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Writing Your Common Application Essay: How to Answer Prompt #2

When many students envision the perfect college application, they may think about excellent test scores, AP courses and significant hours of community involvement. It’s easy to forget that the review committee will be evaluating your application alongside more qualitative assessments, such as recommendation letters, activity lists and essays. Don’t procrastinate the critical importance of the essay section of the Common Application. Your dream school is waiting for you to share with them (in 650 words or less) what you will bring to the next incoming class!

In this installment of our series on Writing the New Common Application Essay, we’ll look at prompt #2 (if you’re not a fan of this prompt, check out our thoughts on prompt #1, prompt #3, prompt #4, prompt #5, prompt #6, and prompt #7):


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?

Prompt #2 makes an unorthodox request for writer vulnerability. Rather than creating a strong narrative around achieving the highest-class rank or going undefeated on the field, review committees want to know more about how you navigated through some of life’s hardest hits. We like to call this the “lemonade effect.”

The longstanding proverb of “turning lemons to lemonade” rings true for this essay topic. There are countless examples of individuals who have experienced tough times and motivated others by their uncanny ability to punch through some of the worst circumstances.

1) Your story is not for sale.
You’ll often hear that writing an effective college application essay is like making a persuasive sales pitch. Be careful. While it’s true that your essay is an opportunity to impress your readers, the story you write shouldn’t be about what you think the review committee wants to hear. Committees have no formula or hierarchy of hardships that they favor over others. Don’t try to “sell” them on how tough your situation was—use the difficulty to shine light on your individual strong points. For example, a successful applicant wrote about the challenge she faced when she broke her hand in the 10th grade. She discussed how her injury made her blogging hobby difficult and it propelled her to come out of her shell and join her high school forensics and debate team. Notice the focus was not on what she lost, but what she discovered from this experience. Your story is valuable on its own (no need to embellish or exaggerate!) and deserves to be shared.

2) “To thine own self be true.” - William Shakespeare/Wise College Applicant
This line isn’t just from your AP Literature course—it’s a guide you should follow for writing your most genuine life-story yet. When you are brainstorming about setbacks you have encountered, be honest about how you felt when confronted with adversity. Make a list of your initial emotions. Don’t shy away from nouns like fear, worry, shock and frustration—these are relatable things we all experience. Once you identify a few stories you might share, contrast these emotions with nouns that capture what you felt when you overcame these negative experiences. Try words like power, perseverance, support and bravery. This exercise will focus your writing and help you paint a clear picture of the effects of the obstacle to your readers.

3) Actions speak louder.
The admissions committee wants to know more than just the problems you’ve endured—they are interested in your journey toward your goals. The bulk of your essay should focus on the aftermath of the troubles you faced. College presents students with a number of opportunities and challenges. You’ll be catapulted into a whirlwind of change—new instructors, academic courses, peer groups and for some a shift in responsibilities and geographic locations. Write down exactly what you did to work through your challenges. What were the steps you took on the journey? What did you gain from this experience that you can take with you in college? Reviewers want to know that you are not only capable of performing well academically, but that you can adapt and glean from different environments and a new community.

4) Think progress.
Now that you are fixed on sharing your journey, make sure that your essay moves in a positive direction. Think about your favorite book. It’s likely that the plot of the story created suspense and left you anxiously turning the pages chapter after chapter. Life has a series of ups and downs, and 650 words (or less) is not enough time to give every minute detail of your experiences. If you are considering this essay prompt, be sure to add some mobility to your story. Write so that your reader anxiously anticipates each paragraph. The writer carries readers with them as they learn, grow and become inspired on the road to recovery and success.

5) Write your “I am” statement.
To achieve the ultimate, application essay “lemonade effect,” don’t forget to express to the committee who you are today. This is by far the most forgotten (and one of the most important) aspects of this essay topic. The committee is eager to find out how all of these circumstances contributed to you becoming a better/happier/healthier/stronger you! Don’t get so wrapped up in the journey that you miss the chance to speak to your identity, character and desires for the future. Write about who you were before the experience and who are now. You’ll not only expand your perspective, but show the review committee you’re ready to take on the next step of your academic career and beyond!

Along with using these tips to jump-start your journey to acing the new Common Application Essay prompts, it’s most important to start your essays as early as possible. If you’re considering hiring an expert to guide you through the process, Veritas Prep offers hourly and school packages convenient for high school students on the go. Take a look at our FAQ page to find out more information about our college-admission consulting services, or give us a call or email to let us know how we can help you conquer the college application essay!