What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #2

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


What’s Covered:



What is Prompt #2?


Applicants can respond to one of seven prompts for their Common App essay. This essay should be less than 650 words, and it should creatively tell admissions readers about who you are. This article will help you write an essay that answers Prompt #2, which is: 


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? 


This prompt invites you to talk about what facets of your personality have allowed you to overcome adversity. It’s about resilience, it’s about creativity, and it’s about the qualities that will help you get back on your feet after you fall down.


How to Choose a Challenge


While it’s okay to write about relatively mundane failures, such as not winning an award at your Model UN conference or failing a class, a more powerful tactic is to write about something more foundational that you failed at. Then, you can assess that base failure and its impact on your development.


There are times in your life when your foundation is uprooted, and there are times when you experience failure and you want to give up because you just don’t see a solution. You will want to write an essay about how you respond when you’re destabilized in these moments and what your actions look like when you don’t see an immediate resolution to your challenges.


Prompt #2 Essay Examples and Tips 


Reflect on One Failure


As an example of an answer to this prompt, let’s say that you lost a friend due to an argument. You can analyze the positions from both sides, evaluate your decisions, and identify why you were wrong.


The key is explaining your thought process and growth following the event to highlight how your thinking has changed. So, if you’ve lost this friend because of an argument that you had, you can demonstrate growth through realizing that it wasn’t worth losing a valued relationship over something so silly as whatever you were arguing about. You can talk about how you’ve taken that lesson to heart and that you now make sure you are proactive in your relationships and maintaining them. You could also discuss that, while you may have ideas that you care about or convictions that you hold, you always evaluate whether you prioritize that idea or the person with whom you’re talking about it. 


Here are some more questions to ask yourself as you think of a response to prompt #2: Did you ever admit fault and seek to fix the problem? Have you treated other people differently since then?  How has this event changed the way you view such situations? Framing the prompt in this way really allows you to tackle heavier questions about ethics and demonstrate a sense of self-awareness that shows maturity and growth.


Write About a Recurring Challenge


If you haven’t experienced a big, big failure, another angle to take would be to discuss smaller repeated failures that are either linked or similar thematically. An example would be an essay about how you used to stutter or get nervous in large social groups — this isn’t a failure, but you can discuss the steps you took to find a solution to this challenge.


Even if you don’t have a massive foundational obstacle to write about, a recurring challenge can translate into a powerful essay topic, especially if the steps you took to overcome this repeated failure helped develop your character. 


As an example of this, let’s take a look at an essay about a writer’s recurring struggle to be more empathetic. The writer in this example assumed that because his brother Sam was sociable, Sam was adjusting well to their family’s move. However, after an angry outburst from Sam and a late night conversation, the writer realizes that he needed to develop a greater sense of empathy and sensitivity. Here’s an excerpt of the essay:


“You ruined my life!” Sam shouted.


After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me to my shame. I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain. When my parents learned about the Smith academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also a community.


This meant transferring the family. And, while there was concern about Sam, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me. As it turned out, Smith Academy was everything I’d hoped for, but, preoccupied with my new friends and a rigorous course load, I’d failed to notice that the tables had turned.


Sam had become withdrawn and lonely. While I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me, and I could no longer ignore it. And I didn’t want to. 


We stayed up half the night. Sam opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him due to his dyslexia and that the ever present comparison to me had only deepened his pain. We had been in parallel battles the whole time, and yet I only saw that Sam was in distress once he experienced problems which I directly identified. 


My failure to recognize Sam’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle. Everyone has insecurities. Everyone has woes, and everyone most certainly has pain. This experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. 


We can see from this excerpt that the writer brings up a recurring challenge, which is being sensitive to their brother’s needs and pain. Where this essay might go next is to talk about how they begin to address this. Now that they’ve had this realization, what growth have they achieved in order to become more sensitive? How do they express their sensitivity to others? And, what makes them better now than they were the day before?


How to Craft Your Prompt #2 Essay


Want to know if your prompt #2 essay could be improved? Find out by using our Peer Essay Review tool, where another student will give you a free, anonymous, and secure review of your essay. You can also earn CollegeVine Karma by reviewing other users’ essays while sharpening your own writing skills in the process!