college applications
Many students underestimate and underutilise their college essays to make an impression during their college applications process. Source: Chris Delmas/AFP

College essays are part and parcel of college applications

Yet, most students tend to underestimate and underutilise this segment during the application process. 

Knowing how to craft a strong essay can increase your admissions chances by ten times, according to a case study done on Harvard’s admission rates. 

What’s more, college essays play a major role in determining whether or not your application receives a second look or gets tossed aside. 

In this, a common essay prompt is the “learning from obstacles or overcoming a challenge” topic. 

Many students get stumped on this seemingly straightforward prompt for a variety of reasons. 

Perhaps they are unsure whether the chosen obstacle or challenge is impactful enough. Or they don’t know what experience to use. 

Here’s the catch: this prompt helps colleges gauge whether you have the ability to handle challenges gracefully. They are interested in understanding how you handle adversity and how these challenges helped shape who you are today. 

Like many college essay prompts, this topic requires you to reflect deeply on your life. 

Here’s how you can go about answering this essay question for your college applications:

college applications

Writing a great essay for college applications could increase your admissions by ten times. Source: Jens Schlueter/AFP

College applications: “learning from obstacles” essay prompt

This question can come in various forms, but the concept remains the same.

Generally, they’ll prompt you to discuss a difficult obstacle or challenge they had to overcome.

How you choose to write your essay for your college applications will give you a critical edge over other applicants.

It’s the perfect opportunity to reveal more about yourself to admissions officers to prove why you deserve an acceptance letter.

Though it may be tempting to write about traumatic events you’ve experienced, it’s essential to know 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.

From your response, admissions officers will evaluate your response based on how you responded to the challenge, overcame it, and learned from it.

Remember to show colleges that you can handle setbacks and obstacles in your life. Display your grit, resourcefulness, and perseverance to push through.

Structuring your college applications essay

College Essay Guy offers great advice to students on using the Narrative Structure when writing about their personal experiences. It consists of three main parts: 

  • The challenge you faced and its effects 
  • The solution/what you did to move past the obstacle 
  • Your learnings and your shift of perspective after that incident

Like watching a movie, specific elements of structure help create a flow for the story. 

The specific story beats encourage the reader to keep reading and help create a good rhythm throughout the story. 

Here is a sample structure for you to follow: 

  • Background: The starting point of the story where you describe your life or the situation, helping readers to understand the context.
  • The inciting incident: You jump straight into the obstacle you faced. This evokes a reader’s curiosity in wondering what happens next or how you will solve the situation.
  • Building suspense: Here is where you continue to layer your story with your thoughts and emotions and the dilemma you faced (if any).
  • The climax: Usually, the scenario here involves making a decision to improve the current situation.
  • New Status Quo: Wrap up your story with key learnings from overcoming that challenge. You should be able to answer the questions: “So what?” and “Why overcoming this obstacle mattered to you?”