How to Answer the Essay Prompt "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

Wednesday, December 23, 2020
How To Answer Tough College Essay Prompts

Late fall is officially college admissions season! Some students have already sent in their early decision applications and are working hard on those regular decision deadlines.

So, you’re likely working through your personal essays, which you’ll submit through the Common App, Coalition App, or your prospective school’s specific format.

No matter the school or set of schools to which you’re applying, you will likely come across a version of the “Describe a Challenge You Overcame” or “Overcoming Adversity” essay prompt.

If you have no idea what to write about, the first rule is:

Don’t panic.

Panicking will not help you come up with a solid essay topic. And, you are not alone in your fear that you have nothing worthwhile to say.

So many students are plagued with questions like: What if I’ve never overcome an obstacle? Is my life boring? What if I have nothing to write about, and the admissions officers hate me?

Deep breath.

All of these fears are normal, but the truth is: everyone has overcome some sort of challenge or obstacle, whether it seems small or completely overwhelming, and by being authentic to yourself, yours will be compelling to readers and also help them get to know the kind of student you are now and will be at their college or university.

Brainstorm an authentic but impactful challenge.

The key to avoiding panic is to get to work. Start brainstorming different challenges you’ve faced

A challenge can be as seemingly simple as learning to trust yourself after a failure in school or an extracurricular activity, or as complicated as having to overcome major discrimination and prejudice.

Maybe you had to overcome a specific fear to succeed at an activity you love. Perhaps you have had to rebuild your life after the loss of a relative. Maybe your family moved, which shook up your life. Or, perhaps receiving one terrible grade or criticism led you to change your outlook on life and gave you the motivation to work harder than ever.

Whatever the obstacle you truly faced (no inventing, please), it should be impactful.

That means, think of a challenge that really impacted you. As a result of overcoming this obstacle, you should have learned significant lessons about yourself or the world around you and have made changes in your life as a result.

Colleges and universities want to know what traits you possess that will help you succeed in college and in your future career, so the obstacle you choose to share should have helped you develop one of your defining traits.

Generally, the obstacle you choose to share should also be fairly recent or have had a recent impact on your life, rather than a challenge that happened when you were very young that doesn’t impact you today.

Begin with a memory from when you overcame the challenge.

Though many students like to tell stories chronologically when they write college essays, it’s helpful to begin with a positive or uplifting moment, rather than a moment of despair.

So, think about the time you had overcome your challenge or realized that you had improved as a person after facing an obstacle. You might even share a moment when you had a major realization related to your chosen obstacle. Recount this moment as your introductory hook in some way. 

You might even choose to preview the lessons you learned in your introduction.

That way, readers already know that you’re going to share what you’ve learned, rather than just share a story recounting a terrible moment or difficult challenge in your life.

Share context about the situation, but make it brief.

Also to keep your essay focused on what you learned, keep the details you share about your challenge brief. 

Of course, you should share the context behind what happened to you that challenged you and changed your life or perspective, but you should not dwell too much on the details. Provide only the ‘need to know’ moments.

With this kind of essay, readers want to know less about what happened and more about what you learned as a result of your experience.

Focus on what you learned.

Your reflection about what you learned as a result of your experience should be your main focus within your essay. This section will help readers understand how you’ve changed after facing your challenge or obstacle to then become the stellar student you are today.

By sharing lessons learned in this type of essay, you are also sharing how you will contribute to any college campus with your newly acquired traits and perspectives.

So, if you had to move from one city to another, perhaps you learned to be flexible or met new friends who helped you discover your fascination with science and technology. If you faced bullying, maybe you learned how to respect yourself without outside validation and gained resilience. 

Whatever the challenge, the lessons associated with overcoming it are most important.

Share actions you took as a result of overcoming the challenge.

To help readers understand how you were able to overcome the challenge and how the lessons you learned affected your life in a tangible way, you should also consider actions you’ve taken after overcoming your obstacle.

For example, if you witnessed discrimination at school, maybe you founded an anti-bullying campaign or student organization. If you lost a family member to a specific disease, maybe you volunteered with an organization to help fund research for a cure.

Remember, all of this information needs to be true and authentic to your experience. Even the smallest actions can be impactful. So, even if you just learned to treat your family better or significantly improved your grades after facing this obstacle, truthful is always best.

Connect the lessons you learned to your future.

Finally, you can strengthen your response even more by connecting the lessons you learned and actions you took with your future goals. 

Think about how you will show up in college after facing this challenge. And, consider how you are better equipped now to achieve your future goals because of the lessons you learned.

Seek support!

Finally, admissions officers should never be the first people to read your essay. 

Get help from a teacher or college counselor, your parents or guardians, an online college essay writing site like Prompt, or fellow scholars like other NSHSS members

Have them read your essay and provide you with constructive feedback about content and structure. 

Then, submit your essay and enjoy that feeling of accomplishment!