I never had to use the Common Application when I was applying to colleges. Today, so many schools use it that it probably cannot be avoided when submitting a college admissions essay. Too often I see and read of high school students choosing this prompt (below) for a college admissions essay. I wish they wouldn’t. The best way to explain why was to write a college admissions essay of my own. So I did.
The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
I Was the Worst High School Athlete Ever
There are two routes one might take to become “cool” at my high school: to be a “jock” or to be in band. I guess that makes sense. Those are the activities that have the most kids in the school. I came to high school shy and introverted. I still am. But I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to be one of the cool people, or at least shown I was cool with a nod or a wave. So I went out for the track team, figuring “well, I can run. How hard is that?”
The answer: Very hard. I was too slow to be a sprinter. So the coach tried to turn me into a half-miler. But I was too slow for that. Then he made me a miler. But I had never run a mile in my life. Worse, he made us run sprints so we knew when to pass someone in a race. Coach might have wanted me to run a mile. But he made a mile feel like a bunch of sprints. I had never tried to run so fast for so long. I puked my breakfast up at every practice. Everybody laughed at me. Coach leading the way. Every practice he always asked “You puking, again?” I’d growl inside. Of course, I was. All over the grass on our football field. Luckily, football season was over.
No matter how hard I tried I could not beat the next-worst miler on the team. Nor could I stop puking in practice after sprinting so much to run more than a mile. There was no way that Coach would put me in a meet. So I was relegated to setting up hurdles for our hurdlers to run their events. They’d run their races, finish, then I’d help put them away. All of this practice, all of the puking, for that? I went to Coach to complain. He didn’t laugh me off. He told me to come back later that day. I did. He asked me: “How would you like to run the mile today?” I looked at him as if he was joking. “You’ll pace out best miler, be our ‘rabbit’,” he said. Then he told me how rabbits get the dogs to go faster in a dog race. I figured, “ok, sure, beats picking up hurdles.”
The best thing about being the rabbit was that it motivated me to not be lapped by our best miler, one of the best in our county. The next best thing was that I had a reason to come to practice. After that, the next best thing was that I became conditioned to the point that I wouldn’t puke. The first time I was the rabbit, I finished last in the race. No surprise. But I cut 25 seconds off my first time in practice. And I didn’t puke. By the end of the season I was still finishing last. But I had cut a few more seconds off my time, and I still wasn’t puking.
I’d guess those were good things. But I had joined a team because I wanted to be considered cool. But I wasn’t. Practically everyone on the team laughed at me. So did the crowds, through small, of people who came to watch our meets. I was the biggest joke on the team. Okay, I was more fit. I was helping our best miler to get better. But the sacrifices were not worth it. Near the end of our season I asked Coach if I might ever letter. He said: “Most of our guys earn their letters. But you…” Then he said. “Okay, if you stick with it through your senior year and you haven’t earned your letter, I’ll give it to you.” The freshmen on our team laughed around me, loud enough for me to hear. Coach was not exactly discouraging them.
I kept running over the summer after freshman year. But I was not really into it. So I never went out for track, or any other sport, again. I realized that there were other things that I enjoyed more, even in school, that mattered more. Coach never looked for me before the season started. But the better runners all teased me, until their season was under way. Guess they figured that if I didn’t care, I was not worth their time. But after that no one ever laughed at me again. My grades went way up. I went to the honors dinner. People clapped as I got my academic award. I learned that you are cool when you do good at what you’re good at, not at something you didn’t really want to do.
Believe it or not, college-bound students write a college admissions essay like this.As an admissions advisor, I tell them to steer clear of this question.
The last thing that a student who wants to be accepted to a college should do is go in tremendous detail on their weaknesses or the “guts” that it took to quit or how a coach’s decision “transformed” their life. Quite frankly, if I was the admissions officer reading this essay I would wonder if this student would ever commit to anything, including an academic program. I don’t know what s/he is good at, only what s/he failed at. I know nothing about this person’s creativity, though I can assess their writing skills. Lastly, I might not want to know that a person puked so much.
The college admissions essay is an opportunity for a student to sell themselves not only to an admissions committee, but also to people who might have scholarships to award. It is a chance to show how they would approach a problem of interest and to explain why that school is the right fit. College admissions officers are generally nice people. They have good hearts; at least most of those I have met do. They want to read an application and find a reason to say “yes.” They don’t want to have any doubts when they make the recommendations to committee. Dwelling too much on a failure, especially about something like quitting a sport, only leaves that person with doubts.
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