How to Write a College Essay About Failure

By: Caroline Koppelman

The common app offers five prompts for the personal statement, aka the dreaded “college essay.” Despite the fear the essay evokes, each option gives you the chance to be creative. While we encourage students to explore their quirkiest side, it can often be challenging to strike that balance between being creative and answering the question. The first obstacle is choosing which of the five prompts to answer. Today we’re going to explain some strategies for how to answer the second prompt on the common app.

The second prompt says, “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?”

A lot of our students read this and think it's a trap. After spending four years trying to mold themselves into the “perfect” college applicant, why would they admit to any failure? Wouldn’t writing an essay about failure ensure a rejection?

The short answer is no, this is not a trick question. It’s a question many job interviewers may ask you later in life. This prompt is a hidden gem of the common application. This question about failure is actually a question about growth in disguise. It allows you to talk about what you’ve learned in the most overt way. You will fail at some point in college, guaranteed. Writing about a past failure and how you grew from it will give the admissions committee a sense of how you will approach difficult situations. Emerging with positive takeaways from a failure is always a good story.

Choosing to write about failure has many advantages. Mainly, it is extremely easy to convey maturity, creativity, a willingness to grow, evidence of change over time, introspection, humility, tangible results, character building, and problem solving.

Many of our students have chosen to write about failure because it is the question that speaks to them the most. One of our students, Jesse, wanted to make a few extra dollars, so he started a valet business. Due to a variety of circumstances (underestimating demand, not having enough workers, etc.) the business failed. He was initially embarrassed to tell us about his failed business because he thought it showed his flaws and vulnerability.

We molded Jesse’s essay into a particular structure: the story of how he failed, what went wrong, and then an analysis of how to change it in the future. When you tell the story of the failure, you want to parse it with some introspective wisdom. Remember, the point of the failure essay is to show growth and maturity, and we can’t repeat it enough. Be careful of your tone in this section. You don’t want to pretend you failed once and now know everything. You also don’t want to overstate your failure. The end of Jesse’s valet business didn’t drive him into poverty, ruin his life, or send him to prison. Failures come in all sizes, and even small ones can teach big lessons. That said, by picking something too trivial, admissions committees will feel as though you’re not being honest

The hardest part comes after you’ve told your story objectively. You tell your reader what went wrong and why. It’s okay to make your reader laugh. If you did something dumb, cop to your mistake. This will humanize you and make you more memorable.

Of course, these three sections—the story, what went wrong, and an analysis—should not be rigid. You can jump around, interjecting analysis in any part that seems necessary. Jesse, for example, wrote about how he would have done more field research and the ways in which he could have adapted his business model faster to accommodate the increase in customers. His takeaways showed the admissions office that he had not internalized the failure as a flaw in his character, but had instead learned from his mistakes.

There are five things you should avoid in this essay.  

  1. A contrived or trivial story
  2. Overconfident takeaways
  3. Stating the obvious
  4. Too much self deprecation
  5. Too much focus on failure, not enough on lessons

If you can’t think of a failure, consider a time you attempted something that didn’t go as planned. Maybe you tried to create your own business or build a piece of furniture. Tell them how you overcommitted to too many activities, or you tried to run for President of the student government. If you’ve ever been rejected, or felt like you were rejected, you can start there. If you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas, it’s better that you choose a different question.