Personal Essay Question 2 – Lessons learned from failure

Personal Essay Question 2

Part 3 of  Katrina Oko-Odoi’s guest series: Writing your College Admissions Essay for the New Common Application

So far, we’ve addressed the general changes to the 2014 Common Application, and we’ve explored essay question one, considering some possible scenarios for opting to write on that particular prompt. Today we move on to essay question number two. I hope that this gets your writing juices flowing!

The Basics:

-When writing your first draft, shoot for 500 words. Chances are that after revisions, you’ll be closer to the 650 limit.

Make it unique. This is your chance to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

-Remember that your essay is a supplement to the rest of your application. Don’t repeat what’s already been stated elsewhere; tell your story aside from the numbers and grades.

Common Application Question # 2:

“Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

Is this question right for you?

Make sure to read through all of the essay topics before choosing which one best suits you. Question # 2 might be ideal for you if an experience of failure or disappointment was a pivotal moment or turning point in your life.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Did you used to be overly confident – cocky even – but losing a competition or failing a challenge you thought you would ace made you change your tune?
  • Did you grow up convinced of what your future would look like (your career, family, success) only to come to the realization through a failure, or series of failures, that it wasn’t the ideal path for you? Maybe you were set on being a doctor, but your repeated struggle with science and math courses made you rethink your career path.
  • Have you ever experienced an event or occurrence that appeared to be a failure at the time but ended up being a blessing in disguise? Perhaps you were cut from the soccer team but this led you to find your true passion in art or theater.
  • Has a failure or disappointment led to a change in your attitude or outlook on life?

As you can see, the examples I’ve listed here are scenarios that have played a pivotal role in determining the direction of your life and shaping you as an individual. While this description may seem similar to question one, the main difference is that the first question focuses on your background or story – meaning a reality that has been a consistent part of your life, whereas question two focuses on one passing incident or event that left a lasting impression but enabled you to grow and learn from it. For question one, you did not have any control over your background but you were forced to adjust and deal with it in your own way. For the present question, your own actions may have had a direct influence on your experience of failure or disappointment. Learning from your own mistakes is a very immediate, internal process that takes determination and the ability to be self-critical and reflective.

Now, I’m not one to let you do all the hard work on your own. To that end, let me share one of my own experiences of failure/disappointment to provide you with a little inspiration.


 Much earlier in my academic career, I was up for a one-year comprehensive scholarship that would allow me to focus solely on my studies and not have to worry about making ends meet. My advisor nominated me for the award, and many people at my school assured me that my chances of receiving the scholarship were good. I had worked tirelessly towards my degree and despite being rather humble about my achievements, I was convinced that I deserved that award and that there was no way they would pass me over for it. Well, I’m sure you saw it coming but, long story short, I did not receive that scholarship. But I did receive a different one – a smaller, insignificant award in my eyes. I was bitter and angry, and I started to hold a grudge against those individuals who had received the scholarship that I believed I so deserved. I walked around for over a month with a negative outlook, with the conviction that I had been wronged by the scholarship committee.

After about a month, with the sting of the initial disappointment somewhat faded, I realized that all I had accomplished by reacting in the way I did was to make myself miserable. My angry looks and avoidance of certain individuals had absolutely no effect on them – in fact, they were entirely oblivious to my resentment. It was me who was immersed in a dark oblivion, me who was wasting precious time and energy lamenting a decision that I had no control over – a decision that hadn’t even come close to ruining my life. Speaking with friends and family members during that period, I realized that my problems were nothing compared to the heartache and challenges they faced at the time. A close family member’s young child was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the son of another relative died suddenly in a motorcycle accident, and many other people within and beyond my network were suffering from similar losses of loved ones due to tragic circumstances.

While this story might sound familiar, the effect that it had on my life was very real. After coming to the realization of how fruitless my anger and resentment was, I vowed to work on thinking positive and not dwell on things that were beyond my control. Yes, the fact that I didn’t receive that scholarship hurt, but I was grateful for the smaller scholarship that I did receive, and I recognized that I was still being rewarded for my hard work. Plus, the peers that received the larger scholarship were friends, and I had to admit that they too worked hard and deserved the recognition.

Making a conscious decision not to hold a grudge lifted a huge weight from my shoulders and allowed me to focus on what mattered – moving forward with my studies and relying on myself to reach my goal of graduation, with or without monetary assistance. And guess what? The next year, I received an even bigger scholarship – an award that I had not anticipated in the least. Receiving the recognition a year later was even sweeter with my new positive outlook, and allowed me to be truly grateful for everything that I had given myself, as well as the support I was given by others.

The lesson I learned from not receiving that scholarship was more valuable to me than the money I would have received from it. It allowed me to realize that ultimately, my happiness and success is up to me and no one else. I will carry this wisdom with me the rest of my life, and I am confident that it will only make my life more enjoyable and rewarding with every step that I take. As a wise man once told me, “Failures and disappointments are just a test of your determination and your persistence. Don’t ever give up.”


646 words – whew, I just made it under the word limit! I tend to be long-winded though. Hopefully this provided you with some motivation to get started on your essay. Make it sincere and personal so that the true you shines through. And check back soon for my next blog discussing Common Application Essay Question # 3.

Katrina Oko-Odoi is the Founder and Chief Editor of, a writing and editing company specializing in academic writing. For more insight into college essay editing and more, follow her blog:

Bobby Touran is the founder and CEO of ApplyKit. ApplyKit helps students manage their entire college application process and also provides key resources to help them excel every step of the way.