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? 


The trip to Home Depot ruined my day. The outing started perfectly; the sunset filled the sky with beautiful shades of pink and blue, and I was excited to spend time with my dad. As we strolled through the flower section, the sky got darker and the air felt cooler. The cinder blocks stared me down from a corner of the store. Panic washed over me. How was I going to break that next month? I should feel how hard it is so I know what to expect. I forced myself to tap the cement with my finger. There’s no way my hand can break something that hard. The impending test loomed over my initially pleasant evening. 

In sixth grade, I was ready for my black belt test in Taekwondo. The test included multiple challenges, but the scariest one was breaking a cinder block with my bare hand; if it didn’t break, I wouldn’t pass. 

My body shook as I counted down the minutes until my test started. Breaking cement with my hand sounded absolutely insane. Fears of failing in front of my family, friends, and instructors circled through my head. I realized that my mindset was not going to help me succeed. Watching the older students reminded me how excited I was to learn new kicks and make my forms look as crisp as theirs. I forced myself to channel the energy I was using for doubtful thoughts and disappointing outcomes into encouragement and my ideal outcome. As I imagined breaking through the cement on my first try over and over again, I told myself that I had practiced enough—my body was strong enough. 

I stood behind the cinderblock, positioning my feet in the stance I had been practicing for months. Then, before I could let doubt enter my mind, I jumped and slammed my hand into the cement. The block cracked in two, and my heart and mind instantly felt lighter. I felt so proud of what I had just done. That day I did not just take the broken cinder block home: I left with an unshakable lesson in discipline and mental strength.

Knowing I could overcome seemingly impossible challenges, I decided to try skiing for the first time in eighth grade. Getting injured terrified me as I had heard about my friends’ traumatizing skiing experiences, but watching my friends zoom down the mountain made me want to be that skilled too. I felt pure dread standing on top of the mountain; calling ski patrol to take me down seemed appealing. I hated putting myself in situations where I risked getting injured, but skiing felt pointless if I wouldn’t let myself improve out of fear. If I panicked, I wouldn’t be focused, so I took a moment to quiet my doubts. I can ski the bunny hill. The green one won’t be much harder. I imagined myself gracefully shifting my weight onto each leg, making controlled turns across the snow. I followed my friends down the mountain and, while my skiing wasn’t perfect, I made it down the green run for the first time safely and gained a lifelong love for the sport. This strategy of convincing myself to be positive while overcoming challenges has been an extremely useful tool in every aspect of my life. 

After I had somehow gotten my little 12-year-old hand to break through a cinder block, I proved to myself that I could do the impossible with enough dedication, mental strength, and focus. Rather than an uncomfortable feeling that made my palms sweaty and my heart race, stress became a tool for accomplishing impossible feats. When I’ll need to adjust to my workload in college, I’ll have the strength for it. When I’ll have to find new friends in college, I’ll have the confidence for it. When I’ll have to build a career, I’ll have the passion for it.

Tips for Writing: 

Writing college essays is an intimidating task considering they could potentially be the reason you get into the colleges you love, but there are multiple ways to make the process more efficient and less stressful. Starting your essays the summer before senior year will help lessen your workload during the school year. If you don’t have time to set aside for writing essays during the summer, you can still get ahead by reminiscing about your favorite experiences or hobbies in your free time. If you spend a long car or plane ride over the summer thinking about pivotal moments in your life, you’ll spend much less time brainstorming when you actually sit down to write. While writing, make sure your essays are about you and not just the things you’ve done. Colleges use essays to learn about your personality, so if you write about an activity you were a part of, they’ll care more about how that activity changed you than just what you accomplished as a member. After you do write an essay, show it to as many people as you can because everyone will interpret your writing in different ways and can give you corrections on things you never would have noticed on your own. However, all of the notes people give you are just suggestions. Be clear with yourself about the image that you want to show to colleges, and if someone’s corrections don’t align with that image, don’t make the change. Even though writing college essays seems stressful, it helps a lot to just focus on enjoying telling stories about your life, and the process does go by quickly.

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