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How to Write the “Overcoming Challenges” Essay + Examples

What’s Covered:

 

While any college essay can be intimidating, the Overcoming Challenges prompt often worries students the most. Those students who’ve been lucky enough not to experience trauma tend to assume they have nothing worth saying. On the other hand, students who’ve overcome larger obstacles may be hesitant to talk about them.

 

Regardless of your particular circumstances, there are steps you can take to make the essay writing process simpler. Here are our top tips for writing the overcoming challenges essay successfully.

 

What is the “Overcoming Challenges” Essay?

 

The overcoming challenges prompt shows up frequently in both main application essays (like the Common App) and supplemental essays. Because supplemental essays allow students to provide schools with additional information, applicants should be sure that the subject matter they choose to write about differs from what’s in their main essay.

 

Students often assume the overcoming challenges essay requires them to detail past traumas. While you can certainly write about an experience that’s had a profound effect on your life, it’s important to remember that colleges aren’t evaluating students based on the seriousness of the obstacle they overcame.

 

On the contrary, the goal of this essay is to show admissions officers that you have the intelligence and fortitude to handle any challenges that come your way. After all, college serves as an introduction to adult life, and schools want to know that the students they admit are up to the task. 

 

Real “Overcoming Challenges” Essay Prompts

 

To help you understand what the “Overcoming Challenges” essay looks like, here are a couple sample prompts.

 

Currently, the Common Application asks students to answer the following prompt in 650 words or less:

 

“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?”

 

For the past several years, MIT has prompted students to write 200 to 250 words on the following:

 

“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?”

 

In both cases, the prompts explicitly ask for your response to the challenge. The event itself isn’t as important as how it pushed you to grow.

 

How to Choose a Topic for an Essay on Overcoming Challenges

 

When it comes to finding the best topic for your overcoming challenges essays, there’s no right answer. The word “challenge” is ambiguous and could be used to reference a wide range of situations from prevailing over a bully to getting over your lifelong stage fright to appear in a school musical. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when selecting an essay subject.

 

1. Avoid trivial or common topics


While there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules for choosing an essay topic, students should avoid overdone topics.

 

These include:

 

  • Working hard in a challenging class
  • Overcoming a sports injury
  • Moving schools or immigrating to the US
  • Tragedy (divorce, death, abuse)

 

Admissions officers have read numerous essays on the subject, so it’s harder for you to stand out (see our full list of cliché college essay topics to avoid). If events like these were truly formative to you, you can still choose to write about them, but you’ll need to be as personal as possible. 

 

It’s also ideal if you have a less traditional storyline for a cliché topic; for example, if your sports injury led you to discover a new passion, that would be a more unique story than detailing how you overcame your injury and got back in the game.

 

Similarly, students may not want to write about an obstacle that admissions committees could perceive as low stakes, such as getting a B on a test, or getting into a small fight with a friend. The goal of this essay is to illustrate how you respond to adversity, so the topic you pick should’ve been at least impactful on your personal growth.

 

2. Pick challenges that demonstrate qualities you want to highlight


Students often mistakenly assume they need to have experienced exceptional circumstances like poverty, an abusive parent, or cancer to write a good essay. The truth is that the best topics will allow you to highlight specific personal qualities and share more about who you are. The essay should be less about the challenge itself, and more about how you responded to it.

 

Ask yourself what personality traits you want to emphasize, and see what’s missing in your application. Maybe you want to highlight your adaptability, for example, but that isn’t clearly expressed in your application. In this case, you might write about a challenge that put your adaptability to the test, or shaped you to become more adaptable.

 

Here are some examples of good topics we’ve seen over the years:

 

  • Not having a coach for a sports team and becoming one yourself
  • Helping a parent through a serious health issue
  • Trying to get the school track dedicated to a coach
  • Having to switch your Model UN position last-minute

 

Tips for Writing an Essay About Overcoming Challenges

 

Once you’ve selected a topic for your essays, it’s time to sit down and write. For best results, make sure your essay focuses on your efforts to tackle an obstacle rather than the problem itself. Additionally, you could avoid essay writing pitfalls by doing the following:

 

1. Choose an original essay structure


If you want your overcoming challenges essay to attract attention, aim to break away from more traditional structures. Most of these essays start by describing an unsuccessful attempt at a goal and then explain the steps the writer took to master the challenge. 

 

You can stand out by choosing a challenge you’re still working on overcoming, or focus on a mental or emotional challenge that spans multiple activities or events. For example, you might discuss your fear of public speaking and how that impacted your ability to coach your brother’s Little League team and run for Student Council. 

 

You can also choose a challenge that can be narrated in the moment, such as being put on the spot to teach a yoga class. These challenges can make particularly engaging essays, as you get to experience the writer’s thoughts and emotions as they unfold.

 

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have succeeded in your goal for this essay. Maybe you ran for an election and lost, or maybe you proposed a measure to the school board that wasn’t passed. It’s still possible to write a strong essay about topics like these as long as you focus on your personal growth. In fact, these may make for even stronger essays since they are more unconventional topics.

 

2. Focus on the internal

 

When writing about past experiences, you may be tempted to spend too much time describing specific people and events. With an Overcoming Challenges essay though, the goal is to focus on your thoughts and feelings.

 

For example, rather than detail all the steps you took to become a better public speaker, use the majority of your essay to describe your mental state as you embarked on the journey to achieving your goals. Were you excited, scared, anxious, or hopeful? Don’t be afraid to let the reader in on your innermost emotions and thoughts during this process.

 

3. Share what you learned 

 

An Overcoming Challenges essay should leave the reader with a clear understanding of what you learned on your journey, be it physical, mental, or emotional. There’s no need to explicitly say “this experience taught me X,” but your essay should at least implicitly share any lessons you learned. This can be done through your actions and in-the-moment reflections. Remember that the goal is to show admissions committees why your experiences make you a great candidate for admission. 

 

Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples

 

Example 1

 

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.

This essay is an excellent example because the writer turns an everyday challenge—starting a fire—into an exploration of her identity. The writer was once “a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes,” but has since traded her love of the outdoors for a love of music, writing, and reading. 

 

The story begins in media res, or in the middle of the action, allowing readers to feel as if we’re there with the writer. One of the essay’s biggest strengths is its use of imagery. We can easily visualize the writer’s childhood and the present day. For instance, she states that she “rubbed and rubbed [the twigs] until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers.”

 

The writing has an extremely literary quality, particularly with its wordplay. The writer reappropriates words and meanings, and even appeals to the senses: “My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.” She later uses a parallelism to cleverly juxtapose her changed interests: “instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano.”

 

One of the essay’s main areas of improvement is its overemphasis on the “story” and lack of emphasis on the reflection. The second to last paragraph about changing perspective is crucial to the essay, as it ties the anecdote to larger lessons in the writer’s life. She states that she hasn’t changed, but has only shifted perspective. Yet, we don’t get a good sense of where this realization comes from and how it impacts her life going forward. 

 

The end of the essay offers a satisfying return to the fire imagery, and highlights the writer’s passion—the one thing that has remained constant in her life.

 

Example 2

 

“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.

 

While the writer didn’t succeed in getting the track dedicated to Coach Stark, their essay is certainly successful in showing their willingness to push themselves and take initiative.

 

The essay opens with a quote from Coach Stark that later comes full circle at the end of the essay. We learn about Stark’s impact and the motivation for trying to get the track dedicated to him.

 

One of the biggest areas of improvement in the intro, however, is how the essay tells us Stark’s impact rather than showing us: 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.

 

The writer could’ve helped us feel a stronger emotional connection to Stark if they had included examples of Stark’s qualities, rather than explicitly stating them. For example, they could’ve written something like: Stark was the kind of person who would give you gas money if you told him your parents couldn’t afford to pick you up from practice. And he actually did that—several times. At track meets, alumni regularly would come talk to him and tell him how he’d changed their lives. Before Stark, I was ambivalent about running and was on the JV team, but his encouragement motivated me to run longer and harder and eventually make varsity. Because of him, I approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.

 

The essay goes on to explain how the writer overcame their apprehension of public speaking, and likens the process of submitting an appeal to the school board to running a race. This metaphor makes the writing more engaging and allows us to feel the student’s emotions.

 

While the student didn’t ultimately succeed in getting the track dedicated, we learn about their resilience and initiative: 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.

 

Overall, this essay is well-done. It demonstrates growth despite failing to meet a goal, which is a unique essay structure. The running metaphor and full-circle intro/ending also elevate the writing in this essay.

 

Where to Get Your Overcoming Challenges Essay Edited

 

The Overcoming Challenges essay is one of the trickier supplemental prompts, so it’s important to get feedback on your drafts. That’s why we created our free 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. 

 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

 


Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.