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The College Essay: Prompt #2 on the Common Application

Written by CB Experts

There are five prompts offered for your choice on the Common Application. You must select one to write to. One of the best prompts to choose is prompt # 2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?


All college essays are personal essays. Of course, colleges want you to write an essay so they can assess your writing ability. However, there is another very important goal colleges have in asking applicants to write a personal essay and that goal is to learn about you above and beyond all the data you have submitted on the rest of your college application: grades, coursework, recommendations, test scores, honors and awards, etc. They want to understand who you are and how you might fit in their college community.


So why might you want to write your essay in answer to prompt #2? You might wonder about the wisdom of writing about your failures, but there are reasons to write about any failures you have experienced:

  • Dealing with a failure can help you grow as a person.
  • Most applicants try to highlight their strengths; someone writing about his or her weaknesses can stand out.
  • It takes more maturity and certainly more confidence to examine your failures instead of listing your successes.


First, what kind of failure could you write about? It doesn’t have to be a life-shattering failure like breaking the law, nor should it be a typical failure like not passing a class or not catching a fly ball. As this is a personal essay, it is best to look at some of the daily or life failures many of us have. You want to show you are self-aware, after all. Some examples of failures are listed below, which might help you think about failures in your own life:

  • Didn’t listen to advice
  • Didn’t realize a negative affect you had on others
  • Didn’t perceive the depth of feelings in a friend or family member
  • Didn’t act, or act as quickly, as you should have.


Once you’ve chosen a failure to write about from your life, you can complete the first part of the prompt by describing it from memory (Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure). This is the easiest and probably the shortest part of your essay.


The second part of your essay should describe with some detail how you reacted to the failure (How did it affect you). We hope the way you handled the failure will show what kind of person you are. Perhaps you were calm and cool, you may have been saddened, you may have become more determined, you might have gone into a problem-solving mode.

Next, you must finish writing to the prompt by responding to this: what lessons did you learn? What you write here should be the main part of the essay and should show higher level thinking. You must show insight. What new self-awareness do you have? Don’t use platitudes or vagaries like “I’ve become a better person.” Or “I now work harder and smarter.” What actually did you experience that you can now see will help you better navigate any obstacles or challenges in your future? Perhaps you found out your perceptions are not the only ones and that other people matter so now you pay more attention to how others are acting and what they are saying. Perhaps you realized you had a naiveté about what you can accomplish and now you understand it takes more than self-belief; it takes time and effort. These are a few of the realizations colleges want you to be able to demonstrate to them so they know you are a real person who will live and breathe on their campus.

If you would like to read more about how to write to the other prompts for the personal college essay on the Common Application, go to College Basics.

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.