The following sample essay responds to the 2019-20 Common Application Prompt #2: "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?" Read a critique of this essay to learn strategies and tips for writing your own.
Richard's Common Application Essay on Failure
I've played baseball ever since I could remember, but somehow, at fourteen, I still wasn't very good at it. You'd think that ten years of summer leagues and two older brothers who'd been the stars of their teams would have rubbed off on me, but you'd be wrong. I mean, I wasn't completely hopeless. I was pretty fast, and I could hit my oldest brother's fastball maybe three or four times out of ten, but I wasn't about to be scouted for college teams.
My team that summer, the Bengals, wasn't anything special, either. We had one or two pretty talented guys, but most, like me, were just barely what you could call decent. But somehow we'd almost scraped through the first round of playoffs, with only one game standing between us and semifinals. Predictably, the game had come down to the last inning, the Bengals had two outs and players on second and third base, and it was my turn at bat. It was like one of those moments you see in movies. The scrawny kid who no one really believed in hits a miraculous home run, winning the big game for his underdog team and becoming a local legend. Except my life wasn't The Sandlot, and any hopes my teammates or coach might've had for a last-minute rally to victory were crushed with my third swing-and-miss when the umpire sent me back to the dugout with a "strike three - you're out!"
I was inconsolably angry with myself. I spent the entire car ride home tuning out my parents' words of consolation, replaying my strike-out over and over in my head. For the next few days I was miserable thinking about how, if it hadn't been for me, the Bengals might have been on their way to a league victory, and nothing anyone said could convince me that the loss wasn't on my shoulders.
About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me - after all, I'd lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn't until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers' examples, but sometime during that game, I'd lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn't to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn't need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.
A Critique of Richard's Essay
A lot can be learned from Richard's writing by looking at all of its pieces. By thinking objectively about another person's essay, you will be better off when it comes time to write your own because you will understand what admissions officers are looking for.
"Striking Out" isn't an overly clever title, but it gets the job done. It tells you that you are about to read an essay about failure and baseball. A good title summarizes an essay and intrigues its readers but focus more on an appropriate title than on an interesting one.
Language and Tone
Richard leans into informal language such as "I mean" and "you'd think" to make his essay conversational and friendly. He introduces himself as an unimpressive athlete who doesn't quite measure up to his brothers, this humility making him more relatable to his readers. While this level of informality is not preferred by all colleges, most are looking to learn as much about your personality as possible. Richard's easy tone accomplishes this.
The language of the essay is also tight and engaging. Each sentence gets a point across and Richard is economical with his use of words to clearly convey the setting and situation. College admissions officers are likely to appreciate the overall clarity and meticulousness of Richard's essay.
Richard establishes and maintains a self-deprecating and humble voice throughout his writing His willingness to be honest about his shortcomings shows that he is sure of himself and also tells colleges that he has a healthy self-concept and isn't afraid of failing. By not boasting about athletic prowess, Richard demonstrates a valuable quality of self-assuredness that colleges admire.
College admissions officers read many essays about sports, especially from applicants that are more interested in playing sports at college than getting an education. In fact, one of the top 10 bad essay topics is the hero essay in which an applicant brags about making a goal that won their team the championship. Self-congratulatory essays have the effect of distancing you from the authentic qualities of successful college students and are therefore never a good idea.
Richard's essay has nothing to do with heroism. He is not claiming to be a star or over-inflating his abilities and his honesty is refreshing. His essay perfectly satisfies every aspect of the prompt by presenting a clear moment of failure and a significant lesson learned without blowing his accomplishments out of proportion. He managed to take the cliché topic of sports and turn it on its head, which admissions officers are much more likely to respect.
Richard's essay would be appropriate in most but not all situations. If he were hoping to play a sport competitively for a college, this would be the wrong essay. It would not impress NCAA scouts or make him likely to be recruited. This essay would be best for universities more interested in his personality than his baseball skills. Any college looking for mature, self-aware applicants with affable personalities would be drawn to Richard's story of failure.
A Final Word
Always keep in mind that the purpose of the Common Application essay is for colleges to learn who you are. While grades and test scores will be considered, admissions offices will also be using more subjective and holistic information about what you are like as a person. Richard succeeds in making a good impression by being a strong and engaging writer with a positive sense of self. Most would agree that he seems like the type of student who would be a useful addition to the campus community.
While the essay is successful, keep in mind that your own essay needs to have nothing in common with this sample and you should not use it as a model. There are innumerable ways to approach the idea of a challenge, setback, or failure and your essay needs to be true to your own experiences and personality.