How to Write A College Essay About Failure

Admission Essay

You have a prompt in your application packet that is asking you to write about failure.

A lot of the best advice suggests that you turn this essay about failure into an essay about success.  

Why not actually talk about the causes and nature of the failure? Most of the essays on failure that I see as an editor really do skirt the issue, instead arguing how “the failure actually should be viewed as a reason for success.” Now there is nothing wrong with this, but it often doesn’t answer the question.

Why Nobody Wants You to Write About Failure

There is a good reason for the advice to sidestep the topic, because it is meant to keep you from doing what naturally occurs when you start writing about failure. The syntax itself becomes failure-prone when, as a writer, you zero in on the idea of failure. But why not take a little risk?

You can talk about the very complex nature of failure and also of failure cycles and of the failures that either preceded or were perpetuated by the one you are talking about specifically (see below for an outline). You can talk about how different cultures perpetuate failure cycles or even about how certain family traits perpetuate failure cycles, but you must be very careful in terms of the wording because you do not want to negatively stereotype any groups or individuals. Again, people stay away from this content because it can get you into trouble. But readers appreciate candidates who take a bit of risk.

The Communication Perspective

Failures almost always involve a form of miscommunication, and another way to talk about failure is to point to the “failure that underlies the failure,” and this, again, is almost always a form of miscommunication. Providing this information can often be just as valuable as explaining the details of the specific failure itself (such as the quantitative facts related to the failure, for example, if you are a business applicant and have been asked to address a business failure, which in business is best done with numbers).
How to Write A College Essay About Failure

An Outline

1. Put the reader in the picture in the first paragraph. Provide the facts that can enable the reader to appreciate the scope of the failure. Use the journalist’s tools:

  • Who: what was your role?
  • What: what was the failure specifically?
  • Where: provide the details
  • When: provide the details
  • Why: why did it qualify as a failure in that setting?

2. Talk about the failure that was behind the failure. Was there a lack of communication? If so, what led to it? Again, this is material that many people avoid, but it can be valuable. To keep it from becoming too downbeat, remember that you must always be forgiving when you are talking about other people in your essays. Do not criticize others in your failure essay. If you avoid this you will be fine.

3. Talk about the sense of disorientation. You can endear yourself to your reader if you “confess” to the confusion that you faced without making too much of it.

4. Again, there’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and most prompts do in fact ask about the lessons learned. So in your fourth paragraph you can come back to the typical spin about how you overcame the failure and the lessons you learned.

5. In your conclusion you can talk about the causes of the failure that you now understand. This can work even better than the more typical “hence this was not really a failure” conclusion. Really, failure gets a bad rap. Write a bit about it and what you learned about how it affects us. It just might work.


Don’t be afraid to analyze a failure, and don’t overdo the “without this failure I could never have achieved success” angle. Just write about what you learned and how this has helped you.   


Want more tips from our expert editors? Check out a list of top advice from 3 of our experts!

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