How to Write an “Overcoming Challenges” College Essay (Without Sounding Like a Sob Story)
Three techniques for writing about challenges:
Use poetic language.
Use humor to lighten the load.
Be straightforward and detailed.
For more help structuring your essay, check out my Ultimate Guide to Writing a College Essay.
For essay writing tips from tons of experts, check out my 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts.
1. With a little poetry
Here’s a professional writing example:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. […]
And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time.
– Excerpt from “Lessons” by Justin Torres. For the rest, click here or “Google Justin Torres Lessons”
Here’s a personal statement example:
I can do this by myself. I held the blade, watched it slide across my flesh. The knife was just like Richard Selzer described: cold, gleaming, silent. Red drops of blood trailed the slightly serrated edge. I let out a long sigh.
I was at my most desperate. My friend had died in September of my junior year. Five AP classes, weekly volunteering, and a tutoring job had provided added stress. I needed reprieve. And I found it in the knife.
Two months later, my French teacher, Madame Deleuze, discovered my secret. That day in AP French while everyone else drilled vocabulary, she called me out to have a talk.
– Excerpt from the “Knife” essay, which may be found in College Essay Essentials
IMPORTANT: This is extremely difficult to do—like walking a high-wire—and, if done poorly, this can fail spectacularly. I’d only recommend this if 1) you have lots of time before your essay is due, 2) you consider yourself a moderately good writer and, 3) you are able to write about your challenges with distance and objectivity (i.e. – you have mostly or completely come through the challenge(s) you’re describing). If you’re short on time, don’t have a lot of experience writing creative non-fiction, or are still very much “in it,” I’d recommend not choosing this method.
But, if you are interested in doing this, and want to learn more about how, check out my analysis in my book College Essay Essentials. (Not trying to sell a book here, it’s just too much to print here and I wanted you know more where you could learn more. That’s where.)