Many applications, especially those for law school and business school, ask students to explain some challenge they’ve overcome or even to discuss a failure in their lives. The best writers tend to handle this issue directly but creatively, discussing a challenge that doesn’t undermine their abilities or character and emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience. An excellent example of how one writer handled this issue is in Chapter 4 of this handbook, within two essays written by a student in business. The writer frames his challenges within ultimately positive experiences—the completion of a 3500-mile bike trip and a successful team business project—so that he both answers the questions but keeps favorable attention on his accomplishments.
Even unprompted, many students—especially if they had a bad semester of grades, a prolonged illness, a personal crisis, a switch of majors, or took some time off from school—feel compelled to provide an explanation in their personal statement or elsewhere in their application. This can be risky, of course, because it may draw a disproportional amount of attention to something negative, and it may be unnecessary anyway. Consider whether an explanation is already taken care of by the circumstances (such as one poor semester during sophomore year followed by two years of high grades in your major) or whether the matter might be best handled by a sympathetic advisor writing you a letter of recommendation (who can be encouraged to explain the issue for you if privy to the necessary information). Weigh carefully the decision to reveal anything negative unprompted, and discuss it with a trusted advisor.
An interesting window into the kinds of challenges students discuss in writing is provided in examples from Donald Asher’s popular book Graduate Admissions Essays. Here, students reveal the following tales in their personal essays:
- Working 35 hours per week for five years to finance community college without taking out a student loan.
- Taking a job as a court interpreter before applying to law school to gain some relevant experience.
- Working in a West African village and experiencing language barriers, distrust, and cross-cultural embarrassment.
- Juggling the simultaneous experiences of being a student athlete, a resident assistant, and a class president.
- Starting a service program for disadvantaged high school students only to find that some of those students didn’t show up for their appointed meetings.
- An acknowledgment of good study skills lacking in the first two years of college study, followed by a gradually rising GPA.
In all these cases, of course, the writers focused on the value of these experiences and stressed eventual success even among some admitted mishaps. Such willingness to discuss one’s personal challenges—and in the process admit a propensity to take on too much, or confess a naiveté about the world, or realize that lofty goals must sometimes be adjusted to reality—can go a long way in gaining a selection committee’s trust.
To consider creative and positive ways to discuss challenges and shortcomings, brainstorm and prepare just as you would for a job interview, at these sites: