Common App 2: Failure and Success
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?
The grass wads up between my fingers. My knuckles are crimson with clotting blood, and I know there's only more pain ahead of me. I hear the snap of the ball, and then it's the cacophony of bodies hitting one another. A lineman barrels into me, and I fall to the earth, my bones rattling with the impact.
Behind me, I can hear the quarterback being taken down, hammered to the ground again. I struggle to rise, but I do. I glance at the scoreboard, and remind myself that this isn't just a loss. It's an historic loss, and I feel every yard in my aching body.
We never had a chance against them. While our team isn't bad, these are the reigning state champs, and most people who speculate on those things believe they will be playing at state again. We were nothing more than a bump in the road for them. A very painful bump in the road, as my punished body can attest.
We didn't go in thinking we were going to lose. We never prepared to get trounced. Coach had a game plan: we were to protect the quarterback and use a passing offense. Their defensive line, known for its speed, would not be able to keep up. All they needed was the offensive line, including me, to dig in and delay them. It was a good idea in theory, but theory is not the gridiron.
The defensive line plowed through us like we were made of tissue paper. My role in the plan was an utter failure. No matter what I did, what reserves of strength I tried to draw upon, they weren't enough. I was not big enough. I was not fast enough. I was not good enough. In short, I failed, and our team suffered for it. For an entire game, I was flattened over and over again by players that were larger, stronger, faster, and better than I was.
After the game, I had never felt worse. It wasn't just the physical aspects, though my aches, pains, and cuts exacerbated my feelings. It was the sense of failure, of personal failure. Had I held the line as I was supposed to, we would have won. There was no way around it.
Coach said something afterwards that completely changed my feelings. He told me he was proud of the way we had played. We were knocked down, he said, but we never stayed down. There's no shame in failure. There's only shame in never trying.
Had we won that day, I never would have learned anything. Had I somehow been able to hold that line as I was intended to, I would still be the same person. By failing, I was able to grow.
I could not stop them from coming through the lines on every play, but I didn't stop trying. This was the most important aspect of what happened. To a person who has never experienced failure, a single setback can be crippling. Failure, though, teaches you how to persevere in the face of adversity. My experience was painfully literal, but because of it, I can apply it to less physical areas of my life. Because of what I did, and how Coach made me understand its importance, I know that getting knocked down isn't important. Getting back up is what counts.
Why This Essay Works
Remember: the people reading college essays have a giant stack of them. They're reading them one after the other, so it's vital to grab them from the beginning with a hook. What's so effective about the introduction of this essay is that it puts you right into the middle of the action, using evocative language to create a sense of time and place.
After the introduction sets the stage, the full story unfolds. The body of the essay plays well against type. For a sports-related prompt, the reader might expect a lot of posturing. This essay is quite clear that the player is not at the top of their game, and there is no shame in that. The writer is introspective about what they regard as a failure, in a thoughtful manner that might surprise a reader expecting a more arrogant voice.
Sure, the moral is a tad cliché, but life is a little cliché sometimes. Also, when talking about success and failure, it's a little hard to not be cliché. That's why this works.
Additionally, the body continues the use of evocative language, but scales back on the intense scene-setting of the introduction. By letting the words breathe, the point comes across. Failure is not the end of the world, and for this writer, it's the beginning of understanding.
Lastly, the conclusion sums everything up. The writer re-states the prompt in their own words, and lays out precisely what they learned. With the final sentence, they end with a short, pithy comment, summing everything up in a way that should stick in the reader's mind.
In my 2nd year in university, my 2 study partners and I were all working for software companies. We frequently discussed ways to make quantum career leaps. One that fascinated us was starting our own company.
One day we came up with an idea that would increase sales for consumer goods retailers and simultaneously decrease monthly consumer expenses. Each day, we polished our idea together for a couple hours.
After 2 weeks, I decided to get outside feedback. I looked for people who had at least 10 years experience in consumer goods. Finally, I convinced a friend, to connect me with a board member of the 2nd largest consumer goods retailer in my country.
I presented our business model to the board member, and he instructed his right-hand to set us meetings with managers who could evaluate our plans. Over the next month, we went to one meeting after another. The responses varied from enthusiasm to skepticism. Each time, we improved our presentation according to the feedback.
Finally, I managed to set a meeting with the previous CEO of the largest consumer goods retailer. He concluded our meeting with: “Guys, in my opinion, it’s not going to work”.
I couldn’t say if it was the pressure from school and work or the CEO’s negative feedback, but since that meeting, I wasn’t able to motivate the team to go on. We consciously gave up.
2 years later, one of my teammates called out of the blue: “check out this link…it works!”. I think he expected me to feel disappointment. Actually, I felt pride – my first business attempt was viable after all.
But, I had failed to push it through.
Looking back, it was an amazing experience. I learned much about myself, but two lessons stand out. The first was that, at the time, I didn’t question what drives each team member. For me, it was primarily an adventure, and losing some money because I was working less hours for a while was a risk I was willing to take. Later, I realized that one teammate, who was already in a long term relationship, was really worried about financial security. Then I understood that that was the core reason for many of our business strategy disagreements. Since then, I have learned to analyze others’ motives. I found out that it not only improves my communication with peers, but it also helps me convince my supervisors.
The second lesson was an eye-opener. I learned that I simply enjoy business. I was excited before each meeting, and had fun analyzing business models and role playing with my friends. I experienced energy levels that I had only ever felt playing soccer. I realized I am not willing to compromise on a career I will just tolerate, I want one that excites me.
This realization completely simplified all my future choices. About 2 years ago, my CEO gave me a choice between a business and a technological position. That was the easiest decision I made in my life.