Common App Week: Prompt 2 Breakdown and Brainstorming Tips

Welcome to another episode of the common app week! Today we go through prompt number 2 on the common app: the famous, “I had a problem and here’s how I solved it.” Well that’s not how they word it all but that’s the gist of it. The common verbiage of it is as follows: “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?” 

We have always believed that essays about overcoming obstacles are most effective when they focus more on solutions than problems. Accordingly, students’ responses to Prompt #2 should be directed at a student’s response, outlook, and demeanor when presented with one of life’s many hurdles, and applicants should aim to showcase qualities like resilience, determination, and humility. The obstacles you choose to explore can vary widely in nature, they can be as serious as being tormented by bullies, as ingrained as the financial issues that have plagued your family for years, or as seemingly pedestrian as a mistake that results in a lost opportunity. While the possibilities are almost endless, students should be careful not to choose challenges that may seem cliche (the inability to achieve a 100 on an exam and/or secure tickets to a concert) or that illustrate a lapse in good judgment (that time you played video games for 15 hours or when you ate 3 large pizzas in one sitting). Still, if you can isolate an incident of trial in your life and how you learned from it, this can be a rewarding prompt to explore.

Some key questions to consider:

  • How do you deal with hardship?
  • What qualifies as a challenge or setback in your life and world?
  • Are you the kind of person who can rebound—who turns every experience, good or bad, into one from which you can learn something? What experiences might illustrate this quality?
  • What have been some of the major challenges you’ve encountered in your life, and was there a silver lining?

And a few examples to think about:

  • Has a lifelong battle with stuttering ultimately increased your overall confidence and allowed you to participate in social activities and public forums without self-judgment?
  • Did a parent’s fragile health situation challenge you to take on more responsibilities than the average teenager?
  • Did a series of setbacks on your road to becoming a child actor introduce you to screenwriting, your professional goal and biggest passion?
  • Did social pressure of pursuing engineering led to you have a difficult conversation with your parents?
  • Overall, try to keep these stories as positive as possible. Remember, these essays are not just contemplative musings on your toughest times or reflections on the hiccups that populate everyday life (though these things can certainly be touched upon); they are also about overcoming obstacles and refusing to submit to life’s greatest challenges.

We hope this was helpful. Common App can challenging but these tiny brainstorming posts might help ignite something. If you have any questions comment below or come meet one of our writing mentors