Thursday, September 3, 2015

Common Application Prompt #2

This article first appeared on on September 3, 2015.

Common Application Prompt #2
This is an actual college application essay written in response to the Common Application prompt: Learning from Failure. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective. 
The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.
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 open my eyes and am immediately greeted by a stinging sensation. Water fills my mouth and nose. It’s everywhere. I need out. I kick up, greedily gulping air, but another wave is crashing down on top of me. I’m underneath again, frantically searching for the surface.
I open my eyes underwater and see the blurry shapes that are my opponents. We have been crushed by this team twice now. This might make a third—the score is 2–0 at the end of the second quarter. I surface and look around at my teammates: Kayla is close to tears, Lizzy looks furious, and the others are downcast.
I have always considered myself a good swimmer, courtesy of eleven years of swimming and three years of water polo. In fact, that’s why I’m in the water now: my water polo team has decided to take our strong legs and swimming skills to the beach. But the waves have dragged us far from shore. I duck under a wave and miss the lifeguard’s warning: there is a strong rip tide building, and we’re in the middle of it. When I surface, the other girls are already swimming in, yelling at me to hurry before I get stuck. It’s too late.
My legs ache; I’m starting to get tired. I glance at the clock—34 seconds left in the quarter. “Alright,” I tell myself, “you can do this.” Julia steals the ball. This is what I need. I quickly swing my hips and sprint to the opposite goal. Opponent number 12 swims by my side; I speed up and cut her off. The whistle tells me I have achieved my goal. She is kicked out for 20 seconds; my team is up one player.
I remember what my father told me about rip tides: swim parallel to the shore. I swim to the left, but I soon realize that I am not moving at all. I try to scream for help and cannot. My throat constricts. I think I am having an asthma attack. I force myself to calm down, comforting myself with this knowledge: I play a sport where I have to tread water for over an hour. I motion for help and duck the waves, pretending that this is just a game. The lifeguard notices my struggle and approaches.

I race down the pool, yelling, “We’re up!” This is exactly the break we need. We pass the ball around, but I realize that the other girls are afraid to shoot. I glance at the clock again—only seven seconds left now. I shift toward the shooting pocket. Kayla gets the ball, does one quick fake, and passes to me. I shoot with all the energy I have left. The buzzer sounds as the ball leaves my hand. The goalie lunges for the ball, but it skips under her arm and into the net. The stands erupt, and I see smiles return to my teammates’ faces. I have scored our first goal.
It seems to take an eternity to move, even with the lifeguard’s help. On the way back, we spot two prepubescent boys struggling against the unrelenting ocean. They are frantic, grabbing onto the first thing they can—me. I recall from my lifeguard training that they are likely too panicked to realize that they need to hang onto the buoy. While the lifeguard focuses on kicking us to shore, I yell instructions at the two boys, forcing them off of me and onto the buoy. Eventually they grab hold and help kick. We finally make it to the sand—exhausted, but alive.
Back at the wall, the sounds of heavy breathing and lapping water are accompanied by congratulatory remarks and smiles. The momentum is shifting, and the team is eager to get back into the game and show everyone that we are alive. (Colleen, Gonzaga University, Class of 2019)
Conor’s feedback: I like the contrast in this essay between a very real life, very dangerous situation with a much more safe, and commonplace one. Both are tied together by her experience as a swimmer, yet showcase a stark difference in her response given the relative stakes of each situation. Reading the two side by side really allows her message regarding the human response to fear to feel very poignant and self-reflective.
Anna’s feedback: This student talks about her tenacity through another lens – and passion – which gives depth to the essay. You don’t have to start an essay with “I am tenacious…” or “I have persevered…” to talk about a challenge and this student does this beautifully. 
Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student is really determined. She never gives up and that trait will serve her well in college. I like the way she took two stories that dealt with swimming and recovery from failure and told them in parallel.

Conor O’Rourke is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Pomona College, which is also his alma mater. Contact Conor at: 


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