How to Write a College Admissions Essay About Failure

Deciding what to write about for your college essay isn’t always easy. You want to stand out, but you don’t want to come off as totally off-the-wall crazy. You want to do something unique, but you know that writing your essay backward, in a spiral, in colored pencil is a terrible idea (if you were thinking of doing this, don’t, it’s a terrible idea). Within the mountain of grades and scores, your essay is the place where you get to be yourself and to reveal something about yourself that a college wouldn’t otherwise see, but it can be hard to know what to reveal, and how much.

The first impulse for many of the students we work with is to use the essay as a place to humble brag, or, more accurately, to just outright brag, about themselves. By doing this, they are trying to make up for what they see as flaws or inadequacies in their applications. While we understand the urge to use the essay as a place to overtly show off, that tends not to read well. Instead of writing about the time they starred in the school play and everything went perfectly or the time they broke an athletic record, we challenge many of our students to write about times that things haven’t gone as smoothly. Yes, that’s right, we ask them to try writing about failure.

This might seem like a crazy idea, but hear us out. We are all imperfect, so trying to make ourselves seem perfect in 650 words is a futile task that just serves to make us sound really boring and actually strips away the applicant’s humanity. This is what is going through an admissions officer’s head when they read an application that is manicured to the umpteenth degree: “Congratulations, you are a really perfect person who has apparently never struggled in your life! Now I will note that you have zero self-awareness and then I will take a nap because your ego has worn me out.” In case you are slow on the uptake, that is NOT what you want them to think when they finish your application.

What makes failure such a compelling subject for a college essay is that, unlike perfection, it is truly universal. Failure also has a narrative arc (something we talk about a lot) built right into it. Failure happens because you are willing to try, and that willingness to try even with the possibility of failure makes you someone who is relatable, vulnerable, and self-aware.

There are three key things to keep in mind when you write about failure:  

Keep it small

We are big proponents of staying focused, and writing about failure is no different. Pick a precise experience or moment and zoom in on it. Build a scene around that experience. Don’t say, “I failed,” but actually show them how. What did it feel like? Taste like? Smell like? Sound like? Really paint a picture for the reader that brings them into the moment with you so that they can share in your struggle.

Don’t end the essay with everything falling apart.

Not every story has a perfectly happy ending, and stories that do often feel fake (life isn’t a fairytale people!), but the last line of your essay shouldn’t amount to “and then everything fell apart and I collapsed on the ground crying and gave up forever.” What you should end on is how you picked up the pieces.

Have a lesson, but don’t try to be profound

Every challenging experience we have in life has some sort of lesson attached to it, so sharing what you learned from your failure is an important part of this sort of essay. That said, we are adamant that our students don’t feign profundity. It is categorically unlikely that the time you missed the potentially championship-winning goal was the most important moment of your entire life and taught you everything you need to know about the human experience. Say that, and you’re no better than the applicants who used all 650 word to brag about themselves. So include a lesson that you learned, but keep it simple and reasonable.

More than anything, and we say this across the board with college essays, be what you are: human (presumably, at least). Don’t try to create some crazy comeback where one didn’t happen, don’t try to make a relatively tiny thing seem like the biggest moment in your entire life, and embrace that everyone struggles - which is why failure is such a good guiding concept for an essay in the first place. If you aren’t failing, you’re doing something wrong, and colleges will appreciate your willingness to try in the face of potential failure and to reflect on your struggles in defiance of the stressful ‘prove-you’re-perfect’ college process.

If you’re having trouble deciding what to write your essay about, we should talk. We’d love to work with you to pick the ideal topic and craft an outstanding essay.