College Essay Significant Challenge

This is a question that came up during last week's live course. And, to be frank, there are many ways to talk about your challenges in your personal statement. But here are three good techniques: 

1. With a little poetry

Here’s a professional writing example:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. [...]

And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time.

- Excerpt from “Lessons” by Justin Torres. For the rest, click here or “Google Justin Torres Lessons” 

Here’s a personal statement example: 

I can do this by myself. I held the blade, watched it slide across my flesh. The knife was just like Richard Selzer described: cold, gleaming, silent. Red drops of blood trailed the slightly serrated edge. I let out a long sigh.

I was at my most desperate. My friend had died in September of my junior year. Five AP classes, weekly volunteering, and a tutoring job had provided added stress. I needed reprieve. And I found it in the knife.

Two months later, my French teacher, Madame Deleuze, discovered my secret. That day in AP French while everyone else drilled vocabulary, she called me out to have a talk.

- Excerpt from the "Knife" essay, which may be found in College Essay Essentials

IMPORTANT: This is extremely difficult to do—like walking a high-wire—and, if done poorly, this can fail spectacularly. I’d only recommend this if 1) you have lots of time before your essay is due, 2) you consider yourself a moderately good writer and, 3) you are able to speak about your challenges with distance and objectivity (i.e. - you have mostly or completely come through the challenge(s) you’re describing). If you’re short on time, don’t have a lot of experience writing creative non-fiction, or are still very much “in it,” I’d recommend not choosing this method.

But, if you are interested in doing this, and want to learn more about how, check out my analysis in my book College Essay Essentials. (Not trying to sell a book here, it’s just too much to print here and I wanted you know more where you could learn more. That’s where.)

MIT Requirements: 2 short essays of 100 words each; 3 longer essays of 200-250 words each.

Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Community

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations

There’s an old cheesy joke that goes like this: A college student is standing in the “10 items or less” checkout lane at a grocery store in Boston. When she finally gets to the register, it turns out she has 12 items. The cashier rolls her eyes and says, “Okay, so either you’re from Harvard and you can’t count, or you’re from MIT and you can’t read.” (badum-chhh) Sadly, you will be expected to read and write in college – even at MIT! In fact, MIT admissions cares so much about your writing that they’ve concocted their own separate application with five required essays. Don’t worry, though, you’ll also get to show off your counting skills because each essay has a pretty tight word count; even the longest ones top out at 250 words. So the real challenge of this application is crafting tight, incisive essays that tell focused stories about your life. Got it? Okay!

Rather than asking you to write one long essay, the MIT application consists of several short response questions and essays designed to help us get to know you. Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice—who you are, what drives you, what’s important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be authentic—this is your opportunity to connect with us.

Alright, now let’s dig in!

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Think of this prompt as a continuation of the introduction. MIT is explicitly asking you to back away from the resume, and forget your structured activities. It’s not about proving what you can do, but revealing what you love to do. Put another way, this prompt is about self-care: What always, without fail, brings a smile to your face? What helps you recharge your batteries? What do you do and where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you start to think of things that feel a little silly or personal, you’re heading in the right direction. The activity you choose should be informal and unique to you.

Although MIT invites you to be honest, we also suggest you balance your honesty with specific details and storytelling. You might want to try to come up with something a little more original than sleep, read, or hang out with friends, but if these are your options, then you have to commit. If you like to spend time with your friends, what sorts of things do you do together? If you like to sleep, have you perfected the art of the power nap? What are your favorite things to read and how do you organize your personal library? Let your personality and tastes shine through! And before you start to say, “But I really do love volunteering at the soup kitchen during my spare time,” don’t worry. There’s a community service essay a little later in this supplement.

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

Believe it or not, this is MIT’s version of a classic Why essay, wrapped in an academic disguise. It’s not really about your academic interests and achievements (which can be gleaned elsewhere on your application); it’s about the kind of student you hope to be. If you can build a bridge between your own interests and the resources available at MIT, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating your fit. So set aside a few hours and commit to some hardcore research on the MIT website (sorry, there’s no way around this, folks!). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, and the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in MIT (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

We recommend working your way backwards through this prompt because the last sentence really says it all! Your community can be any size or scale, from your family to your town. You likely already have a specific community service experience in mind, but before you dive in, we encourage you to take a moment and brainstorm some smaller, more informal options. You’ll also want to keep in mind how your work relates to “the world’s biggest challenges,” but starting small could lead you to a more unique and thoughtful essay. Think of a moment where you felt like you made a change in your local community. It can be something small; it does not have to be monumental, but it should mean a great deal to you. Maybe you babysit for your mom while she’s at work, and this has led you to think more seriously about the childcare challenges single parents face. Or perhaps, in helping your teacher grade papers, you feel you are taking some pressure off of an already overwhelming workload.

If you choose to write about a more formal experience, here’s another backwards piece of advice: When writing about community service, you should always start with yourself. It’s the only way to avoid platitudes and clichés. You need to ground your writing in the specificity of your life. Don’t start with the action and end with what you learned. Instead, dig into your motivations. If you spend weeks petitioning your school community to raise the hourly wage for custodial staff, what prompted you to act? What assumptions did you have about income inequality and what did you learn about your community in the process? No matter what, make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you.

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

If you were torn about what to write in your community service essay, you’re in luck! MIT has gifted you a second chance to sound off about a community that matters to you. But while the earlier prompt asked about your impact on a community, this one is all about your community’s influence on you. The fun thing about community essays like this one is that the word “community” can mean anything. It could be something traditional like your church or extended family, but it could also be any other group you consider yourself a part of. Maybe you found an important group of friends and mentors once you got into breakdancing. Or perhaps there’s an online community of writers that you rely on for honest feedback. If you’re drawing a blank, try to list out a few individual people who have impacted your life for the better. Then try to fit them into a larger community. If you picked your grandpa, think about how your extended family has shaped who you are today. How have your family traditions or fishing trips given you a lens through which to see the world? How can you lead admissions to a new way of understanding the person you are today?

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

You can check out our guide to Common App Prompt #2 for a full rundown on how to tackle this kind of prompt, but in summary we’ll say this: a question about failure or struggle is really a question about resilience and success! Also, if you chose to write about prompt #2 for your Common App personal statement, we’ve got some extra good news for you: MIT isn’t on the Common App! You’ll need to cut your essay down to size, but other than that, you’re home free on this prompt. Good for you!

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