How to Write the “Overcoming Challenges” Essay + Example
College essays offer an invaluable opportunity for students to dazzle admissions committees with their thoughtfulness and ability to communicate. So, it’s no surprise that experts call the essay-writing process one of the most stressful parts of applying to schools. After all, you have just a few hundred words to make a good impression.
While any college essay prompt can arouse anxiety, the Overcoming Challenges essay topic is often cause for particular concern. 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. Your main application essay, or personal statement, goes to all the schools you apply to. Supplemental essays are school-specific and are only seen by the college that requests it. 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.
Sample Prompts of “Overcoming Challenges” Essays
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?”
See a real essay sample for this Common App prompt.
For the 2019-2020 school year, MIT 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?”
How to Choose a Topic for an Essay on Overcoming Challenges
When it comes to finding the best topic for your Overcoming Challenges essay, 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 topics considered commonplace or banal. Experiences like struggling to pass a class or winning a tough soccer game are typical enough that admissions officers have likely read numerous essays on the subject. Similarly, students may not want to write about an obstacle that adcoms could perceive as low stakes, such as getting into a quickly-resolved fight with your friend.
2. Pick Challenges That Demonstrate Qualities You Want to Highlight
While your challenge shouldn’t be trivial, it also doesn’t need to be life-shattering. Students often mistakenly assume they need to have experienced life-shattering 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.
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.
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. 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 adcoms why your experiences make you a great candidate for admission.
Overcoming Challenges Essay Sample
Here’s an example of a strong essay response:
This essay is an excellent example because it focuses on a unique challenge, and is highly engaging. The writer details their experience reversing their stance in a Model UN trial with only a few hours notice, after having researched and prepared to argue the opposite perspective for a month.
Their essay is written in media res, or in the middle of the action, allowing readers to feel as if we’re there with the writer. The student openly shares their internal thoughts with us—we feel their anger and panic upon the reversal of roles. We empathize with their emotions of “utter dread” and embarrassment when they’re unable to speak.
From the essay, we learn that the student believes in thorough preparation, but can also adapt to unforeseen obstacles. They’re able to rise to the challenge and put together an impromptu argument, think critically under pressure, and recover after their initial inability to speak.
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