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Last updated March 21, 2024

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How to Write a Personal Challenge Essay (with Examples)

Key Takeaway

Personal Challenge supplemental essay prompts are some of the most difficult to answer. In this post, you'll learn how to write an authentic Personal Challenge supplemental essay, no matter your experiences or background.

This post is one in a series of posts about the supplemental essays. You can read our core “how-to” supplemental post here.

What is a Personal Challenge supplemental essay?

Personal Challenge supplemental essays ask you to pick a personal challenge you’ve faced, detail how the problem affected you, and describe the action steps you took to overcome it.

These essays can be challenging for students for two main reasons. First, many students feel like they haven’t faced a problem significant enough to talk about. And second, other students have faced a significant problem but may not feel comfortable discussing it in a college essay.

So why do colleges want to know about a challenge you’ve faced anyway?

Well, admissions offices know that life in college and beyond doesn’t always go as expected. Colleges want to see that you’re resourceful, resilient, and capable of thinking critically to solve problems.

At their core, Personal Challenge essay prompts let you to strategically pick a problem you’ve faced and write about how you worked to solve it.

Before we continue, it’s worth saying explicitly: you do not have to talk about trauma you’ve experienced to get into college. No admissions officer will ever want to read anything you’re not ready to share. In fact, sharing negative experiences before you’re ready can actually work against you. Writing about a situation that you haven’t yet come to terms with can result in an essay that is overall too negative and not forward-looking enough to meet the requirements of Personal Challenge essay prompts.

That caveat out of the way, let’s look at three Personal Challenge supplemental essay prompt examples.

1: Brown University

Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond? (200-250 words)

2: Colorado School of Mines

Florence Caldwell was the first woman to graduate from Mines. She enrolled in 1895 and found that her fellow classmates discouraged her attendance. She persevered through that discouragement and graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1898. She was described as a problem-solver, who was loyal, kind, and sympathetic to others and displayed unwavering courage. Describe a time when you overcame an obstacle, persevered through a situation, or displayed characteristics similar to Florence Caldwell. (500 words)

3: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tell us about a significant challenge you’ve faced (that you feel comfortable sharing) or something that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

Personal Challenge Essay Strategy

When an admissions officer reads your essay among thousands of others, your supplemental essays are one of the main tools you have to stand out. The key to writing a strong Personal Challenge essay is picking the right challenge to talk about.

Personal Challenge essays are all about finding a delicate balance. While your challenge should be a genuine one that you’ve had to wrestle with, it shouldn’t be so challenging that you can’t write about it in a way that is ultimately positive.

  1. While you don’t have to reveal anything you don’t want to, you should choose a genuine challenge.

    “Genuine” problems are those that present real challenges to you, your way of thinking, or your overall lived experience.

    They are significant. That means that a genuine problem is more than sleeping in late and missing a test. It’s more than losing your big baseball game or forgetting to put gas in the car before a road trip.

    Genuine problems don’t necessarily have to be life-changing, but they do have to be deeply meaningful.

    Significant challenges might include:

    • conflict or disagreements with friends or loved ones
    • information or an event that challenged your worldview
    • a significant change or loss
    • reconciling with differences
    • Dealing with a disadvantage that sets you apart from others
  2. Pick a challenge that lets you refer to one of your strengths.

    Personal Challenge essay questions are actually questions about your strengths in the face of adversity. Since all college essays should be rooted in strengths, your supplemental essays should be no different.

    The challenge you pick shouldn’t be a covert way to brag about yourself, but it should represent one of your personal characteristics that is ultimately positive.

    Whether your goal is to show your resilience, problem-solving abilities, compassion, understanding, fortitude, or something else, your Personal Challenge essay should work to showcase one of your strengths.

  3. Take the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.

    This is one of the most difficult parts of writing Personal Challenge essays. By nature, Personal Challenge essays are about a challenge. That means that you’re inevitably going to be writing about something difficult.

    But essays that only focus on the negative aren’t ultimately serving your college admissions goals. The ultimate goal of a personal challenge essay is to demonstrate how you’ve grown, developed, and changed through dealing with a problem.

    The essay isn’t about the problem itself. It’s about your growth.

    “More phoenix, less ashes” is a helpful way to remember to focus on the positivity. The phrase refers to the mythology of the phoenix, which rises from the ashes of a predecessor. By focusing more on the phoenix and less on the ashes, you’re focusing on the life, hope, and resilience that comes in the aftermath of a challenge.

How to Write a Personal Challenge Supplemental Essay

Step 1: Read the prompt.

As you’ve seen from the example Personal Challenge prompts, there are a few ways schools ask these kinds of questions.

Some ask you to focus on a time your perspective was challenged, others ask you to discuss a time you overcame a challenge, and others yet give you the freedom to discuss any personal challenge you want.

You’ll need to know which kind of prompt you’re responding to before you begin brainstorming, so analyzing the prompt closely should always be your first step.

Step 2: Brainstorm some challenges.

Since picking the right kind of challenge is important to writing a good Personal Challenge supplemental essay, it’s probably a good idea to brainstorm a few different options.

This structured brainstorming chart might help you sort through different areas of your life to identify particular challenges.

Personal Interpersonal Worldview
My journey with learning differences Disagreeing with my family about religion After my parent lost their job, I realized that the world isn’t always fair

Step 3: List your action steps, think about what’s at stake, and find a positive focus.

To maintain sight of “more phoenix, less ashes,” it may be helpful to list out a few specific details for each challenge you’re considering writing about.

Specifically, think about three criteria:

  1. Action Steps: What specific actions did you take to confront the challenge?
  2. What’s at stake?: Why is this challenge one of genuine concern? What implications did it (or its solution) have to your life?
  3. Resolution & Lessons: How was the challenge resolved? What were the positive lessons or outcomes that you learned as a result?
Challenge Action Steps What’s at stake? Resolution & Lessons
Disagreeing with my parents about religion 1. Forming my own beliefs
2. Carrying on an open and honest conversation with them
3. Listening to their side of the story

From my parents’ perspective, a lot is at stake with this disagreement. To me, I want to be able to develop my own beliefs and perspectives. While it was difficult at first, I learned that the most important thing is to listen.

Step 4: Pay special attention to your essay structure.

“More phoenix, less ashes” also means structuring your essay in a way that keeps the focus on the positive outcome rather than the challenge.

If the story about your challenge or difficulty takes up 80% of your essay, then there’s a good chance that you haven’t written enough to address the phoenix instead of the ashes. The best way to structure a Personal Challenge essay is to quickly pivot from discussing the challenge to discussing your actions, solutions, and reflections.

Depending on the prompt you’re responding to, your outline may look something like this:

I. Introduce the challenge

II. Describe inciting incident (what caused things to change for the better?)

III. Detail the action steps you took

IV. Expand on your solution

IV. Reflect on the lessons you learned and relate them to the prompt

Personal Challenge Essay Mistakes

  1. Writing about a fake problem.

    Since Personal Challenge essays should be about genuine challenges, few things are worse than writing about a fake problem.

    “Fake” problems are those that didn’t actually affect you very much. The stakes were relatively low, and your worldview wasn’t significantly altered.

    An example of a fake problem would be

  2. Writing about a “convenient” problem.

    A “convenient” problem is like a “fake” problem, but it’s one that conveniently allows you to talk about an accomplishment.

    Here’s an example:

    The biggest obstacle I’ve faced was when my team was down 88-90 in the state basketball finals. There was only one second left on the clock. My team was really starting to get discouraged, so I called everyone together to rally them back up. When the clock started back up, I sunk a three-pointer.

    While that obstacle was obviously important in the writer’s life, the story itself comes across as a convenient way to talk about their team leadership and athletic abilities.

  3. Writing an essay that only discusses problems, not solutions.

    To return to the phrase we’ve been using, it’s a mistake to write a Personal Challenge essay that is all ashes and no phoenix. If you weigh your reader down with all the heavy details related to your story, it’ll be hard for them to climb out of those details to see your overall message.

    To make it easier for them, only include the details that are necessary to understanding your story. Then quickly move on to addressing your action steps, solutions, and reflection.

Personal Challenge Supplemental Essay Example

Example Essay: Lead Pipes

MIT: Tell us about a significant challenge you’ve faced (that you feel comfortable sharing) or something that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (~200 words)

Two times a day, I fill up my Hydroflask at the drinking fountain near Room 124. With over 1,000 Hydroflasks of water total, this daily ritual has sustained me through countless lectures, math tests, and in-class essays. What I didn’t realize until last May was that this ritual was also slowly poisoning me.((This introduction draws the reader in and states a compelling and significant problem.))

Built in the 1920s, my school contains a network of lead-covered pipes. Recent tests of the drinking fountain by Room 124 found over 5,000 parts per billion (ppb) of lead–4,985 more ppb than is considered safe to drink. I started organizing my schoolmates immediately after learning this news, and I put together a petition to the school board. With my Hydroflask in tow, I stood before the board and made our case.((The writer focuses on the latter part of the prompt to answer the question: “How did you manage the situation?” By focusing on the efforts rather than the problem, the student maintains a “more phoenix, fewer ashes” approach that highlights their strengths rather than the problem.)) Unsafe water in our schools was unacceptable, and the board needed to prioritize the health of its students and staff members. We needed renovations.

After weeks of deliberation, the school board announced its decision to delay renovations. They were concerned about budget constraints. My entire community felt betrayed and disheartened. Not one to settle, I decided if the current board members wouldn’t prioritize our health, then we would elect board members who would. Since then, I have been volunteering with two board campaigns, canvasing our neighborhood, and continuing to organize my classmates to advocate for our health.((Even though the problem became worse, the writer continues to focus on their actions instead.))

There’s not much I can do about the lead I’ve already consumed, but I’ll continue fighting to keep future CHS students safe.


Interested in seeing even more supplemental essay examples? We've got some of our favorites in our list of college essay examples.




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