How to Write a Challenges-Based (i.e., Narrative) College Essay That TBH Wasn’t That Big of a Deal

In this post, I’ll cover: 

  • A Word to the Wise for Students Who May Be Forcing a Challenges-Based Personal Statement

  • Three Brainstorming Exercises to Help You Come Up with New Potential Ideas (and Why You Maybe Should)

  • An Example of an Outstanding Essay Written on a Challenge That TBH Wasn’t That Big of a Deal

  • Something Called the Trampoline Technique That Will Help You Write Your Essay (If You’re Still 100% Committed to Writing About Your Challenge) 

Many students feel like they should write about a particular challenge they’ve faced. I’ve seen this happen for a few reasons:

  1. Someone told them that challenges-based essays are more likely to get noticed by admission readers.

  2. They read a personal statement they really liked and thought, “Ooh—I want my essay to be like that,” or “I want the reader to feel the way that I felt after reading that essay.” 

  3. This is the first idea they came up with, and they just went with it.

  4. They’ve spent soooooo long on this topic, and it feels painful to consider switching topics at this point.

Any of these sound like you? 

If so, a few quick truth bombs: 

  1. It’s just not true. Many students are accepted into great colleges each year with all kinds of personal statements. In fact, check out this link for essays not about challenges written by students who were accepted to great colleges. 

  2. For those of you who’ve read someone else’s essay and felt like you wanted to do “what they did”—wait, who wants to copy other people? Also, there are many ways to get a reader to feel things (more on that later).

  3. If this is your first idea, I’m curious: How much brainstorming did you do? There are a million stories you could tell; what other ideas could you come up with in just, like, 15 minutes of more brainstorming?

  4. This is called sunk-cost bias. Read more about it here

In short, you totally don’t have to write about a challenge in order to get into a great college.

So ask yourself: Am I trying to force this?

If so …

A Word to the Wise If You Think You Might Be Forcing a Challenges-Based Personal Statement

College admission readers are interested to know what are the skills, values, qualities, and interests you’re bringing with you to the college campus. 

How do you do that? Try this:

Spend (at least) 20 minutes brainstorming other topics before you commit to (or continue with) this one. Here are three exercises to help you do that: 

  1. Essence Objects Exercise

  2. 21 Details Exercise

  3. Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me List

Each one will take about 20 minutes. I recommend doing all three.

Why brainstorm other ideas? Because if your challenge isn’t that compelling, or if the insights you developed aren’t that surprising, I’m worried you’ll waste a bunch more time trying to either a) make the challenge sound more difficult than it was, b) force insights, or c) (and this is worse) make up lessons that you learned just so the ending sounds nice. 

Pause.

Once you’ve done these brainstorming exercises, I recommend sharing them with someone you trust, or at least like a little bit (a counselor, mentor, family member, friend), and ask them to spend 15 minutes helping you come up with other ideas.

And, oh, BTW: I recommend doing this even if you have faced significant challenges. Why? Because: 

  1. Your challenges-based essay may not pan out.

  2. You might like your new idea(s) even better.

  3. You might find a way to incorporate your new idea(s) with your current idea to create a better essay, or

  4. The new ideas you generate might end up working for a supplemental essay, which is an essay you’ll probably need to write if you’re applying to selective colleges.

Have you done this? Will you? Please do.

… Done? Okay. Once you’ve completed all those exercises and have made A REAL AND GENUINE EFFORT to come up with other potential ideas and STILL haven’t found something else you like better and you absolutely must write about this challenge (whichever one you’ve picked), then in order for you to stand out, here’s my best advice …

You have to write the heck out of it. 

What do I mean? 

Take a look below at the example essay, which was written by a student who wrote about a challenge that TBH wasn’t that big of a deal … and notice how well-written it is. (BTW, this was his title—it’s generally rare that you need to or should title a personal statement, but his adds a layer …)

Much Ado About Nothing

Up on stage, under the glowing spotlight, and in front of the glowering judge, I felt as if nothing could get in my way. As would soon be evident, I was absolutely right.

The last kid got out on casserole—I eat casseroles for breakfast.

But the first round of the Manhattan-wide Spelling Bee was definitely not the right time to learn a new word.

Stammering into the microphone, I asked for a definition.

The judge recited from the dictionary: “The belief that the actions that one takes in life have no meaning, or will amount to nothing.”

The auditorium clock was ticking. Carefully eyeing the disqualification bell, I began to spell because I had no other options: “N—I—A—”

ding.

The judge had brought her hand down with the unabridged force of the entire English language.

It was over. I was out, already beside my parents in the audience. Words, which had always been my infallible asset, had failed me. In desperation for appeal, I looked up the word how I’d intended to spell it—

Nialism: A term frequently used by adolescents as a misspelling of the word nihilism” (source: Urban Dictionary).

I was stung by the Bee.

That day, I met a word that defined who I wasn’t. To me, words are the very embodiment of spinning meaning out of thin air: squiggles into letters into words into stories. Therefore, nihilism betrayed convention—doubting its own importance by claiming that nothing has meaning.

How could I possibly have never come across nihilism in my life at all?

I found the answer in my family. Name any creative skill and I can point to a relative who is a whiz at it: paint on a blank canvas, musical notes into biding silence, and monologues on an otherwise empty stage are all ways of disrupting the same blank void—turning nothing into something. In that respect, my creativity has been my inheritance. Nihilism just wasn’t part of my world. Encountering the word only gave a name to what I had unwittingly striven towards from the start: creativity against nothing.

Growing up, my New York City was filled with wonder. I would race up and down the pavement pointing out my own wondrous alphabet: police barricades were bookended by stoic A’s, trees were tall, fractal Y’s, and lampposts were arching lowercase R’s. I saw kaleidoscopic, lexicographic beauty where others saw nothing out of the ordinary—I recognized the unseen potential of everything around me.

Likewise, I always make the most out of any situation—knowing that there is always a way to solve a problem walks hand-in-hand with my optimism. Manifested in Model UN—whether using history as a powerful crisis management tool or making even the smallest of logistical alterations to keep team morale afloat—or in theater, where I wear the hats of playwright, lyricist, and actor simultaneously to help make the production worthwhile for both us and the audience, I have learned to improvise when needed and think ahead well in advance. Across the board, my peers and I put together new ideas from a finite alphabet to make a finished product greater than the sum of its parts.

Walking through my city with the Manhattan Borough President during my summer internship, I listened to profound stories from inspiring citizens and engaged in parts of my city often overlooked. I worked with my research partner to fill voids with positive necessities, surveying empty school lots to locate possible future playground sites—I am excited for the new opportunities future children will have. In the ordinary locations where I had once seen my personal alphabet, I now see room for meaningful humanitarian change.

Though opposed to nihilism, I am grateful for our encounter—for without the world’s nothings, there would be no room for new somethings.

I will never let nothing get in my way again.

— — —

Crazy good, huh?

The take-away from this essay: You don’t have to have gone through a war or been born deaf to write an interesting essay on a “challenge.” But if your challenge is more on the meh side (like spelling a word wrong, or not making a sports team, or getting a bad grade), you’d better be able to write the heck out of it.

What do I mean?

This essay is just incredibly well-crafted, from the title right through to the final line.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of extreme challenges, I’d rate this a 1. 

But on a scale of 1-10 in terms of personal statement craft, I’d rate it a hundred. 

Why so high?

This author makes a spelling bee error seem like a really big deal.

How does he do it? What makes this essay work? 

First, it’s so darn clever. Phrases like “I was stung by the Bee” or the double entendre in the title would make even Shakespeare proud. And that ending? Come on

Second, he’s doing something structurally interesting. How? His spelling error, although small in the grand scheme of things, sends him on an epic journey. And to be honest, the essay isn’t really about the error—it’s about the journey he goes on. I call this particular approach the Trampoline Technique … and I recommend you consider it for your essay (if you’re stuck on writing about this challenge). 

Here’s how it works.

The Trampoline Technique

A “trampoline” is something you use in your college essay to springboard to a variety of other areas or topics. This essay, for example, begins by describing a Spelling Bee in which the author makes an error, but that error is actually a trampoline that sends the author on a journey to discover the answer to the question, “How could I possibly have never come across nihilism in my life at all?” 

On that journey, he (and we, the readers) learn:

  1. He “inherited” creativity from his family.

  2. Growing up in NYC taught him to recognize “the unseen potential of everything around [him],” and he shows us this through some beautiful and specific (spelling related!) examples.

  3. He did an internship that …

    1. Connected him with a variety of people, allowing him to also …

      1. Engage with “parts of [his] city often overlooked” and…

      2. Work with a partner and …

      3. Become interested in making “meaningful humanitarian change”

We learn so much in these paragraphs about how he’ll make valuable contributions.

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