We All Fall Down

by and
College Counselors

After a sneak peek at the Common Application prompts for fall 2013 earlier this year, college counselors, high school juniors, and eager parents were abuzz. The questions felt fresh with possibility.

In casual conversation with parents and students, one topic, however, is generating nervous discussion:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Of course, we have seen this before—a reasonable facsimile sometimes pops up as a supplemental essay prompt. In our private practices and in our volunteer work at the college center of a large public high school, we have witnessed more than a few half hearted attempts to share moments of failure and redemption. Students are tempted to write about AP Calculus (substitute the honors/AP class of your choice) being harder than they ever imagined, yet hours at the study center and sleepless nights spent memorizing quadratic equations culminate in a hard-fought A by June.

There are several potential variations of this essay: trying out for cheer team three years in a row before becoming captain, or running a disastrous campaign for Student Body Treasurer and winning on a technicality, only to spearhead the most successful car wash the school has ever known.

Instead, we dream of the brave soul who writes with palpable relief after grinding out a B minus in advanced math, or of a girl who looks deep in her soul and decides the world might be a better place if she petitions the city council for a homeless shelter instead of practicing her cartwheels.

The very whisper of failure in a college application essay makes students and parents anxious, driving generic essays where the student inevitably emerges as the hero of their own story, having learned that with enough hard work, anything is possible. Only the most gifted, wonderfully funny writer with a developed sense of irony can effectively describe the shame and determination involved in nearly flunking physics, stalking the teacher, losing sleep and friends before limping out of the final exam with a big red A.

We actually love questions about failure. Why, parents challenge us, would a student ever want to reveal weakness in a college essay?

Well, for one, because all of us, including the Directors of Admission, our teachers, leaders, and certainly every single member of the United States Congress, have made mistakes. Who is not haunted by the ghost of a ball fumbled, a test flunked, an opportunity lost? Actual human beings read these essays, hungry to relate to an honest story of failure, humility, and newfound coping skills.

So what’s to love? How about the opportunity to go beyond the obvious, to reach for an essay topic that is true and deep and uniquely personal. For example:

  • Brian’s inability to sit at the dinner table with his uncle who suffered a stroke, squeamish as his once powerful relative dribbles his soup, and frightened when he garbles simple words
  • Catherine’s regret that her old battle with social anxiety prevents her from trying out for the debate team, despite her passion for logic and intellectual argument
  • Lisa’s despair when her best friend is taunted by a mean girl and she fails to act
  • Simon’s discovery that his love for music is not enough to stop his dog from howling when he practices his violin, notwithstanding the two years he has devoted to it

Those clever folks at CommonApp.org invite reflection. How, they ask, did this make you feel? What did you learn from this? Brian might recall how his uncle influenced his interest in engineering, patiently helping him construct Lego cities when he was five, long after his parents grew tired of fiddling with those tiny brightly colored pieces of plastic. The odds are good that Brian ultimately faces his fear and sadness and matches his uncle’s kindness with his own, helping him hold his spoon, blotting his chin with a napkin, or just sitting quietly beside him. Perhaps he cries a little when he checks off School of Engineering as he completes his college application, tracing the roots of his academic path to those happy childhood memories with his uncle.

We have high hopes for Catherine, who will find a voice for her passion, even if she missed the debate tryout. No matter how terrible she felt when she failed to stand up with her peers and publicly argue for immigration reform, there is little doubt that she will write for the school newspaper or even conquer her fear of public speaking. Perhaps Lisa will find redemption in forming an anti-bullying club at her school after apologizing to her friend and confronting her own cowardice.

As for our squeaky violinist, there is no shame in accepting reality; Simon can write a compelling essay about the importance of music in his life, how listening to Debussy helps him study for AP French and reflect on his interest in European history. And lucky for Simon, penning a vivid description of his golden retriever running for cover every time she hears the unsnapping of the violin case just might elicit a few smiles in the admit office.

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