Successful Common App Essays About Failure

Humility, self-awareness, and a sense of humor. These are all traits applicants should seek to convey in their college essays, and essays about failure are a great vehicle for doing so. Students are sometimes hesitant to highlight failures. After all, isn’t the objective to cultivate and showcase a cluster of assets on the application? In short, the answer is ‘yes.’ However, highlighting a weakness, if done properly, can also mean underscoring growth, as well as an ability to think critically and learn from past mistakes. Simply put, it’s humanizing.

That said, there are some absolute caveats to the rule. In this blog post, we discuss how students can avoid classic “failure story” pitfalls and effectively suggest to the admissions committee that they appreciate self-deprecating humor in a tasteful way.  

Keep It Simple and in the Past

The first rule of rocking the “failure story” is to choose a takeaway from the past. The anecdote should not have anything to do with something you’re in the middle of grappling with. Remember, you want to demonstrate growth. Whatever topic you choose should also be very specific. “Procrastination,” for example, is a very specific behavior that you could have overcome. “Finding myself” is too nebulous.

One of our writers was hyper-active when she was a kid. Teachers always complained that they couldn’t get her to focus in class and either found her staring out the window or talking to her classmates. Her family frequented a casual Japanese restaurant growing up, which her mom discovered also hosted Japanese tea ceremony classes. Her mom was really interested in Japanese culture, so she thought it would be a good idea for our writer to join. This chaotic little kid spent years of her childhood studying the ancient ritual with a group of older Japanese women. She wrote one of her college essays about her experience engaging in this very slow, methodical, quiet practice and frequently succumbing to the urge to bounce off the walls and lose focus. The essay worked because it demonstrated a specific past failure (an inability to focus) and also extrapolated upon what our writer learned from that experience.

Not All Failures Are Appropriate

While the goal of the “failure story” is definitely to humanize ourselves, some stories that require more vulnerability, however powerful, are not appropriate. Mistakes that resulted in tragedy or trauma are not really great options to choose here. That doesn’t mean they were not important life experiences. Rather, the admissions committee doesn’t know you that well. If you share with them something you would only really talk about with a close friend or family member, that’s likely all they’ll remember. Let them get to know your strengths and keep it light.  

Another one of our writers wrote an essay about how she decided to take a bath, as she enjoyed doing during busy or stressful times of the year. Her routine was always to fill up the tub, do exactly 10 minutes of assigned reading, and come back when it was just about full. A few minutes later, she was disturbed when her dad started screaming “WHY IS IT RAINING IN MY LIVING ROOM?!” In this particular instance, she had been spacing out, thinking about all that she had to do that day and didn’t realize she put the water on full blast. She flooded her bathroom and her dad’s living room as a result. What our writer didn’t do was write an essay about the ins-and-outs of her emotional well-being during that stressful period in her life. Instead, she crafted a light, funny story about the failure at hand—her tendency to space out—and that was sufficient.

Not All Failures Are Failure Stories  

Sometimes students are compelled to talk about a trait or circumstance that is not actually a direct result of their own decision-making. If you were in an accident, got sick, or experienced a trauma or tragedy that impacted your school work, the essay portion of the Common App is not the right place for you to discuss it. There is an entire section devoted to  additional information and you should absolute include any disruptions in your education in that section. Also, those don’t need to be light. They just need to be true.


 Did you have to miss some school for an injury, sickness, or family issue? Reach out to us. We are experts at helping students address gaps in their resumes.