6 Overcoming Challenges College Essay Examples


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What’s Covered:

 

At some point in our lives, we’ve all dealt with a hardship or obstacle we’ve had to overcome. For many colleges, this situation is something they may ask you to write about in your essays.

 

The purpose of the “overcoming challenges” essay prompt is for schools understand how you might handle the challenges of college. They also want to see how you grow, evolve, and learn when you face adversity. For this topic, there are many clichés, such as getting a bad grade or losing a sports game, so be sure to steer clear of those and focus on a topic that’s unique to you.

 

These overcoming challenges essay examples were all written by real students. Read through them to get a sense of what makes a strong essay. At the end, we’ll present the revision process for the first essay and share some resources for improving your essay.

 

Essay 1: Becoming a Coach

 

”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.

 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.

 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.

 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.

 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.

 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.

 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.

 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.

 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.

 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

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Essay 2: Starting a Fire

Fire! 

 

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

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Essay 3: Music and Mental Health

Sobbing uncontrollably, I parked around the corner from my best friend’s house. As I sat in the
driver’s seat, I whispered the most earnest prayer I had ever offered.

 

Minutes before, I had driven to Colin’s house to pick up a prop for our upcoming spring musical. When I got there, his older brother, Tom, came to the door and informed me that no one else was home. “No,” I corrected, “Colin is here. He’s got a migraine.” Tom shook his head and gently told me where Colin actually was: the psychiatric unit of the local hospital. I felt a weight on my chest as I connected the dots; the terrifying picture rocked my safe little world. Tom’s words blurred as he explained Colin’s self-harm, but all I could think of was whether I could have stopped him. Those cuts on his arms had never been accidents. Colin had lied, very convincingly, many times. How could I have ignored the signs in front of me? Somehow, I managed to ask Tom whether I could see him, but he told me that visiting hours for non-family members were over for the day. I would have to move on with my afternoon.

 

Once my tears had subsided a little, I drove to the theater, trying to pull myself together and warm up to sing. How would I rehearse? I couldn’t sing three notes without bursting into tears. “I can’t do this,” I thought. But then I realized that the question wasn’t whether I could do it. I knew Colin would want me to push through, and something deep inside told me that music was the best way for me to process my grief. I needed to sing.

 

I practiced the lyrics throughout my whole drive. The first few times, I broke down in sobs. By the time I reached the theater, however, the music had calmed me. While Colin would never be far from my mind, I had to focus on the task ahead: recording vocals and then producing the video trailer that would be shown to my high school classmates. I fought to channel my worry into my recording. If my voice shook during the particularly heartfelt moments, it only added emotion and depth to my performance. I felt Colin’s absence next to me, but even before I listened to that first take, I knew it was a keeper.

 

With one of my hurdles behind me, I steeled myself again and prepared for the musical’s trailer. In a floor-length black cape and purple dress, I swept regally down the steps to my director, who waited outside. Under a gloomy sky that threatened to turn stormy, I boldly strode across the street, tossed a dainty yellow bouquet, and flashed confident grins at all those staring. My grief lurched inside, but I felt powerful. Despite my sadness, I could still make art.

 

To my own surprise, I successfully took back the day. I had felt pain, but I had not let it drown me – making music was a productive way to express my feelings than worrying. Since then, I have been learning to take better care of myself in difficult situations. That day before rehearsal, I found myself in the most troubling circumstances of my life thus far, but they did not sink me because I refused to sink. When my aunt developed cancer several months later, I knew that resolution would not come quickly, but that I could rely on music to cope with the agony, even when it would be easier to fall apart. Thankfully, Colin recovered from his injuries and was home within days. The next week, we stood together on stage at our show’s opening night. As our eyes met and our voices joined in song, I knew that music would always be our greatest mechanism for transforming pain into strength.

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Essay 4: Dedicating a Track

“Getting beat is one thing – it’s part of competing – but I want no part in losing.” Coach Rob Stark’s motto never fails to remind me of his encouragement on early-morning bus rides to track meets around the state. I’ve always appreciated the phrase, but an experience last June helped me understand its more profound, universal meaning.

 

Stark, as we affectionately call him, has coached track at my high school for 25 years. His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running. When I learned a neighboring high school had dedicated their track to a longtime coach, I felt that Stark deserved similar honors.

 

Our school district’s board of education indicated they would only dedicate our track to Stark if I could demonstrate that he was extraordinary. I took charge and mobilized my teammates to distribute petitions, reach out to alumni, and compile statistics on the many team and individual champions Stark had coached over the years. We received astounding support, collecting almost 3,000 signatures and pages of endorsements from across the community. With help from my teammates, I presented this evidence to the board.

 

They didn’t bite. 

 

Most members argued that dedicating the track was a low priority. Knowing that we had to act quickly to convince them of its importance, I called a team meeting where we drafted a rebuttal for the next board meeting. To my surprise, they chose me to deliver it. I was far from the best public speaker in the group, and I felt nervous about going before the unsympathetic board again. However, at that second meeting, I discovered that I enjoy articulating and arguing for something that I’m passionate about.

 

Public speaking resembles a cross country race. Walking to the starting line, you have to trust your training and quell your last minute doubts. When the gun fires, you can’t think too hard about anything; your performance has to be instinctual, natural, even relaxed. At the next board meeting, the podium was my starting line. As I walked up to it, familiar butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Instead of the track stretching out in front of me, I faced the vast audience of teachers, board members, and my teammates. I felt my adrenaline build, and reassured myself: I’ve put in the work, my argument is powerful and sound. As the board president told me to introduce myself, I heard, “runners set” in the back of my mind. She finished speaking, and Bang! The brief silence was the gunshot for me to begin. 

 

The next few minutes blurred together, but when the dust settled, I knew from the board members’ expressions and the audience’s thunderous approval that I had run quite a race. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the board voted down our proposal. I was disappointed, but proud of myself, my team, and our collaboration off the track. We stood up for a cause we believed in, and I overcame my worries about being a leader. Although I discovered that changing the status quo through an elected body can be a painstakingly difficult process and requires perseverance, I learned that I enjoy the challenges this effort offers. Last month, one of the school board members joked that I had become a “regular” – I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.

 

Just as Stark taught me, I worked passionately to achieve my goal. I may have been beaten when I appealed to the board, but I certainly didn’t lose, and that would have made Stark proud.

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Essay 5: Body Image and Eating Disorders

I press the “discover” button on my Instagram app, hoping to find enticing pictures to satisfy my boredom. Scrolling through, I see funny videos and mouth-watering pictures of food. However, one image stops me immediately. A fit teenage girl with a “perfect body” relaxes in a bikini on a beach. Beneath it, I see a slew of flattering comments. I shake with disapproval over the image’s unrealistic quality. However, part of me still wants to have a body like hers so that others will make similar comments to me.

 

I would like to resolve a silent issue that harms many teenagers and adults: negative self image and low self-esteem in a world where social media shapes how people view each other. When people see the façades others wear to create an “ideal” image, they can develop poor thought patterns rooted in negative self-talk. The constant comparisons to “perfect” others make people feel small. In this new digital age, it is hard to distinguish authentic from artificial representations.

 

When I was 11, I developed anorexia nervosa. Though I was already thin, I wanted to be skinny like the models that I saw on the magazine covers on the grocery store stands. Little did I know that those models probably also suffered from disorders, and that photoshop erased their flaws. I preferred being underweight to being healthy. No matter how little I ate or how thin I was, I always thought that I was too fat. I became obsessed with the number on the scale and would try to eat the least that I could without my parents urging me to take more. Fortunately, I stopped engaging in anorexic behaviors before middle school. However, my underlying mental habits did not change. The images that had provoked my disorder in the first place were still a constant presence in my life.

 

By age 15, I was in recovery from anorexia, but suffered from depression. While I used to only compare myself to models, the growth of social media meant I also compared myself to my friends and acquaintances. I felt left out when I saw my friends’ excitement about lake trips they had taken without me. As I scrolled past endless photos of my flawless, thin classmates with hundreds of likes and affirming comments, I felt my jealousy spiral. I wanted to be admired and loved by other people too. However, I felt that I could never be enough. I began to hate the way that I looked, and felt nothing in my life was good enough. I wanted to be called “perfect” and “body goals,” so I tried to only post at certain times of day to maximize my “likes.” When that didn’t work, I started to feel too anxious to post anything at all.  

 

Body image insecurities and social media comparisons affect thousands of people – men, women, children, and adults – every day. I am lucky – after a few months of my destructive social media habits, I came across a video that pointed out the illusory nature of social media; many Instagram posts only show off good things while people hide their flaws. I began going to therapy, and recovered from my depression. To address the problem of self-image and social media, we can all focus on what matters on the inside and not what is on the surface. As an effort to become healthy internally, I started a club at my school to promote clean eating and radiating beauty from within. It has helped me grow in my confidence, and today I’m not afraid to show others my struggles by sharing my experience with eating disorders. Someday, I hope to make this club a national organization to help teenagers and adults across the country. I support the idea of body positivity and embracing difference, not “perfection.” After all, how can we be ourselves if we all look the same?

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Essay 6: Health Crisis

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

 

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

 

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

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Revision Process for Essay 1 (“Becoming a Coach”)

 

Each essay went through several rounds of review to become what they are today. Here’s the draft of the first essay and the reader’s comments.

 

“Advanced females ages fourteen to fifteen please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.”

 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to any coach nearby. The seconds ticked away in my head as every polite refusal increased my desperation.

 

“This is the final staging call for advanced females ages fourteen to fifteen. Please proceed to staging with your coaches.”

 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees, the steam of competitors, coaches, and officials diverging around me. My dojang had no coach and without one, I was unable to compete per tournament rules.

 

Although I wanted to remain strong and move forward, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help but wonder what the point of perfecting my skills for competition was if I had nothing to show for my efforts. The other members of my team, who had managed to find coaches minutes before competing, attempted to comfort me, but they did not understand the feeling. They did not understand, and I never wanted them to understand.

 

The members of my dojang have become family. I have watched and participated as they grew up, finding my own happiness in theirs. To see them in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result, would devastate me. My dojang needed a coach – someone the competitors could rely on – and since for years we had made no progress towards finding one, I knew it was up to me.

 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – instructors as well as parents of members. I soon became reacquainted with polite refusals, and realized that I would have to take matters into my own hands.

 

At the time, the inner workings of tournaments was a mystery to me. Thus, to prepare myself to become a successful coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, yet others did not share this faith.

 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks after learning that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self- confidence was my armor – deflecting the surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded at my resilience, it began to wear down and I myself grew unsure of my abilities.

 

Despite the attack, I moved forward, refusing to give up. To quit now would be to set my students up for the inevitable day when they would be unable to find a coach and therefore unable to compete. Remembering that I could be the solution to a problem that had plagued my dojang for years enabled me to overcome my apprehension regardless of my lack of support.

 

Now that my dojang has had the chance to flourish at competitions, the attacks have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent and at times I am still tormented with doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang no longer have to worry about anything other than competing to the best of their abilities.

 

As I arrive to tournaments with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my dojang’s team members as we competed against each other to find coaches before our respective divisions were called to staging. I open my eyes to the exact opposite situation. My dojang’s team stands together, united and calm, as it will for as long as the dojang itself stands.

 

Reader Comments:

 

The opening of this essay is engaging and really puts the reader in the author’s shoes, and the overall topic, which is focused on a specific, compelling challenge, clearly fits the prompt. To take this essay to the next level, the author could focus on things like eliminating clunky language, clarifying plot details, improving their diction, and polishing up the writing. 

 

The first thing the author could do is employ more “showing” and less “telling” in their body paragraphs. The current introduction and conclusion are effective because they focus on specific “moments” or “examples” to tell their story and make their points. However, the body paragraphs rely much more heavily on summary. It’s necessary to include some background information and other expository elements, however the body paragraphs could still use more specific details and examples. 

 

In particular, the author should keep in mind that the average reader doesn’t know much, if anything, about a dojang. This means that their claims about their dojang family and what competing means to them need to be backed up by examples. What sorts of things do they do with your teammates? How have they built such strong bonds? The most effective way is to show the audience, not just assert that these bonds exist.

 

Similarly, the description of the work they put in to become a coach and the skills they gained will seem pretty abstract to the average reader. To bring their personal effort and transformation to life, the author should add in more details to describe what they’ve accomplished. Then, they can show the reader what elements of coaching keep them going despite the doubters. By adding in more details and examples to “show” the reader how they became a coach and what keeps them going, they’ll give the reader a vivid understanding of the world of the dojang and, by extension, what motivates them and what skills they have.

 

Finally, the concluding lines could use a bit of tweaking. The current last sentence doesn’t quite fit the essay’s “big picture” idea. It could be revised to broaden out to focus on the author and their problem-solving skill, not just what their dojang currently looks like. This critical space should be used to remind the admissions committee of what they’ve learned through this experience. One way to do this is for the author to think about what they want to demonstrate about themself to their potential future university. What is it that motivated them to solve this problem? How will this same time of problem-solving approach serve them in the future (at college and beyond)? 

 

To bring this essay to the next level, the author should focus on “showing not telling” throughout their essay by including more specific examples in the body paragraphs; then, they should turn their attention to their closing sentence or two.

 

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

 

Once you clear the academic thresholds, essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. They’re your chance to humanize your application and set yourself apart from other applicants with strong profiles. 

 

The “Overcoming Challenges” essay can be especially, well, challenging, as you want to strike a balance between explaining the challenge, and showing how you grew from it. It’s important to avoid writing in a tone that may come off as gloomy or whiny.

 

You should always get a second set of eyes on your college essays, but it’s especially important for this prompt in particular. To understand if your essay accurately depicts your personal growth, we recommend using our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. This tool will make it easier to understand your essay’s strengths and weaknesses, and help you make your writing even more compelling.

 

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Short Bio
Asia is a graduate of Tulane University where she studied English and Public Health. She's held multiple writing positions and has experience writing about everything from furniture to higher education to nutrition and exercise.

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