You and the Common Application Essay (Part 2)

In Part Two of what will eventually become a five-part blog on the topic of the Common Application essay prompts that have been published for this school year, I’ll move on to the second possible prompt that you might choose to write your admission statement about.  As I mentioned in Part One, equestrian students often seize the opportunity presented by the essay portion of their application to communicate their love and passion for their sport and what it’s brought to their lives to the admission staff of their chosen college or university.  The key in doing so successfully, however, doesn’t lie in presenting yourself as the best rider, but in presenting yourself as the best candidate for admission.

To do that, it’s crucial that you stay on topic and shape your essay accordingly.

Prompt #2 for 2013:  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This is another topic that seems tailor-made for equestrians, as the first thing that we often learn from our horses is how to fail.  We fall off ponies as soon as we learn to ride them.  We lose blue ribbons for going off-course in medal finals.  We even forget where the canter pirouettes go in a dressage test we’ve ridden dozens of times.  (Guilty!)

But, as I discussed for Prompt #1, the key to writing a good essay on this topic isn’t about the failure itself; instead, you have 650 words in which to share the affect it had on you and the lessons you learned.  Those are the key parts of your essay.  As such, when you sit down to assemble your first draft, your goal should be to share enough of the failure story to give the admissions officers and essay readers insight into how the failure occurred (and how it was, in fact, a failure to begin with).  Try to avoid too many extraneous details that will eat up words you could be using for the introspection that comes later on in the main body of the essay.  Instead, begin your essay by setting the stage.

Here’s an example:  “It was the horse show I’d worked all summer to qualify for and I had just jumped the final vertical going the wrong direction.  The result?  Instant disqualification.”

Those three sentences are comprised of only 28 words and yet do you, as a reader, feel like you have an instant sense of the failure and what the writer feels in the moment?  Granted, a bit of additional description following the introduction wouldn’t go amiss here – the writer could describe her emotions in the moment, the reactions of her trainer and family, or even just the mood around the arena (as everyone certainly must recognize her mistake at the moment that she does).  But the description should be brief because the rest of the essay must focus on the affect on the writer and the lessons learned.  How did she react to failure?  Did she accept it gracefully or was it a turning point moment in her life because she’d never failed at anything before?  How does she approach mistakes and failure differently now as a result of what happened that day?

Moreover:  How did the lessons learned from that failure shape her into the person who will enroll in college in the fall of 2014?

I tell each of my students that the key to writing a good admission essay is that it must reveal something about them to the college that isn’t readily apparent from the rest of the application.  For a student with a 4.0 GPA (or better!) failure doesn’t seem to be something that he or she would be acquainted with – and yet it’s a part of life for everyone at some time or other.  Students that can admit that it’s happened to them (e.g. “I’m a fallible human being even though I strive to be the best in all that I do”) and that they have learned something substantial from it are the type of students that colleges and universities want to enroll.

Are you that student?  This could be the prompt for you.  (And if you need help shaping an essay that can reveal that side of yourself, contact me.)


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