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? (650)


At this point, only the feel of the music consumed me. I ripped through the intricate runs and riffs as the beat grooved in the background. Hundreds of eyes fixated on me, bobbing their little heads and vibing to the blues. No distractions consumed me anymore as I internalized the rapid drums and performed the way I knew I could. The adrenaline rush of bowing to the audience was when I realized that focusing on the results of a task would only distract me. My first saxophone solo was where I learned to truly live in the moment, and my life improved exponentially. 

While I was initially overwhelmed by swarming distractions, this came through in my performance. I lost focus, and bit the reed too hard, and out came a deafening squeak. My body was sent into a state of shock wondering if I would ever recover. My fingers slipped away from the pads as my mind fell into a bottomless void and only my physical self remained on that stage. This moment proved to be a trigger for me in that I knew I had to recalibrate. I shut my eyes and purged my mind of the noises and emotions that engulfed me. I knew that whatever happened in the second half of the solo was solely up to me. 

I decided to extend this philosophy to every situation I found myself in. Just a year and a half later, during my AP U.S. History Exam, I found myself in a similar situation. This being my first ever AP Exam I was frantically thinking about my results instead of concentrating on the process itself. I felt the weight of the world in that stuffy gymnasium where I had to spend the next three hours. My hands were drenched in sweat and the vexing noise of graphite on paper devoured me. Halfway through the test, I couldn’t maintain an ounce of focus. I thought back to my solo and reflected on what had bettered me. Time was working against me so I was forced to make a decision. At the moment, my options were scarce and I knew that taking those two minutes to stop and recalibrate would benefit me. After clearing my mind of the distractions, I was locked in. Questions were amazingly easier, pages turned faster, and concepts flowed through my mind. I finished with the needed time as I once again understood the importance of focusing on the journey.

After multiple instances where I faced a setback due to getting lost in the moment, I knew the only way to stop this was to anticipate it. My next opportunity to do so was at the Ivy League Model United Nations Conference. I was placed in the General Assembly Committee and was surrounded by 200 other delegates.

“The delegation of Lebanon next.”

I took a deep breath and thought about the journey I had taken up to this point and the process itself. Similar to the intricate runs and riffs and the fast-flowing test questions, I mentally recalibrated, and conveyed my message to the other delegates, resulting in a top-10 designation.

The opportunities I have had in high school have shaped what I now bring to every activity that I pursue. I wasn’t going to let myself settle for what I’d already done, especially when I knew what I was capable of. By recalibrating in the moment, I not only get the most joy from any activity but also see increased success throughout my personal and academic life. Anticipating distractions and preparing for them has taught me how to deal with strenuous situations. I have grown from my past experiences, whether it be a musical performance or a test, and I look forward to the new and unexpected ways the college will allow me to grow further, knowing that I am ready to face anything.

Tips for Writing:

Something I wish I knew before I started the essay was the importance of starting well ahead of time and making several drafts/new versions. I often found myself making changes last minute before submitting my first application. I would also recommend using sensory details when telling a story as it allows the reader to visualize whatever situation you found yourself in. Additionally, I found it really helpful to weave in words/phrases/sentences that connect to your personal statement throughout the essay. In this essay, I found that the word “recalibrate” was extremely meaningful to me and I worked it in throughout the essay until the end when I combined everything I’d learned. When the reader sees repeating trends throughout the essay it helps ties together the body paragraphs you are writing.

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