How to Write a College Essay About Overcoming Challenges (Without Sounding Like a Sob Story)

How to write about challenges in your college essay without sounding like a sob story

“How do I write about my challenges without sounding like a sob story?”

This is a question that came up during last week's live course. And, to be frank, there are many ways to write about challenges in your college essay. But you’ll find three good techniques below.

Three techniques for writing about challenges:

  1. Use poetic language.

  2. Use humor to lighten the load.

  3. Be straightforward and detailed.

For more help structuring your essay, check out my Ultimate Guide to Writing a College Essay.

For essay writing tips from tons of experts, check out my 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts.

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 write 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.)

2. With a little humor

Click here for a movie example, or Google this phrase:

Not pictured here: the aforementioned dead witch.

Not pictured here: the aforementioned dead witch.

But partying it up with a bunch of munchkins isn’t the only way to bring light to an otherwise pretty dark situation.

Here’s a personal statement example: 

When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother. We could still be friends, I told her, but I needed my space, and she couldn’t give me that.

- Excerpt from the "Breaking Up With Mom" essay found in College Essay Essentials

Note how she uses the (funny, but subtle) cliche of “I needed space” and puts it the context of something that was a pretty big deal for her—cutting her mother off. 

Another example: 

I’ve desperately attempted to consolidate my opposing opinions of Barbie into a single belief, but I’ve accepted that they’re separate. In one, she has perpetuated physical ideals unrepresentative of how real female bodies are built. Striving to look like Barbie is not only striving for the impossible—the effort is detrimental to women’s psychological and physical health, including my own. In the other, Barbie has inspired me in her breaking of the plastic ceiling. She has dabbled in close to 150 careers, including some I’d love to have: a UNICEF Ambassador, teacher, and business executive. And although it’s not officially listed on her résumé, Barbie served honorably in the War in Afghanistan.

- Excerpt from “Barbie vs. Terrorism and the Patriarchy” in College Essay Essentials and in PDF for “How to Write a Personal Statement”

And here’s a request (and challenge) for you, dear reader: I’d love to see more examples of the use of humor to address challenges, as I haven’t seen many great ones. 

Request: Can you think of any--either in personal statements or otherwise? If so, please email them to Or:

Challenge: Maybe you write the essay that provides a great example for future students.

3. With straightforward efficiency

This is the simplest way, and it can even be the most vulnerable. Why? Because there's nothing dressing it up--no hiding behind poetic language or humor--you're just telling it like it is.

Personal statement example: 

At age three, I was separated from my mother. The court gave full custody of both my baby brother and me to my father. Of course, at my young age, I had no clue what was going on. However, it did not take me long to realize that life with my father would not be without its difficulties."

- Excerpt from "Raising Anthony" in College Essay Essentials and in PDF for “How to Write a Personal Statement”

IMPORTANT: I mention “efficiency” above because it’s important to do this in the most succinct way possible—probably in the first paragraph or two. But they you need to move on to a) what you did about it and b) what you learned. So just tell it, with simple and plain language.

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ALSO: If you're unsure/insecure about adding humor or poetry, I'd recommend starting with the straightforward method. It'll get you started. And, who knows, maybe some humor and poetry will emerge. 

Here's one more example of a straightforward, efficient opening to an essay that deals with challenges: 

It was Easter and we should’ve been celebrating with our family, but my father had locked us in the house. If he wasn’t going out, neither were my mother and I.

My mother came to the U.S. from Mexico to study English. She’d been an exceptional student and had a bright future ahead of her. But she fell in love and eloped with the man that eventually became my father. He loved her in an unhealthy way, and was both physically and verbally abusive. My mother lacked the courage to start over so she stayed with him and slowly let go of her dreams and aspirations. But she wouldn’t allow for the same to happen to me.

- Excerpt from “Easter" essay in College Essay Essentials

Still uncertain about how to do this? Want more? 

For a complete structural analysis of the “Raising Anthony” essay mentioned above, click here, or Google "College Essay Guy Significant Challenges Essay YouTube" to watch an 18-minute video.

Rock on. With humor, poetry, and (most of all) efficiency.

Another awesome sample essay: The "Punk Rock Philosopher" Example Personal Statement


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