How to Nail Your Overcoming a Challenge Essay

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Male student reading in a Art gallery.

How to Nail Your Overcoming a Challenge Essay: 5 Key Tips

College essays are one of the most important yet underutilized portions of college applications. By the time students reach this part of the admissions process, they’re just ready to get everything completed and submitted so they can finally relax. However, college essays play a major role in determining whether or not your application receives a second look or gets tossed to the side.

Although all colleges have different essays, there are many themes that span across all schools. One of the most common and challenging of these prompts is the “overcoming a challenge” essay. Many students get stumped on this seemingly easy and straightforward prompt for a variety of reasons.

Here, we’ll take a deep dive into this essay topic, explore what college admissions officers are looking for, and offer some tips for writing an essay about overcoming challenges.

What’s the “overcoming a challenge” essay prompt?

As the name suggests, the “overcoming a challenge” prompt is any college essay question asking applicants to discuss a difficult obstacle or challenge they had to overcome. There are different variations of the question, but the fundamental subject matter is the same.

College admissions officers want to know how you handle adversity and how challenges you’ve faced have shaped who you are today. Like many college essay prompts, this topic is asking you to get a bit personal and open up.

It’s a crucial opportunity for applicants to reveal more about themselves to admissions officers to further prove they deserve an acceptance letter. While you might be tempted to recount one of the most traumatic events you’ve experienced in your life, it’s important to keep in mind that these essays aren’t judged based on the severity of the event encountered. In fact, the challenge can be something relatively mundane and common.

Admissions officers are going to evaluate your response based on how you responded to the challenge, overcame it, and learned from it. The whole point is to show colleges that you can handle setbacks and obstacles in your life and that you have the fortitude, resourcefulness, and perseverance to push through.

No matter where you attend, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some hurdles on your way to graduation. Colleges need to know their students can handle some of these challenges gracefully. The “overcoming a challenge” essay prompt helps colleges gauge this ability.

Examples of “overcoming a challenge” essays

In order to give you a better idea of what these essays look like, let’s review some actual “overcoming a challenge” college prompts. The first example is from the Common Application and requires students to respond to the following question with a 650-word limit.

“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?”

Notice how the question isn’t just regarding a setback or challenge you suffered in the past. The prompt is also asking you to expound on how this experience impacted you and how it changed you to this day. This is a great example of how the emphasis of this prompt is on how it affected the applicant instead of the severity of the challenge itself.

Male student smiling in front of a class.

Our second example of an “overcoming a challenge” prompt comes from MIT. For the 2018-2020 school year, applicants were asked to respond to the following question in 200 to 250 words.

“Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?”

In this prompt, you can see that the focus is on how you “managed the situation” not what you learned or how you’ve been changed as a result.

It’s imperative to pay attention to the specifics of the question as “overcoming a challenge” prompts tend to vary in how they’re asked and what exactly they’re looking for despite the overall subject being the same. Paying attention to these details can ensure you’re giving admissions officers exactly what they’re looking for when reading your application.

tips for writing an essay about overcoming challenges

1. Stay away from common topics.

One of the biggest pitfalls students experience when answering the “overcoming a challenge” essay is choosing a common topic. Considering that admissions officers have to read through hundreds if not thousands of essay responses to the same question, writing on a common topic can come across as banal and unoriginal.

Even if your essay is pristine, the topic still runs the risk of bringing down your overall response. Instead, it’s advisable to try and identify a challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in your life that is unique or, at the very least, not so common. Some common “overcoming a challenge” essay topics to avoid include winning a difficult sports game or passing a course in which you were struggling.

View of a student studying in a desk.

Think back in your life to events that made an impact on how you think and act. Are any of these experiences challenges that you overcame and changed for the better? Don’t be afraid to get personal. The more unique and original you can make the topic, the better chance you have of standing out from the crowd.

2. Identify an obstacle that highlights qualities you want to emphasize.

Colleges employ “overcoming a challenge” prompts to learn more about applicants than other parts of the application would reveal. Most notably, these essays are intended to highlight some characteristics that a student might possess which would prove valuable for their time in college.

For example, a story about handling a challenging event in your life could demonstrate mental fortitude, social tact, perseverance, long-term thinking, follow-through, and other positive characteristics. A great way to strengthen your response and improve your application overall is to choose a topic that will highlight certain qualities you want to demonstrate to admissions officers. For example, overcoming a disagreement with a friend might stand out to you like a meaningful challenge.

However, the characteristics it might illustrate including forgiveness, understanding, and empathy might not be the traits you want to convey to admissions officers. It’s advisable for students to think ahead about the qualities they’d like to come across in their response and choose a challenge based on that criteria.

Again, the whole point of this essay prompt is to illustrate some positives about you and your personality. Thinking ahead about how your essay topic will come across to admissions officers can make your overall piece more impactful and calculated.

3. Steer clear of common paragraph structures.

Are you ready for a pro tip that most applicants won’t ever consider? In order to make your “overcoming a challenge” essay stick out from other responses, you should pay attention to the essay structure. Yes, you heard that right!

Students writing on their notebooks on a table.

The way you organize your prompt response can play a massive role in how the essay comes across. Even if your topic is unique, admissions officers will still notice regurgitated paragraph patterns. To ensure your “overcoming a challenge” essay attracts the attention of colleges, you’ll need to pay attention to how it’s written. The vast majority of students stick to the following structure:

Describe a challenging event or experience –> Explain how you overcame the challenge

It’s not that this format will hurt your essay. Rather, the point is that coming up with something more unique and unexpected can help your essay stand out. Need some ideas to get your creativity flowing? No problem! Instead of focusing on a singular event or occasion, you could write about a challenge you overcame over a prolonged period of time and the various events that helped you push forward.

If you really want to get innovative, you could focus on a challenge that you’re still in the process of overcoming. You could bring it into the present day and talk about what you plan to do in the future. These variations aren’t essential but are a great way to catch the attention of admissions officers.

4. Focus on internal aspects

When asked to describe an event or obstacle, like the “overcoming a challenge” prompt requests, many students focus on detailing people, places, circumstances, and other physical or tangible elements. While this is a great writing technique in general, you’re not writing for a Pulitzer Prize when answering college essays.

It’s all about giving admissions officers exactly what they want, ensuring your responses stand out, and demonstrating your strengths in the process. As a result, it’s advisable to focus more on the internal components of your topic rather than the circumstances surrounding it. For example, instead of going into detail about what happened during the challenging event, you should write about how you reacted, how you felt, what you thought, and how you overcame it mentally.

Were you anxious, worried, nervous, scared, confused? Did the event surprise you or frustrate you? These are all questions you should be thinking about when writing your “overcoming a challenge” essay. Your psychological experience and development throughout the triumph of this obstacle is the real story. It’s more captivating and more revealing about who you are and who you became in the process. This narrative will make admissions officers feel like they know you more personally which can work wonders for making your essay stand out.

5. Emphasize the impact, not the event.

As mentioned before, the whole point of an “overcoming a challenge” prompt is to give admissions officers a better idea of who you are and how you deal with challenges. The question involves a difficult or challenging situation in your life but the emphasis is on how you reacted to the situation, rose to the occasion, and became better as a result. Some students feel the need to focus on the challenge itself rather than what was learned in the process.

Spending too much time on the event instead of how it impacted you can end up hurting the quality of your answer. Don’t forget that you’re dealing with a strict word limit. Although it varies between each school, some universities only give applicants a few hundred words to respond. The biggest chunk of your response should focus on the impact the event had on your life rather than how difficult it was or the specifics surrounding the challenge.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to explicitly write that “from this event, I learned…” You certainly can make it that evident, but it’s more effective to show your reader rather than telling them by providing examples of how you’re better for having gone through the challenge. For example, let’s say you had a debilitating fear of public speaking.

To overcome the challenge you joined a debate club and worked through the discomfort to become a stronger speaker overall. Instead of saying “I became more confident in front of crowds” you could illustrate that transformation by saying “Now, I can even deliver extemporaneous speeches with ease.” This describes the qualities you’ve developed instead of saying them outright. It’s a small detail that can make a big difference for the admissions officers reading your essays.

Take your college application to the next level

You can think of your college application as your college resume. It’s a summary of your previous performance and experience as well as a reflection of your current knowledge and capabilities. The overall quality of your application will determine which college you get accepted into.

No matter what colleges you have on your list of potential schools, it’s imperative to ensure your college application is optimized. But, with so many different parts of the college admissions process, that’s much easier said than done. That’s where Admission Sight can help!

For the past 10 years, we’ve been helping students just like you perfect their applications to drastically increase their chances of getting into their dream universities. And you know what? The results have been fantastic.

Roughly 75% of the students we’ve helped have gone on to receive acceptance from Ivy League or Top 10 Universities. Yes, our services are really that effective! But how does it work? Well, it’s quite simple actually.

We offer a wide variety of services specifically designed to help students improve their college applications and prepare for the college admissions process overall. If you’re ready to get started on mastering your college application, feel free to reach out to us. We’ll set up a free consultation to discuss our services in greater detail.





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