Challenge Spotting: How to Add Emotional Stakes to Your College Essay

In College Admissions, Personal Statements by Peter PengLeave a Comment

You’ve got 99 problems, and well…just pick one! Every good story, especially your personal statement for college, needs a challenge. Without one, you literally have no story. Part of the definition of “story” is that it features a conflict, challenge, or problem. Most of the Common App prompts actually hint at potential challenges you might have faced.
  • Topic 2: obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure
  • Topic 3: a belief you challenged
  • Topic 4: a problem you solved or would like to solve
  • Topic 5: a period of personal growth (growth often includes a challenge to jump over a hurdle that marks greater maturity)
  • Topic 6: an engaging topic (which may be so captivating because of the challenge it provides)
  • Topic 7: write about anything (which should include a challenge)
Even topic 1 (tell us your background story that is part of your core identity) can feature a challenge if you think about the prompt in the right way. The story of how you came to develop your identity might be a challenging journey. People, circumstances, and self-doubt may have impeded you from succeeding in your goal. Challenges make you who you are. Without adversity, there is no triumph. So as soon as you’ve identified a topic, your next step is to spot the challenge in your scene. The juicier the challenge, the more poignant the meaning behind it will be. However, many students assume their challenge needs to something on an epic scale–a debilitating illness, a death, an abusive father. But that’s simply not true. Some of the most powerful essays I’ve seen featured trivial matters–not being able to tie the string around a cake box, getting lost without a GPS, getting locked out of a car, or ruining the laundry by mixing whites and colors. But these simple challenges ultimately represented a greater quality trait. Here are some categories to think about challenges: Failures: failures of mindset, belief, or inaction are best.
  • Insensitivity to or ignorance about a particular situation
  • Taking no action or responsibility when you should have
  • Believing in false assumptions, stereotypes, preconceptions
Generally, DON’T pick a technical failure because those feel weak (unless the technical failure really feels significant):
  • mixing up the dates for an important event
  • sending an email to the wrong person
  • pasting the wrong story or photo in an issue of your school’s newspaper, despite being the editor
Here are some better categories: Family circumstances:
  • Abusive parents
  • Alcoholism or drug use by your family members
  • Divorce
  • Incarcerated family member
  • Unique family lifestyles (e.g. raised by two moms)
  • Living without parents (due to death, abandonment, or some other reason)
  • Supporting an autistic sibling
  • Changing schools, moving across states, etc.
  • Home destroyed by disaster
A difficult task (for you):
  • Training for a marathon
  • Building a custom bookshelf from scratch
  • Assembling IKEA furniture
  • Delivering an important speech
  • Cooking for an important and large family gathering
  • Communicating with grandma, who doesn’t speak English
  • Coordinating an art exhibit
  • Starting a business
  • Solving a Rubik’s cube
  • Spelling correctly (maybe you have dyslexia)
An annoying situation:
  • Getting lost on public transit
  • Breaking your phone
  • Camping and getting overrun by bugs
  • Changing sports teams
  • Getting stranded with a broken car in the middle of nowhere
Physical struggle:
  • An illness or medical condition
  • Abnormal body (missing limbs, punctured lung, etc.)
  • Near death experience
  • Being robbed
  • Hating your curly hair, acne, height, etc.
An opponent:
  • Facing a bully
  • Debating City Council
  • Losing a chess match
  • A rival player in sports
  • Your own self-doubt
  • Your introverted nature and soft voice
Ethical dilemma:
  • Fighting racism, sexism, ageism
  • Standing up for your religion
  • Finding a large stash of cash
  • Telling someone their partner is cheating
Social problem or cause:
  • Protecting the environment
  • Poverty/Homelessness
  • Feminism
  • Body image
  • Gay rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • Promoting the arts
A misunderstanding:
  • Fight with a friend
  • Argument with a classmate or team member
  • Note: try to stay away from arguments with teachers or authorities (you run the risk of sounding like a troublemaker), unless you are absolutely sure adults won’t misinterpret your story
How to Make Your Challenge More Meaningful To take your challenge to a deeper level, you need to expand the physical problem into a metaphoric one. An abstract problem is going to be more emotional and thus more meaningful. A story about missing the bus does not reach a satisfying conclusion if the resolution is simply getting on the next one or hailing an Uber. That just solves the literal problem. It’d be far more more exciting to read about overcoming the terror of being stranded in an unfamiliar town and relinquishing your control (these are the “emotional abstracts”). In other words, look for the problem BENEATH the problem. A story about being defeated in a baseball match is not interesting if the solution was practicing harder and winning the next game. It’s be more exciting to read about coming to terms with underestimating your opponents or overestimating your own abilities. Colleges want to hear stories about LIFE lessons, not technical lessons. So make sure to move your literal challenge into an emotional one. For example:
  • Being super short (literal problem) –> learning to find other areas in which you are a giant and working to improve what’s in your control (emotional challenge)
  • Choosing which high school to go to (literal problem) → navigating issues of diversity, privilege, familiarity, or risk-taking (emotional challenge)
  • Communicating with your grandma who doesn’t speak English (literal problem) → realizing that just because her words are simple doesn’t mean her thoughts are simple; seeing her as a complex human being (emotional challenge)
  • Can’t find restaurants to go to with friends because you’re vegetarian (literal problem) → testing your mental fortitude in a battle of convenience and peer pressure versus your will and integrity (emotional challenge)
Here is a random list of other challenges, in no particular order:
  • Learning how to grocery shop (if you don’t normally do this), perhaps when your mom fell ill for awhile
  • Secretly liking romantic movies as a guy
  • Having a sensitive side as a big football player
  • Figuring out how to interior design your room
  • Learning how to build a science, engineering, or personal project, especially hands-on ones
  • Learning to graciously accept defeat when you were totally winning at something until you let you guard down
  • Reconciling your dual heritage as a Chinese-American, Lebanese-American, etc.
  • Losing a competition in something you normally excel at (like art, sports, music, theater)
  • Forgetting to turn off the stove, so your house burned down
  • Figuring out how to whistle
  • Mastering a particular song
  • Memorizing various complicated chess openers
  • Running a YouTube channel, especially trying to create a viral video
  • Losing someone important, like a best friend, close mentor, or relative
  • Trying to take the perfect photograph or making a short film
  • Learning to dance or sing when you hate it
  • Dealing with a deadly allergy to peanuts or bees and having to carry an epi-pen
  • Difficulty of being a vegetarian
  • The curse of perfectionism
  • Changing swim teams and feeling loss and betrayal
  • Having faith in a hopeless situation
  • Trying to record down your grandfather’s pizza recipes before he passes away or Alzheimer’s completely takes over
  • Learning to drive stick shift or use a dangerous power tool
  • Beating a hard boss or level in a video game
  • Surviving in the wilderness and figuring out how to start a fire and cook your own meal
  • Learning to swim or ride a bike for the first time
  • Having a secret you want so badly to tell someone
  • Righting a wrong or admitting to guilt (even if you weren’t guilty)
  • The challenge of being helpful, as opposed to being right in an argument
  • Adjusting to a foreign culture during a student-exchange program
Challenge Spotting Exercise: Write down 3 literal problems (more if you can) in each of these categories, then move it towards an emotional challenge:
Literal Problem Emotional Challenge
Failure 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Family Circumstances 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Physical Struggle 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Opponent 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Social Problem or Cause 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Difficult Task 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Annoying Situation 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Ethical Dilemma 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Misunderstanding 1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.

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