Everyone has faced challenges, setbacks they’ve had to overcome. Yet, when it comes to college application essays, the one about “overcoming challenges” can feel a bit awkward. A great many students report that they aren’t sure how to decide whether their topic is worth writing about and some are unsure how to get started.
As a high school student, the majority of your writing has probably been academic. High school does a good job of preparing students to write in this lens. More than likely, however, you haven’t spent much time focused on personal and reflective writing, which is a tool you’ll need to write about challenges you’ve overcome in your personal statement.
In this post, we’ll cover a few things that will help you get started.
- How to determine the strength of your “challenge”
- How to brainstorm your topic
- How to structure your essay
- Pitfalls to avoid
- How to evaluate if your essay is accomplishing its goal
How to determine the strength of your “challenge”
Your essay is more likely to stand out if you’re honest with yourself. So ask yourself, was the challenge a difficult one? Was it unique to you? You’re less likely to be remembered by the reader if you write about topics like bringing up a low grade or getting cut from a sports team. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Obviously, we can’t tell you what to write, but if the challenge was something that genuinely tested you, it’ll probably make for a good topic.
Equally important: the insights or takeaways that you were able to glean from the experience. Insight is the answer to the question, “so what?” A great insight is going to surprise the reader a bit, while a “meh” insight likely won’t. If you aren’t completely aware of the insights that you gained from your challenge, don’t worry; the process of writing this essay might help you find them.
How to brainstorm your topic
First, list a few challenges you’ve faced in your life. Try to identify at least three.
Next, write down how each challenge impacted your life. Get specific and try to refrain from jumping straight to feelings. If living abroad was your challenge, an effect of this might be ‘didn’t speak the language’ or ‘difficulty cultivating friendships.’
Now, name some of the feelings that each effect brought you. Some examples of this could be ‘afraid,’ ‘isolated,’ or ‘vulnerable.’ Reserve judgment about the feelings you are writing down, even if they might conflict. Nuance might mean an even more interesting personal statement.
Then, consider the needs that each emotion evoked. If ‘afraid’ was one of the emotions you wrote, would ‘safety’ be an appropriate need?
Next, write down ‘What you did about it.’ What steps did you take to meet the needs you identified? Maybe you joined a club, or a dance class, or a sports team to meet people. Maybe you spoke to your parents and decided to enter therapy. Whatever actions you took, spend the next few minutes writing them down.
Finally, ask yourself ‘What did I learn?’
For example, if you joined a tango class, what did you gain from it, other than some confidence on the dance floor? Did you gain a sense of community? Did you meet people who became friends? How did the confidence you gained bleed into other aspects of your life?
Another step you could take would be to consider your ‘Future or Career.’
This is optional, but could be enticing to write about, if it is genuine. Did your experience lead you to gain interest in psychology, or did it lead you to want to pursue a career as a bilingual social worker? There are no wrong answers here.
How to structure your essay
Once you’ve brainstormed, the next portion of the writing process won’t be too difficult. Here’s the basic structure you should follow:
- Challenges + Effects
- What I did about it
- What I learned, and what it taught me about myself
The word count of your essay should be divided roughly into thirds, with equal focus on the three categories.
Pitfalls to avoid
Many students worry their essay will come across as a sob story or a bid for sympathy. Don’t worry about that. You’re telling a story and showing the reader the values and insights you’ve developed.
Stick to the structure. Notice that two-thirds of your essay won’t be focused on the less-than-ideal circumstance that brought you to where you are now. Most of the story is focused around what you did about it, how you grew, what you learned, and how you’ll carry the experience forward. If you adhere to this structure, your essay is not going to come across as a sob story. In fact, it will be quite the opposite.
How to evaluate if your essay is accomplishing its goals
Here are a few common threads shared by the most outstanding personal statements;
- The reader can identify your core values – The reader/admissions officer should get a sense of what motivates, fulfills or excites you. Read through your draft with this in mind and see what values you can pick out.
- It’s vulnerable – Your essay will be a success if the reader feels like they have a good sense of who you are after reading it. Don’t be afraid to be honest about the things that scare or challenge you. As you’re writing, ask yourself: Does this sound analytical, or does it sound like it’s coming from a place of vulnerability? If it’s the latter, you’re probably in good shape.
- Your story demonstrates growth and insight – Your essay should have more than just a couple points at which you draw insights and/or reflections from your experiences. These insights should speak to your values and your sense of purpose. Whether or not these insights are subtle should not matter greatly. You want these insights to be revealing, so that your reader can see your thought process in action.
- It demonstrates craft – The content of your essay is important, but if it’s not written in a way that’s readable and articulate, it’ll fall short. Be patient and think of your writing as a process. You’ll likely need to go through several drafts to get to a final product. You want your ideas to come across as fully realized.
So get writing, and when you have something that resembles an overcoming challenges essay, revise, and write it again, and revise it again. Pretty soon, it’ll be a work of art, and that’ll be apparent to the reader.
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