Turn a Bad Experience Into a Winning College Admissions Essay
When writing a college admissions essay, your natural tendency may be to emphasize your victories while also downplaying your less successful moments. However, by masking your failures, you sacrifice a powerful opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants.
After all, academic all-stars, former club leaders and winning athletes besiege every competitive college. For an admissions officer, candidates’ accomplishments can begin to blur together.
Rather than join the crowd, consider using your college admissions essay to discuss a time when an internship or job did not work out in your favor. This approach carries some risk, but here are ways to turn your misstep into a gateway to success.
1. Draw the reader in: Great essays draw readers in. Begin your personal statement by briefly describing a scene.
For example, “After three seemingly successful months at my job, my supervisor took me aside and told me, with regret in his voice, that I should not return on Monday. My stomach dropped.”
Ensure your opening is short and to the point. Focus on a single moment in time. Everyone has had at least one experience like this – and the admissions officer will naturally empathize with your plight.
2. Own your experience: Be clear that you accept responsibility for this negative experience. Your story is a redemptive self narrative – a type of narrative that may resonate strongly with American audiences.
In a redemptive narrative, bad things can happen to good people. But you must still demonstrate that you could have improved your performance and that you understand your role in the situation.
Perhaps you did not take your high school internship seriously and then learned a hard lesson about consequences.
Or perhaps you were let go from your summer job because you did not ask for clarification of your duties. Although it is possible that your supervisor should have explained your duties more clearly, you could have also taken the initiative to ask.
You should also demonstrate that you understand why you faced difficulty. Share the factors that were outside of your control – for instance, insufficient information or unclear objectives – but do not assign blame.
In other words, do not say, “My poor performance was actually Bob’s fault because he did not give me the reports on time.”
Instead, state, “Without the information in the reports, I could not complete my part of the project prior to the deadline. In retrospect, I wish I had not just waited for the information but had tried asking my supervisor for help.”
3. Discuss the lessons you learned: The most important element of your essay is the lesson you learn that turns your failure into a valuable life experience.
This lesson could involve learning to ask for help or to embrace new experiences. It could even be as simple as learning to keep a calendar with important appointments noted.
You should connect the lesson you are discussing with the responsibility you already admitted. For example, if you described your unwillingness to take the initiative to locate essential information, then you may have learned the importance of having a proactive mindset.
Do not limit yourself to just one lesson. The more you learn, the more valuable the experience – and the more resourceful you look.
4. Apply the lessons you learned: Most seasoned admissions officers will be familiar with the redemptive self narrative, so it is important that your personal statement is both sincere and truthful. Writing a tale of error and recovery is relatively simple, especially when the formula has been laid out for you.
With that in mind, do not conclude your essay with a list of lessons. Instead, describe a scenario where you have already put your hard-won wisdom to work. This should be a brief, one-paragraph anecdote illustrating how you have changed your behavior for the better.
For example, you might refer to a situation where you received a homework assignment with ambiguous instructions. Detail how you remembered your prior experience with unclear instructions, asked your teacher to clarify expectations and averted disaster for yourself – and the rest of your class.
Writing a college admissions essay about a time you failed in an internship or job is not a clever trick to make you stand out. Rather, you are reworking what may be a painful memory into a valuable life skill. You will need your hard-won resilience to succeed in college, so embrace the experience and share your story.
Source: US News. Brian Witte. July 11, 2016.