June 30, 2020

The Common Application Essay 2

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?

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #2

This is simply another way to discover “what you’re made out of.” It’s a cool little prompt to help that along—nothing more. Don’t get fixated on the pathway; if this leads you to a super cool insight into what makes you tick… follow it.

Now, don’t fall into the trap that most do and mask a SUCCESS story as a failure. “Oh there was that time I broke the world record at the Olympics, but I didn’t beat my personal best! Woe is me!” In other words, “I’m going to talk about my failure, but my real hope is that you take notice of that amazing achievement I mentioned!” Gimme a break.

Challenges, setbacks, and failure need to be real. To “not win in the finals of Wimbledon” while you played in peak condition, isn’t the same as spraining your ankle before the match and entering into the arena at a major disadvantage. The first one is what it is, but the second one is a legitimate setback/challenge. Working toward a common goal and dealing with an unusually stubborn teammate is a challenge. Wanting to pursue a hobby, but needing to work and earn money to support your family because your parents are not around or unable to provide… that’s a challenge. Performing at a recital and flubbing half the piece, that’s a failure. What’s the common ingredient here?

The answer has something to do with expectations and likelihood of outcomes. It is generally expected for a finals match in a tennis grand slam to be a real contest, equally-matched, etc. Sure, one player might have slightly better odds of winning for a number of reasons, but it usually isn’t expected to be a cakewalk. Therefore, to lose a match like that isn’t really a failure, because it was understood to be a very legitimate outcome. Now, to continue with this analogy, imagine a fairytale scenario where a not- very-good player somehow makes his way to the finals (every opponent along the way had to retire due to injury, thus explaining a not-great player making it to the end). In this case, it is reasonable to expect the other guy, say a Top-10 player, to absolutely demolish this opponent who is significantly out-matched. We might consider it a real failure for the top-ranked player to lose to a Qualifier in the finals match. But not the other way around. If the Qualifier lost to, say, Roger Federer, no one would consider it a failure. Because it was expected. It was the overwhelmingly likelier outcome.

Let’s go to one of the other analogies. Let’s say you’re on the newspaper committee at school, and you’re expected to publish feature articles once a week, for every week you’re in school. Let’s say it’s a committee of three who get to decide what subject to feature. Now let’s say that in Week 1, prior to the deadline, you want to run a story about X, but one person on the committee disagree passionately. Let’s say that you’ve decided to adopt a “unanimous” vote protocol. And you and another person agree on Subject X, but the “contrarian” in the room says “nope, I wanna write about this other thing instead.” The process gets gummed up and you miss the deadline. Happens again, Week 2, no feature article because this one person disagrees, and prevents the process from moving forward. Can this be considered a setback or a challenge? Absolutely. Why? Because in the history of this school’s newspaper, there hasn’t been a single missed deadline, and it is generally assumed that this group of three will reach consensus after healthy debate.

Let’s switch the circumstance though, and take this idea to congress! Imagine ten different bills being debated on the floor. Can you imagine a scenario where ten different debates result in ten different stalemates? Absolutely. In fact, it’s almost expected! The more surprising outcome would be for there to be widespread agreement. So it would be a bad example of a “setback” to suggest that the bill you presented to congress, that you expected to pass, died on the floor because of a lack of consensus. See the difference? Same general idea of “disagreements” between people, but one version is a setback and the other isn’t, when you factor in that crucial variable of expectations. Let’s do one more…

If you or I have never touched a cello before, ever, and we somehow find ourselves in the spotlight at Carnegie Hall, in front of thousands of attendees, would you consider it a failure if we played a few wrong notes in our attempt at a performance? Would you consider it a failure if we played every single note incorrectly? Probably not. We might find ourselves saying, “Well, what did you expect!” But let’s switch the player. Let’s put Yo-Yo Ma in the same seat. Mister Ma is feeling healthy, and is about to perform a piece he has performed hundreds of times before flawlessly. Oh and also he is generally considered to be one of our generation’s great cello players. But on this night, Mister Ma plays half of his notes incorrectly. Just misses the notes, plays the wrong ones, bows them incoherently, whatever the case, he absolutely butchers the song, trying desperately not to. Would you consider that a failure? Yah, absolutely. Because we expect someone of Mr. Ma’s virtuosity to play… flawlessly. So a performance that betrays that expectation matters.

What does this all mean? All setbacks and challenges and failures are not created equally. An action that leads to an outcome for one person may be a failure, but for a different person it may not be a failure. As you’re combing through possible storylines here, remember to examine the expectations at the outset. And then make sure that the thing you’re considering a setback or challenge or failure somehow RUPTURED those expectations. It’s not always clear cut, but that’s a nuance that most applicants miss when approaching this type of question.

Once you’ve chosen a story that passes the test, it’s time to execute. Two major tips:

  1. Write it in the present tense, as though it’s happening now. In other words, take us back to the moments, and relive them AS THEY OCCURRED. Don’t RECOUNT the events from today’s vantage point. This will force you to not get ahead of yourself. This is crucial; we want to experience the stuff as it happened. And then to experience your reactions, your highs and lows (in real time). Why? This technique helps you to deliver a more dramatic ARC. Let it hang, folks. Expose the emotions and nerves, and leave it raw.
  2. When addressing the “how did it affect you” and “what did you learn” pieces of the prompt, remember to grapple with EXPECTATIONS. In almost all instances, you likely started out with a certain set of expectations that were disrupted. Identifying that disruption is usually the “X” that marks the spot of how this experience affected you. The next part – what you learned? – will write itself from there…

The most successful approaches to this essay are the most honest and revealing. Don’t hide from that ugliness, embrace it. Your ability to EXPOSE and DISCUSS unsavory aspects of your skills or personality or circumstance or whatever it is – by themselves – speaks volumes. Trust us. The mere act of ADMITTING uncomfortable things tends to have the opposite effect, and demonstrates incredible maturity. And strength. The ability to introspect and self-analyze, coupled with the desire to self-correct, are amazing attributes.


Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

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