build your courage and resilience to persist in the face of academic and life challenges so that, once these storms pass, you can emerge in continued pursuit of your goals?

The University of California

Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

How to select the best story for your overcoming adversity essay

Choosing what to write your overcoming adversity essay about can be a challenge. The hardest things you’ve faced in life might not actually be the best topics. So I always encourage students to brainstorm lots of ideas before committing to one.

Here’s what I suggest. Sit down with a family member or close friend. Write a list of all the adversity you’ve faced—big and small. From challenging school projects to your parents divorce to the death of a family member, add everything you can think of to your list.

Next, you’ll want to remember and record how you reacted to each of the obstacles on your list. What were you thinking? What actions did you take?

To choose your adversity essay story, you’ll actually focus on your reactions list. Search for the instances when you showed impressive grit, strength, resilience, and problem-solving skills. These are the best stories to use for your overcoming adversity essay.

Weak topics for your adversity essay

As you’re selecting which topic to write about, beware of choosing a story that falls into one of these categories.

●      Adversity you faced due to COVID or virtual learning—everyone dealt with these circumstances, so it’s not a unique topic and won’t help you stand out.

●      Obstacles you dealt with in elementary or middle school—it’s a bit too outdated. Find a more recent instance of your grit and resilience.

●      Interpersonal struggles you had with a teacher or coach—these essays can come off like you don’t get along well with adults, which isn’t the impression you want to give.

Strong topics for your adversity essay

Any story that shows your maturity and problem-solving skills is a good choice for your overcoming adversity essay. Even so, there are few topics that might be better options for you than others, depending on your circumstances.

●      Ongoing obstacles you’re still facing but you’re handling well—important if this obstacle will carry on into college.

●      Adversity that interfered with your academic achievement—important if you had a GPA dip you’d like to explain.

●      Something that will resonate with the school you’re applying to or the career you’re pursuing—important if adversity drove you to choose a specific type of school or major.

How to write an impressive overcoming adversity essay

Now we’ve arrived at my fool-proof overcoming adversity essay formula. Once you’ve chosen the right story that demonstrates your resilience, just apply this formula to create a memorable adversity essay.

This formula is simple. It’s all about crafting a narrative. Remember, you’re telling the story of when you faced an obstacle. So you want it to sound like a real story, not a school report.

Here is the five-step formula to writing the perfect overcoming adversity essay.

  • Introduce the obstacle or adversity
  • Describe your emotional response
  • Discuss the actions you took to face the problem
  • Share the outcome of the situation
  • Reveal what you learned from the experience

See? It’s a piece of cake. Now let’s see how it looks applied to an adversity story.

  • The adversity: My family moved across the country between my sophomore and junior year.
  • Emotional response: I was devastated to lose my friends and scared to start over in a new place.
  • Actions taken: I scheduled regular talks and virtual hang outs with my old friends to ensure we’d stay in touch. Then I pushed myself to join two clubs at the beginning of the school year.
  • Outcome: I stayed connected with friends from home. And even though it was intimidating to make new friends, putting myself out there helped me quickly meet people who shared my interests. I felt less alone and adjusted to my new environment sooner than I expected.
  • Lessons learned: I am stronger and more adaptable than I thought I was. I am capable of thriving in new places and creating a new community for myself wherever I go.

With extremely little effort, I made a strong outline for an adversity essay using this formula. You can do the same!

Dos and don’ts for your overcoming adversity essay

The formula will take you a long way in structuring your adversity essay, but here are a few additional tips and tricks to make sure your writing is outstanding.

●       Don’t try to garner sympathy or pity —be honest about what happened, but remember your purpose isn’t to make the reader feel bad for you.

●       Do maintain a positive and upbeat tone throughout your adversity essay.

●       Don’t spend too much time describing the problem —keep it brief and to the point.

●       Do focus the majority of the essay on how you responded to and resolved the obstacle.

●       Don’t forget to include the outcome and the lessons you learned —self reflection is impressive to application readers.

●       Do connect what you learned with your future in college or in your chosen career.

Remember, one of the great things about the overcoming adversity essay is that you’re telling a story. You’re not making an argument or delivering an informational report. Once you have your story and the structure in place, have fun with the rest!

Final thoughts about the overcoming adversity essay

I’ll never say writing a college application essay is easy. But hopefully I’ve convinced you that the overcoming adversity essay isn’t as intimidating as it seems. In fact, I hope you have an enjoyable time writing your adversity essay and celebrating your resilience. Be proud of yourself. You are amazing!

I want to hear from you! What are your thoughts and concerns about the overcoming adversity essay? Drop a comment below, and I’ll be happy to address them.

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COMMENTS

  1. 8 Overcoming Challenges College Essay Examples

    The purpose of the Overcoming Challenges essay is for schools to see how you might handle the difficulties of college. They want to know how you grow, evolve, and learn when you face adversity. For this topic, there are many clichés, such as getting a bad grade or losing a sports game, so be sure to steer clear of those and focus on a topic ...

  2. How to Write the "Overcoming Challenges" Essay + Examples

    1. Avoid trivial or common topics. While there aren't many hard-and-fast rules for choosing an essay topic, students should avoid overdone topics. These include: Working hard in a challenging class. Overcoming a sports injury. Moving schools or immigrating to the US. Tragedy (divorce, death, abuse)

  3. How to Write an "Overcoming Challenges"

    That's an added bonus with using simple and direct language—doing so allows you to set up your challenges in the first paragraph or two, so you can then move on and dedicate most of the essay to a) what you did about it and b) what you learned. So just tell us, with clear and direct language. 2. WITH A LITTLE HUMOR.

  4. How to Nail Your Overcoming a Challenge Essay

    Examples of "overcoming a challenge" essays In order to give you a better idea of what these essays look like, let's review some actual "overcoming a challenge" college prompts. The first example is from the Common Application and requires students to respond to the following question with a 650-word limit.

  5. How to Write the Overcoming Challenges Essay + Example

    A Last Word on the Short Essay About Overcoming Challenges. The short essay about overcoming a challenge requires the same steps as a longer one. To write it, follow the same brainstorming activity, then focus more on condensing and summarizing the experience. Students who've already written a longer overcoming challenges essay can approach ...

  6. Overcoming a Challenge Essay Examples

    Here are a few pointers on how to approach this kind of essay: 1. Choose a significant challenge: Select an experience that was truly challenging for you, and not just a minor inconvenience. The challenge could be personal, academic, or related to an extracurricular activity. It should be something that genuinely impacted your life and required ...

  7. How To Level Up Your Overcoming Challenges Essay

    As you write, keep in mind that each component should make up about one-third of your essay. This is important because it is common for students to focus mainly on what the challenge is and write 45% to 50% of the essay talking about the challenge and its impact. Instead, you should split your essay into thirds, with challenges and effects ...

  8. Overcoming Challenges Essay Tips

    In writing an overcoming challenges essay, it's essential to strike a balance between showcasing your personal growth and demonstrating how that experience has shaped you into a better candidate for the college. Here are some tips to help you achieve that balance: 1. Focus on a specific challenge: Choose one major challenge you've faced and thoroughly explain the situation.

  9. College Essay Examples

    Table of contents. Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

  10. Writing an essay about overcoming a challenge

    When choosing which challenge to write about, consider the following factors: the uniqueness of the challenge, the lessons learned from it, and the personal growth that resulted. Select an experience that showcases your resilience and maturity. Additionally, focusing on a challenge that connects with your academic goals or future aspirations may make your essay more relevant to college ...

  11. Examples of overcoming obstacles in college essays?

    Writing about overcoming obstacles can be a powerful way to showcase your resilience, problem-solving abilities, and personal growth. Here are some examples of how to approach obstacles in your college essay: 1. Personal health challenges: If you've faced a significant health issue that has affected your life, you can discuss the specific ...

  12. How To Write An Overcoming Challenges College Application Essay

    One effective way to highlight your resilience is by sharing personal stories that exemplify your ability to rise above obstacles. How To Write An Overcoming Challenges College Application Essay. Sharing personal setbacks in college essays can be a powerful way to stand out. By reflecting on challenges, transforming adversity into inspiration ...

  13. Overcoming Academic Challenges Essay: How to approach it?

    Hi there! It's great that you're working on your college apps and tackling an overcoming academic challenges essay. To approach this essay effectively, here are some steps to guide you: 1. Choose your challenge: Pick a specific academic setback or challenge you've faced - struggling in a particular subject, dealing with a difficult teacher, adjusting to online learning, etc. Make sure it's ...

  14. How to Write a Challenges-Based (i.e., Narrative) College Essay That

    An Example of an Outstanding Essay Written on a Challenge That TBH Wasn't That Big of a Deal. Something Called the Trampoline Technique That Will Help You Write Your Essay (If You're Still 100% Committed to Writing About Your Challenge) Many students feel like they should write about a particular challenge they've faced. I've seen this ...

  15. Discussing Overcoming Challenges in Essays

    4 months ago. When discussing overcoming challenges in your college essays, it's important to strike a balance between showcasing your resilience and highlighting personal growth. Here are some tips to help you approach this topic effectively: 1. Be authentic - Choose a challenge that is significant to you and has shaped your personal development.

  16. Blog: How to Write an Overcoming Challenges College Essay

    No fear, Cassandra's here with 4 tips on how to write this challenging essay. 1. Don't Look for "Big," Look for Authentic. Some of the best "challenge" essays I've read are about the smaller moments in life, like not landing a dream role in a school musical or conquering stage fright. Your topic doesn't have to be grandiose or ...

  17. Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples for College Students

    Challenges Of Overcoming Bulimia. In the vicinity of the world, 4.7 million females and 1.5 million males have their lives dangered by bulimia, a potentially deadly disorder, which has been distinguished in patients as young as six years old (Ouellette). Bulimia gives a flawed feeling of "self-esteem, competence, and...

  18. Writing a narrative about overcoming challenges

    Sure, I'd be happy to help you brainstorm for your college essay. Writing about overcoming challenges can make for an engaging and compelling narrative, as it shows your resilience, growth, and/or problem-solving skills. Here are a few tips and examples to help you get started: 1. Reflect on your life and identify a few challenges that you've faced.

  19. Overcoming a Challenge Essay Examples • GradesFixer

    Prompt Examples for "Overcoming Challenges" Essays. Personal Growth Through Adversity. Share a personal experience in which you faced a significant challenge or adversity. Describe the impact it had on your personal growth, the lessons you learned, and how it changed your perspective on life. The Role of Resilience

  20. How to Write the "Most Significant Challenge" UC Essay

    Writing an essay solely about the challenge and all the pain that it's caused you is a good place to start an essay, but pain and struggle shouldn't be where you end. A key element of the prompt is the act of overcoming the challenge and reflecting on that process and where you ended up. If you can't end this essay in a better place than ...

  21. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

    This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts '17 graduate. 2. Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading.

  22. 16 Strong College Essay Examples from Top Schools

    Overcoming Challenges Essays; Community Service Essays; ... In this post, we'll share 16 college essay examples of many different topics. Most of the essay prompts fall into 8 different archetypes, and you can approach each prompt under that archetype in a similar way. We've grouped these examples by archetype so you can better structure ...

  23. How to Answer the Essay Prompt "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

    A challenge can be as seemingly simple as learning to trust yourself after a failure in school or an extracurricular activity or as complicated as overcoming significant discrimination and prejudice. You had to overcome a specific fear to succeed at an activity you love. You may have had to rebuild your life after losing a relative.

  24. One Expert's Advice to Help You Write a Strong Overcoming Adversity Essay

    The purpose of the overcoming adversity essay is to reveal how you respond to difficult situations. Think about it. College is hard—not everyone has what it takes to succeed. Colleges want to accept students who have the skills and resilience to persevere through the adversity they're bound to face. So when an admissions officer reads your ...