Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure

Tips and Strategies for an Essay that Explores a Time You Experienced Failure

Portrait of female pupil at her desk
Essay on failure. Westend61 / Getty Images

The second essay option on CA4, the new version of the Common Application launched in 2013, asks you to discuss failure. For the 2015-16 admissions cycle, the question was edited slightly to give more emphasis to the connection between the failure and your personal growth:

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?

Many college applicants will be uncomfortable with this question. After all, a college application should highlight your strengths and accomplishments, not draw attention to your failures. But before you shy away from this essay option, consider these points:

  • Growing and maturing is all about learning from our failures.
  • No college anywhere, ever, has admitted a student who hasn't failed at times.
  • It's easy to boast about our accomplishments. It takes a greater level of confidence and maturity to acknowledge and examine our failures.
  • A student who can learn from failure is a student who will be successful in college.
  • Every single one of the thousands of applications a college receives will highlight successes, awards, honors, and accomplishments. Very few will show the type of confidence and introspection required to explore failures.

If you can't tell, I'm a fan of this prompt. I would much rather read about an applicant's learning experience from failure than a catalog of triumphs.

That said, know yourself. Prompt #2 is one of the more challenging options. If you aren't good at introspection and self-analysis, and if you aren't comfortable with exposing a wart or two, then this may not be the best option for you.

Break Down the Question:

If you do choose this prompt, read the question carefully.

Let's break it down into four parts:

  • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. This text was added to the prompt in 2015. We can conclude from this addition that the colleges and universities that use the Common Application really want you to show how the failure fits into the big picture of your personal growth and later accomplishments (more on this in the fourth bullet point below).
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. This is the exposition of your essay -- the description of the failure that you are going to analyze. Keep in mind that the action requested here -- "recount" -- is the easy part of your essay. Recounting doesn't require a lot of high-level thinking. This is the plot summary. You'll need clear, engaging language, but you want to make sure you do the "recounting" as efficiently as possible. The real meat of your essay that is going to impress the admissions officers comes later.
  • How did it affect you? This is the second most important part of your essay. You failed, so how did you respond? What emotions did failure evoke? Were you frustrated? Did you want to give up or did failure motivate you? Were you angry at yourself or did you project blame onto someone else? Were you surprised by your failure? Was this a new experience for you? Be honest as you assess your reaction to failure. Even if you were affected in a way that now seems inappropriate or an over-reaction, don't hold back as you explore the way that failure affected you.
  • What did you learn from the experience? This is the heart of your essay, so make sure you give this part of the question significant emphasis. The question here -- "what did you learn?" -- is asking for higher level thinking skills than the rest of the prompt. Understanding what you learned requires self-analysis, introspection, self-awareness, and strong critical thinking skills. This is the one part of prompt #2 that is truly asking for college-level thinking. The best students are those who assess their failures, learn from them, and move on. Here is your chance to prove that you are capable of this type of thoughtfulness and personal growth.

What Counts as a "Failure"?

Another challenge with this prompt is deciding on your focus. What type of "failure" will lead to the best essay? Keep in mind that your failure does not need to be, as my son would phrase it, an epic fail.

You don't need to have run a cruise ship aground or ignited a million-acre forest fire to choose this essay option.

Failures come in many flavors. Some possibilities include:

  • A failure to apply yourself. Did laziness or over-confidence make you under-perform academically or in an extra-curricular event?
  • A failure to behave appropriately. Did your conduct in a situation insult or hurt someone? How should you have behaved? Why did you behave the way you did?
  • A failure to act. Sometimes our greatest failures are those moments when we do nothing. In retrospect, what should you have done? Why did you do nothing?
  • Failing a friend or family member. Did you let down someone close to you? Disappointing others can be one of the most difficult failures to come to terms with.
  • A failure to listen. If you're like me, you think you're right 99% of the time. Many times, however, others have a lot to offer, but only if we listen.
  • Failure under pressure. Did you choke during your orchestra solo? Did you bobble the ball during an important play?
  • A lapse in judgment. Did you do something foolish or dangerous that had unfortunate consequences?

This list could go on and on -- there's no shortage of ways to fail. Whatever failure you write about, make sure your exploration of the failure reveals self-awareness and personal growth. If your essay doesn't show that you are a better person because of your failure, then you haven't succeeded in responding to this essay prompt.

A final note: Whether you are writing about failure or one of the other essay options, keep in mind the primary purpose of the essay: the college wants to get to know you better. On a certain level, your essay isn't really about your failure. Rather, it is about your personality and character. In the long run, were you able to handle your failure in a positive way? Colleges that ask for an essay have ​holistic admissions, so they are looking at the whole applicant, not just SAT scores and grades. By the time they finish reading your essay, the admissions folks should feel that you are the type of person who will succeed in college and make a positive contribution to the campus community.

So before you hit the submit button on the Common Application, make sure your essay paints a portrait of you that makes a positive impression. If you blame your failure on others, or if you seem to have learned nothing from your failure, the college may very well decide that you don't have a place in the campus community.

Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability.