Difficult Challenge Essays

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.

University of California Personal Insight Question 5:
Your Chance to Get Real and Personal

If You Have Faced Hardships, Share Them!

 

Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

If you are a high school student who has had to deal with some tough issues in your life or background, you should seriously consider writing about at least one of them in UC Essay Prompt 5 (also known as Personal Insight Question 5)

This is not whining or complaining.

In fact, students who have had to overcome or deal with obstacles in their life and managed to succeed in school despite those issues are highly desirable to almost all college and universities. And the UCs are no exception.

The beauty of having to write four shorter essays for the UC application is that you can share an intense personal issue in one of them (This one!), and still have three other essays where you can write about other more uplifting parts of your life, including your academic goals, your passions and other experiences.

Do not be ashamed if your family is poor, or is from a different culture, or has endured personal challenges, such as death, illness or disability.

There’s a strong chance that these very issues have helped shape and define who you are—in a positive way.

Sharing one of these personal challenges in this UC Essay Prompt 5 is your opportunity to showcase how you handled or managed it, and how it shaped or changed you somehow.

When you describe the challenge you faced, it might feel like a downer.

But don’t hold back. We need to understand what it was like for you to face that challenge, and feel what you felt even at your lowest point.

The key to writing about an intense, personal challenge is to describe it at the start of your essay, and then quickly shift into the steps you took to deal with it, how you felt, what you thought about it, and what your learned in the process—about yourself and life in general.

 

 

For those of you who come from relatively “average” or even privileged socio economic backgrounds, I know that you also can have faced intense, personal issues in as well.

Money often doesn’t shield us from challenges at home, at school, with friends or family. Sometimes, it can even make things worse.

You could have a mom addicted to painkillers, or a sibling who was autistic, or a stepfather who was abusive.

These can all be very real challenges in your life, and you could write about any of them for UC essay prompt 5.

I believe it’s important to share these stories with colleges and universities when possible so they can understand what you have been up against to get to where you are now: A young student with lots of real-life experience and grit (raw determination.)

Writing about a challenge from your background or family life also allows you to open up and share some of your feelings.

I believe this type of personal expression is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader, and in this case, those making the admissions decisions at the UC.

Since these UC essays are relatively short—under 350 words each—it’s critical to leave room for the positive side of whatever challenge you write about.

Note that this prompt asks for two things: to describe the challenge AND to explain how it “affected you academic achievement.”

Your challenge may have hurt your academic achievement at first, but there’s a good chance you used what you learned by dealing with that issue actually ended up helping your academic achievement somehow. If this is the case, include that!

Here’s a Sample Outline for UC Essay Prompt 5

  1. Describe the challenge. Ideally, start with a specific example of that issue so the reader can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be you. Give background on the challenge—briefly explain how it started, what it was, how you felt about it. (One to two paragraphs)
  2. Explain the steps you took to deal with it, and include how you thought about it. Share what you learned about yourself and the world in dealing with this challenge. Describe how this challenge affected your schoolwork and academic performance and goals. End with how you plan to use what you learned about yourself—a personal quality or core value—to help you in your future goals. (One to two paragraphs)

Red Flag for UC Essay Prompt 5: When you start describing the challenge, it’s easy to get caught up in describing everything about it and use all your space on that story. Make sure that at least half of your essay is about what you learned about that story! Otherwise, it’s just a story with no meaning.

When you are brainstorming your past to see what challenges you have faced, here are some other words for a challenge.

It doesn’t always have to be dramatic, tragic or sensational to be interesting enough to write about.

Types of challenges for UC Essay Prompt 5:

An obstacle: Something got in the way of something you wanted or a goal. It could an outside issue or influence, or something within you, such as a hang-up, flaw, disorder, disability, phobia, etc.

A life change: Something changed in your life, whether it was physical, such as a move from another country, or a change in your family life or structure, or an internal shift or change within yourself.

A hardship: Something in your background that made it difficult to feel “normal,” such as financial hardship, or physical or psychological security. A dad loses a job, a sibling has mental illness, or you experienced something that tried to hold you back.

To me, a challenge is anything that tried to make it harder for you to do what you wanted or needed.

Remember, you don’t need to have solved it or overcome it completely to write about.

It’s all about what you did to handle it.

And how you grew up a little in the process.

Here are some additional suggestions that the UC shared along with this UC Essay Prompt 5:

A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

The UC admissions office also shared this advice to help students brainstorm for UC Essay Prompt 5 in its Personal Insight Questions Guide for Freshman Applicants:

Have you had a difficult experience in your life? How did you get through it? What did you learn going through this experience? If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

 

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