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How to Write the MIT “Significant Challenge” Essay

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.


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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for its rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), business, and entrepreneurship programs. It uses its own application system called MyMIT instead of the Common Application, and applicants are required to submit five essays. The fifth essay prompt reads:


“Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (225 words)”


In this article, we discuss how to approach the prompt and a few tips for writing your essay. For an overview of the five essay prompts, and guidance on how to approach them, check out our post on how to write the MIT application essays for 2022-2023.


Choosing a Challenge


Contrary to what the prompt says, you do not—and should not—always write about the most significant challenge that you’ve faced, especially if that challenge is deeply personal, inappropriate, illegal, or not your story to share. At no time should you feel pressured to write about any trauma that you or someone else has experienced. Ideally, you want to strike a balance between writing about something that has weight and gravity but is still appropriate for public consumption. 


MIT admissions officers will use your response to this essay to try to understand how you handle difficult situations at the moment and what you learn from them during and after they occur. Knowing this, make sure to speak to the significance of the challenge that you choose and not trivialize it.


As you brainstorm and begin drafting your response to this prompt, here are a few questions to consider: 


  • What happened exactly? 
  • What did you do? What did others do?
  • What were the main outcomes or consequences of this challenge?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who was not present that should have been?
  • Where did this take place?
  • When did this happen in your life?
  • How did you approach finding a solution or resolution?
  • How did your reaction at the moment compare to your reaction later on?
  • How have you grown, and what have you learned as a result of this challenge?
  • Why was this challenge particularly significant to you?


Topics to Avoid


You are free to choose almost any topic you wish. However, you should avoid anything that is too trivial (like receiving a bad test grade), clichéd (a sports injury), or personal (romantic relationships and breakups). If you choose a topic that borders on the cliché, you need to put a unique spin on the story.


Example #1: A Significant Challenge


The conventional sports injury narrative reads like a Hollywood film. The applicant is severely injured and cannot play in the biggest game of the season. They have to go through months of rehabilitation and physical therapy. Finally, they return to the field the next season, and they lead the team to win the state championship. 


The conventional narrative would not yield a particularly unique or compelling essay. However, a unique twist on this exhausted narrative would be an essay that talks about how the applicant was injured and struggled with feeling socially isolated and disconnected from their teammates, whom they considered to be their closest friends. During their time away from the sport, the applicant became obsessed with political organizing in their town, and they met new friends with whom they had more substantive interactions and shared values. In this essay, the semi-cliché sports injury challenge has a unique unexpected twist.


Example #2: When Preparation Is Not Enough


Consider this example of something important that did not go according to plan. An applicant spent months preparing for a 90-minute solo classical piano recital for an audience of more than 2,000 people, but during the performance, they have multiple memory slips. Sometimes, they can recover their place in the music, but other times, they find themselves having to start all over again or finish the piece abruptly. 


At first, the applicant panics and berates themselves, but as the recital progresses, they become more comfortable with adapting to the memory challenges as they arise and using their musical instincts to improvise their way out of each memory slip. When describing this situation, the applicant could reflect on the importance of preparation while being flexible and adapting to new situations and changing conditions.