The Common Application Essays: #2

By Ryan Hickey + updated on August 19th, 2015

In the second part of this five part series, we take a look at what is arguably the most oddball of the 2015-2016 Common App prompts. While the tone of the other prompts is rather positive, this one fearlessly examines some of the darker parts of life that we all encounter and encourages applicants to write about how mistakes can groom us for success in the future.

Here’s the prompt. The first sentence, in italics, simply indicates that the wording has changed from the previous 2014-2015 prompt.

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?


The Common App actually gives you quite a bit of direction on this prompt, and this is helpful as writing about failures can be exceptionally difficult. The structure provided can be very useful in creating an effective essay about a challenging topic.

Your essay will need to have three distinct parts:

    1. Writing about the incident itself

In the essay, you will need to tell the reader what happened. This seems self-explanatory, but remember that you’ll need to save enough space for the other two parts of the essay. This should actually be the shortest section of the essay, with the most time spent on exploring the other parts of the prompt. Therefore, writing out the entire incident and then trimming back can help you get everything out on paper so that you can view the incident more objectively.

    2. Writing about the effect this failure had on you

The failure may have had consequences for you, such as needing to repeat a class or losing your place on a team. However, the admissions officers are really looking for self-reflection in this section. How did you begin to change as an individual? How was this failure part of your process of growing up and becoming more mature? Did this failure change your perspective about yourself or your philosophy of life?

    3. Writing about how you are better prepared for success – particularly as a college student

For the final section of the essay, you need to bring everything together for the reader. Let the admissions officers know that you have made peace with the incident and have the skills to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Show them a confident individual who can manage setbacks and come back stronger because of them.


For this prompt, the biggest potential pitfall is focusing on the mistake itself. While you need to fully explain the situation so that the admissions officers can understand the anecdote that you are including in the essay, the admissions officers want you to spend most of your time in this essay writing about what you learned from this incident. Most of all, they want to know how you are now wiser and stronger because of this experience. Although there will be negative aspects to the essay, the overall tone needs to be positive.

As you work to complete your Common App essay, remember that sincerity, self-reflection, and taking responsibility are the things that the admissions officers are seeking in this essay. Writing with humility but also passion and insight will create an essay that can leave a lasting impression.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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