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Essay on Failure: How to Tackle This Tricky Question in College Admission Form

Posted on Sep 07, 2019
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Let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody is born a superstar. Despite the fact that destiny plays a big role in life, failure is inevitable in everyone’s life at least once. You may have a small setback such as losing your rank in the third consecutive year of high performance. Or you may have a much greater disaster with your family income being wiped out due to financial mismanagement. The greater the scale of the disaster, the rougher the ride.

When college applications ask for an essay on your failure, you may feel uncomfortable sharing that extremely private, embarrassing and difficult moment of your life. But if tackled right, this essay on managing failures could be your golden ticket to your dream school.

1. What the College Wants to Know

Why do colleges ask you to respond to an essay on failure? What do they want to understand about you?

Failure is integral to any process of learning and growing. A child learns to walk only after numerous failed attempts. We all have to learn to accept failure, learn from mistakes and use the lessons to make informed decisions. College admissions officers want to see whether you have the ‘drive’ to learn from past mistakes. They want to understand whether you have the maturity to accept failures as stepping stones, or whether you brush your failures under the carpet, and pretend that life can go on.

As a professional, you are bound to face numerous, complex situations in your work life. If you did not have the ability to pick yourself up after a setback, you’d probably never grow. You shy away from taking risks, and always sit on the fence when it comes to making business decisions. As a business leader, you cannot afford to make failure your Achilles heel. College admissions department recognize the power of learning from failure.

2. How to Position Your Failure

The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt brings up the second question as:

“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?”

Let’s break this up in 5 parts:
1. Lessons from obstacles we encounter.
2. Fundamental to later success.
3. Faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
4. How did it affect you?
5. What did you learn from the experience?

To answer this question, focus on the “lessons learnt”, how it translated to “later success”, and “what did you learn.” These are key elements of the answer. Merely describing your low point will not curry favor with the admissions team. They don’t want to hear a sob-story of a pessimistic candidate. They want to know how you bounced back.

3. How to Talk About Overcoming Failures
There is no need to mask your failure behind flowery words. Admissions officers can see right through them. Keep the language straightforward, honest, and matter-of-fact. Don’t be melodramatic. Also, don’t drag your failure story unnecessarily. As a thumb rule, your story of challenges should not compose more than 10% of your entire essay. The other 90% should be dedicated on positive aspects such as lessons learned, successes gained in future, and how it changed you.

Top 5 Do’s and Don’ts in Writing About Failure:

When writing your essay about failure, keep the following things in mind:

1. Don’t trivialize the essay topic by showcasing a non-issue as failure. For example, don’t write a long story on how you missed a train during a vacation in Paris with your family. Or don’t write about not being selected to a debate competition. Or that your parents sent you to Alaska without snow boots. Don’t pretend to have had a setback when there was none.

2. Do not criticize others in your failure essay. Don’t whine, complain or throw others in a bad light. You don’t want to present yourself as the nasty Grinch. Steer clear from pessimistic lines, blame game or self-praise.

3. Make sure to highlight how you bounced back. Colleges want to see the winning attitude, the positive outlook, and the ability to pick up lessons with every failure. Express any successful outcomes with numerical perspective. If you can quantify the success, it can help to leverage your success-from-failure story.

A well-written essay is half the job done. Essays should be consistent with the rest of the application; make sure to tie all loose ends so that you can present a solid college application.

Sloppy writing in your essay is bound to leave the wrong impression on the reader. Use our FREE Essay Editor Tool to ensure you submit an error free essay.