How I Overcame A Personal Challenge Essay

Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:

“I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:

I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).

I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.

If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).

At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.

Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.

Thanks again!

Marilyn

* * * *

Marilyn’s essay:

When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.

Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.

Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.

My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.

Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.

Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.

Many applications, especially those for law school and business school, ask students to explain some challenge they’ve overcome or even to discuss a failure in their lives. The best writers tend to handle this issue directly but creatively, discussing a challenge that doesn’t undermine their abilities or character and emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience. An excellent example of how one writer handled this issue is in Chapter 4 of this handbook, within two essays written by a student in business. The writer frames his challenges within ultimately positive experiences—the completion of a 3500-mile bike trip and a successful team business project—so that he both answers the questions but keeps favorable attention on his accomplishments.

Even unprompted, many students—especially if they had a bad semester of grades, a prolonged illness, a personal crisis, a switch of majors, or took some time off from school—feel compelled to provide an explanation in their personal statement or elsewhere in their application. This can be risky, of course, because it may draw a disproportional amount of attention to something negative, and it may be unnecessary anyway. Consider whether an explanation is already taken care of by the circumstances (such as one poor semester during sophomore year followed by two years of high grades in your major) or whether the matter might be best handled by a sympathetic advisor writing you a letter of recommendation (who can be encouraged to explain the issue for you if privy to the necessary information). Weigh carefully the decision to reveal anything negative unprompted, and discuss it with a trusted advisor.

An interesting window into the kinds of challenges students discuss in writing is provided in examples from Donald Asher’s popular book Graduate Admissions Essays. Here, students reveal the following tales in their personal essays:

  • Working 35 hours per week for five years to finance community college without taking out a student loan.
  • Taking a job as a court interpreter before applying to law school to gain some relevant experience.
  • Working in a West African village and experiencing language barriers, distrust, and cross-cultural embarrassment.
  • Juggling the simultaneous experiences of being a student athlete, a resident assistant, and a class president.
  • Starting a service program for disadvantaged high school students only to find that some of those students didn’t show up for their appointed meetings.
  • An acknowledgment of good study skills lacking in the first two years of college study, followed by a gradually rising GPA.

In all these cases, of course, the writers focused on the value of these experiences and stressed eventual success even among some admitted mishaps. Such willingness to discuss one’s personal challenges—and in the process admit a propensity to take on too much, or confess a naiveté about the world, or realize that lofty goals must sometimes be adjusted to reality—can go a long way in gaining a selection committee’s trust.

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