College Essays

Common Application

Prompt: 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?

It had been a grueling two days. My throat and chest felt sore. I was either losing my voice or coming down with a cold. Twelve hours of debate yesterday and another sixteen today at the state tournament had not been a walk in the park. On the podium, I greeted my opponent in the final round. Waiting for the winner to be announced, my mind wandered back to the beginning of my journey.
I was born with a speech impediment that weakened my mouth muscles. My speech was garbled and incomprehensible. Understandably, I grew up quiet. I tried my best to blend in and give the impression I was silent by choice. I joined no clubs in primary school, instead preferring isolation. It took six years of tongue twisters and complicated mouth contortions in special education classes for me to produce the forty-four sounds of the English language.
Then, high school came. I was sick of how confining my quiet nature had become. For better or for worse, I decided to finally make my voice heard. Scanning the school club packet, I searched for my place. Most activities just didn’t feel right. But then, I sat in on a debate team practice and was instantly hooked. I was captivated by how confidentially the debaters spoke and how easily they commanded attention. I knew that this was the path forward.
Of course, this was all easier said than done. Whenever it was my turn to debate, I found that I was more of a deer in the headlights than a person enjoying the spotlight. My start was difficult, and I stuttered more than I spoke in those first few weeks. Nonetheless, I began using the same tools as I did when I learned to speak all those years ago: practice and time. I watched the upperclassmen carefully, trying to speak as powerfully as they did. I learned from my opponents and adapted my style through the hundreds of rounds I lost. With discipline, I drilled, repeating a single speech dozens of times until I got it right.
Day by day, I began to stand a little taller and talk a little louder both inside and outside of debate. In a few months, my blood no longer froze when I was called on in class. I found I could finally look other people in the eyes when I talked to them without feeling embarrassed. My posture straightened and I stopped fidgeting around strangers. I began to voice my opinions as opposed to keeping my ideas to myself. As my debate rank increased from the triple to double-digits, so too did my standing at school. I began interacting with my teachers more and leading my peers in clubs. In discussions, I put forward my ideas with every bit as much conviction as my classmates. When seniors began to ask me for advice and teachers recruited me to teach underclassmen, I discovered not only that I had been heard, but that others wanted to listen. At heart, I am still reserved (some things never change), but in finding my voice, I found a strength I could only dream of when I stood in silence so many years ago. I’ve learned that it’s our current decisions, and not our past circumstances, that define our future. On this journey, I’ve conquered my own demons; no matter what life may bring, I know I will always overcome. Standing on that stage with spotlights in my eyes in front of hundreds of my fellow competitors, I noticed that I wasn’t nervous or scared at all. I let out a soft chuckle and smiled. Not bad for a quiet kid with a speech impediment. Frankly, the final decision didn’t mean much to me. Trophy or not, I had already won.

Tips for Writing:
At least for me, college essays felt strange to write because I don’t write about myself very often. Here are a few pieces of advice I picked up along the way that might be useful. Don’t be afraid to throw away an entire essay. I completely threw away 7 entire essays before writing the first draft of this essay. If you realize that the topic that you chose wasn’t such a great choice after all, don’t cling to it. Start fresh. If you can’t come up with a topic, ask your parents for their opinion. Having raised you, they probably know a lot about your life and likely remember something that you’ve forgotten about. Don’t use overly flowery language. It comes off as disingenuous and doesn’t convey your personality well. Use your own voice. Leave time for revision. Even after you choose a good topic, you still have to execute it well. After writing a first draft, walk away from it for a while and come back to it a few days later with a fresh slate of ideas. If you’re not in the right mood to write, then you’re better off just jotting down some ideas and writing more later. Essays should never sound forced or rushed. Bring out the best of your writing.


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