How to Respond to Prompt Two of the Common Application

Common Application Prompt 2: 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 second Common Application essay prompt essentially asks you to reflect upon a hardship in your life that has deeply impacted and shaped you. In addition to identifying what that hardship might be, it’s important to note other key words within the prompt that will help to enhance the trajectory of your narrative.

So let’s unpack it. First, it’s most obvious to note that this prompt is referring to some kind of obstacle — some “challenge, setback, or failure” that you have encountered. If you’re attracted to this prompt, you might already have something in mind along these lines. A challenge would be something difficult that you set out to overcome, which could be something from overcoming shyness and a life of constantly moving to fulfilling language requirements to go on a school trip. A setback would be something that catches you off guard, that takes your course off its path. This could be some like a budget cut to your school club and you as leader needing to adapt. A failure would be something where you did not succeed and things did not go as planned. Perhaps this was not getting into honors classes or not receiving a role in a school play.

The actual topics within each category allow for responses that are vast and encompassing, which is true of all the Common Application essay prompts.

What is even more important than identifying your significant challenge, setback, or failure, is then turning to the other portions of the prompt that actually guide you into a more substantial response.

It is not enough to state that you had a problem and overcome it — what this prompt is actually asking for is how this experience ultimately shaped and changed you, “how did it affect you?” How did you act or react? What did this change about yourself or your perspective of things?

Multiple times the prompt utilizes language geared to show growth and development. From “lessons” and “learned” they want you to explore the values and realizations you took away from the experience. Moreover, they want you to put this into action. Within this new lesson learned, how will this lead to future success? Why is the mindset change now an asset? It ultimately flips the less positive experience into one innately positive — how did you become a more complete, more dynamic, more versatile person because of this obstacle? Delving into these particular questions within the prompt will be what begins to show your personality, value, and depth of character alongside the narrative of your experience.

This prompt can be spectacular for showing your perseverance and cleverness for facing hardships face on; however, if you don’t pay enough attention to the lessons learned, the affect, the impact, it is likely to fall flat like I discussed in my blog post on choosing a good topic. Challenges or obstacles can have a predictable pattern — I encountered x, which was going to be difficult, so I tried hard and overcame it. The trajectory is rather straight, and not to say that trajectory is an automatic negative. We do want to see the growth and development! But that is just it­ — establishing the narrative itself it not quite enough, look a little deeper to assess how you actually changed, how has this shaped you for the future? “How” and “why” questions are fantastic to ask yourself to get to the substance of a work and it’ll begin to shift your narrative from a predictable arc to an insightful personal narrative.

To approach this prompt, consider:

What challenge, setback, or failure has had a significant impact on me? Why?

How did I change as a result of it?

How did my mindset or values develop?

How has it changed who I am today?

What will I take with me from this experience into the future?

What did I learn? Why does it matter?

What makes this the story I need to tell?