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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.
|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:
- Action Steps: What specific actions did you take to confront the challenge?
- What’s at stake?: Why is this challenge one of genuine concern? What implications did it (or its solution) have to your life?
- 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
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
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.
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.