How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #2, 2019-2020

Welcome to our overview of the Common App essay prompts for this 2019-2020 application season. We’re reviewing each prompt, discussing the pros and cons, and deciphering what it’s actually saying. We know that it can get messy and confusing because it’s overwhelming. It’s particularly overwhelming because you know that your personal essay is the most important part of your application. We’re your Google Translate for the Common App. Read on for the ins and outs of Common App prompt #2. 

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?

Aside from question #7, which we’ll get to later on in this series, this is our favorite question. It sets you up to tell a really great story. No matter which prompt you choose, you should be telling a story. 

First—we need a failure. But we have some thoughts on what kind of failure to choose. It doesn’t need to be an epic or devastating loss of some kind. It definitely does not need to be something that was traumatizing or truly awful for you. Rather, we always challenge our students to tell a story of something that they just truly did not succeed in doing, but in not succeeding, they learned some other substantive thing. It can be something incredibly small and seemingly insignificant to someone else, but you know that it slightly shifted the way that you viewed the world and helped you to further understand the state of things.

Humility is key here. Whatever story you choose to tell should evidence a time when you were humbled. A time when you had to take a deep breath because it was a lot, but you did so with a bit of a smile and a tinge of disbelief. Rather than thinking of this question as asking you to reveal a big let-down, think of it as an opportunity to discuss a failure of task that ultimately highlights a part of your personality that remains strong and important.  

One of our students a number of years ago wrote a great story about peanut butter. They were set to package and market an on-the-go peanut butter packet paired with a crunchy snack so that they could eat peanut butter between school and practice. They loved peanut butter. It was their favorite snack, but it wasn’t optimized for people who didn’t have a table, a knife, and 5-10 minutes. Bananas also came with a peel that they couldn’t just shove back in their bag—it would smell too much.  

They finished reading The Power of Little Ideas, went to work, created a business plan, met with retailers and packagers, and did their market research. They had a logo and a website. But ultimately, Justin’s beat them to the punch on their product design and released into stores. It was a truly sad moment for them because they’d invested over a year of work in this product. So, they closed up shop and set their sights on college. They now know everything that there is to know about peanut butter and it serves as a great talking point on their resume. They remain just as passionate, if not more so than before their business venture, about peanut butter. This story was a great one to tell because it’s a unique interest and while it was a failure of execution, it was not a failure of effort or momentum. In fact, it highlighted their determination and resilience. They had a story about interest, passion, work ethic, and the importance of market predictability and timing. It all made for a compelling tale about nut butter and this student’s determination to create a solution to a problem that they experienced every day.

We don’t know what college community wouldn’t want such an active and excitable problem-solver to join their campus.

 So, when you’re thinking about your common app essay, maybe spend a little time diving into your failures. Just remember to approach the topic with humility and humor.

This is just one example of many different “task failures” that we’ve helped our students write over the years. Let us know if you have any questions or want us to help workshop yours.