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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How To Level Up Your Overcoming Challenges Essay

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal and Kaila Barber in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


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In this article, we cover ways that you can revise challenge-based personal statements to help highlight your own skills, values, interests, and qualities.


Components of a Challenge-Based Essay


For students who have faced challenges, writing a challenge-based personal statement could be a good option. The challenge-based essay is made up of three main pieces: challenges and effects, steps you took to overcome your challenge, and what you learned.


Clear and Compelling Challenges and Effects


When writing a challenge-based essay, the first step is to make sure that you write about the challenge and its effects clearly and compellingly. You want to avoid leaving any room for interpretation from the reader by simply and concisely outlining your challenges.


Keeping your challenge concise will allow you to show your reader what you went through and how it impacted you, while also leaving space for you to show what you did and what you learned.


For example, if in your essay you mention that you struggled with your mental health, but you don’t provide any other details, the reader will either make their own assumptions about your experience, or they could just skim through your essay without making any assumptions at all. To avoid the challenge of being misinterpreted, it is important for you to be specific about what you have faced.


Steps You Took To Overcome Your Challenge


The next step in a challenge-based essay is to make sure that you’ve elaborated on what you did to overcome your challenge. While your challenge is important, the admissions officer is more curious about what you did to overcome your challenge and the steps that you took to make your situation better. 


What You Learned


The last part of a challenge based-essay is a section in which you elaborate on what you learned. Here, you should build upon what you did to overcome your challenge by including what you learned from overcoming it. This is your teaching moment to show that you reflect and learn from your experiences and environment.


How To Structure Your Essay


As you write, keep in mind that each component should make up about one-third of your essay. This is important because it is common for students to focus mainly on what the challenge is and write 45% to 50% of the essay talking about the challenge and its impact. 


Instead, you should split your essay into thirds, with challenges and effects, what you did, and what you learned each taking up approximately one-third of your total word count. Approaching your essay in this way provides you with two-thirds of the essay to show your values and personal growth. 


Challenge-Based Essay Tips


There are several handy tips that can help you write a challenge-based essay like this. These tips include, in addition to writing clearly and concisely to build a compelling narrative, using active verbs, including your insights, and connecting everything back to your values.


Use Active Verbs


When talking about what you did to overcome the challenge, it is important to use active verbs. Examples of active verbs include words like customized, designed, facilitated, recruited, and restructured. Active verbs clearly and specifically show the reader what you did, and these are most crucial to include when you write about the steps you took to overcome an obstacle.


Include a Strong Insight and Connect to Your Values


During the “what you learned” section, make sure that the insights that you include are strong. Strong insights demonstrate to the reader how you’ve made meaning from the challenge that you’ve faced, and are an opportunity for you to showcase your values, self-awareness and critical thinking.


This essay should be written in a way that makes your core values clear to the reader. One exercise that you can do to help find connections and linkages to your core values is to consider guiding questions like the following: 


  • What did you do as a result of your challenge? 
  • What moment did something change for you? 
  • Did you take responsibility for anything you hadn’t before? 
  • Did you start paying for things? 
  • Did you learn a new piece of technology? 
  • Did you help someone or did someone help you?


As you write and revise, you can use these guiding questions, and questions like them, to reflect and become more aware of your own core values. You may find that once you clarify and include more of your own values, your insights are strengthened.