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Who wants to talk about their failures?

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

Who wants to talk about their failures?

Most students approach the Common Application Prompt No. 2, also known as “The Edison Prompt,” with fear and trepidation. It says: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? “Failure? Why would I want to tell them about a time I failed?”

Here’s why they ask the question:

Failure, which can also be interpreted more gently as a lack of success, is a great equalizer. Sharing a failure requires exposing vulnerability. Being vulnerable is being human and makes a student much more approachable and appealing.

Why do colleges like this question? Everyone has stumbled somewhere, sometime. Some have had bigger stumbles than others, but this essay prompt allows a student to share some of the all-important “lessons learned” that colleges enjoy reading.

Students who can articulate what they have learned from their failure(s) are presenting themselves as more insightful and more mature and therefore more likely to be successful in college. It sounds counter-intuitive, but writing about a failure actually demonstrates confidence.

Students need to go beyond their traditional view of what constitutes a failure. It doesn’t need to be a time you flunked a test. What about a time you failed to be the friend you wanted to be in a relationship? What about a failure to act on something you felt was important? Try and reinterpret the concept of failure to something bigger such as a time when you didn’t follow through, you didn’t do what was expected or you let someone down.

Things you should think about if you like this prompt:

Break down the question; there are three distinct components:

1. Recount an incident: This first part is easy. You’ll need to summarize the problem and talk about how you failed. Tell the story and provide specific details.

2. How did it affect you? Be honest. Describe your emotions. Were you angry, frustrated, hurt, surprised? Did you over-react?

3. What lessons did you learn? This last part is the most important. Ask yourself how you are different now that you’ve been through this experience. Be reflective and introspective and demonstrate your critical thinking skills.

Prompt No. 2 provides students with a rare opportunity to share their insights on their own personal growth. This can be a very enlightening process for the students as well as for their parents.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

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