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

Saturday, December 16, 2023
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, which means it may be time to work on your essays.

These essays from the Common App, Coalition App, or your prospective school’s specific format can vary in topic, and you may get to choose what you write about. But 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 a Challenge” essay prompt.

For some people, the answer to this could be evident. But if you have no idea what to write about, the first rule is:

Don’t panic

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? What if they judge me for what I've been through?

Deep breath.

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

You will need more than panicking to help you write an essay. Remember that everyone has something valuable to say, and the obstacle you choose will matter less than your ability to write about it and highlight your resilience.

Brainstorm an authentic but impactful challenge

The first thing you'll need to do is think through some 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 overcoming significant discrimination and prejudice.

You had to overcome a specific fear to succeed at an activity you love. You may have had to rebuild your life after losing a relative. Maybe your family moved, which shook up your life. Or, receiving one terrible grade or criticism led you to change your outlook on life and motivated you to work harder than ever.

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

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

Colleges and universities want to know what traits you possess that will help you succeed in college and your future career, so the obstacle you choose to share should have helped you develop one of your defining traits. They will care more about your reaction to this challenge, how it shaped you, and how you articulate it than what the problem was in the first place.

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

Begin at the end

The opening sentence of your essay about overcoming a challenge should be compelling and make the reader want to continue. It can be tempting to tell the story chronologically, but it can sometimes be adequate to start with the ending or a positive memory.

So, think about when you overcame your challenge or realized that you had improved after facing an obstacle. You might even share a moment when you realized your chosen barrier significantly. Recount this moment as your introductory hook in some way.

You can even preview the lessons you learned in your introduction. That way, readers already know that you will share what you’ve learned rather than just share a story recounting a terrible moment or difficult challenge in your life. This can also make them want to keep reading to see how you got to that place.

Share context about the situation but make it brief

You want the reader to learn about you and your challenges rather than overdoing it in detail. They don't need to know every step of the process or every player in the story.

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 and how they led to changes in your life.

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

Focus on what you learned

Your reflection about what you learned due to your experience should be your primary focus within your essay. This section will help readers understand how you’ve changed after facing your challenge or obstacle to become the stellar student you are today. It can also show the maturity and self-reflection colleges may seek in a student.

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

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 overcame the challenge and how the lessons you learned tangibly affected your life, you should also consider your actions after overcoming your obstacle.

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

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

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. You can then tie this into how attending each college will help you reach those goals.

Seek support!

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 before you hit "submit." 

Have them read your essay and provide you with constructive feedback about content and structure. If you're stuck, you can ask for some "overcoming an obstacle" essay examples or ideas from those who know you well.

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

Answering the essay prompt "Describe a Challenge You Overcame" offers a unique opportunity to showcase your resilience, growth, and problem-solving skills. By focusing on the specifics of the challenge, the steps you took to overcome it, and the lessons you learned, you'll answer the prompt effectively and make a lasting impression on the admissions team.