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overcoming adversity essay structure

How to Write the “Overcoming Challenges” Essay + Examples

What’s covered:.

  • What is the Overcoming Challenges Essay?
  • Real Overcoming Challenges Essay Prompts
  • How to Choose a Topic
  • Writing Tips

Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples

  • Where to Get Your Essay Edited

While any college essay can be intimidating, the Overcoming Challenges prompt often worries students the most. Those students who’ve been lucky enough not to experience trauma tend to assume they have nothing worth saying. On the other hand, students who’ve overcome larger obstacles may be hesitant to talk about them.

Regardless of your particular circumstances, there are steps you can take to make the essay writing process simpler. Here are our top tips for writing the overcoming challenges essay successfully.

What is the “Overcoming Challenges” Essay?

The overcoming challenges prompt shows up frequently in both main application essays (like the Common App) and supplemental essays. Because supplemental essays allow students to provide schools with additional information, applicants should be sure that the subject matter they choose to write about differs from what’s in their main essay.

Students often assume the overcoming challenges essay requires them to detail past traumas. While you can certainly write about an experience that’s had a profound effect on your life, it’s important to remember that colleges aren’t evaluating students based on the seriousness of the obstacle they overcame.

On the contrary, the goal of this essay is to show admissions officers that you have the intelligence and fortitude to handle any challenges that come your way. After all, college serves as an introduction to adult life, and schools want to know that the students they admit are up to the task. 

Real “Overcoming Challenges” Essay Prompts

To help you understand what the “Overcoming Challenges” essay looks like, here are a couple sample prompts.

Currently, the Common Application asks students to answer the following prompt in 650 words or less:

“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

For the past several years, MIT has prompted students to write 200 to 250 words on the following:

“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?”

In both cases, the prompts explicitly ask for your response to the challenge. The event itself isn’t as important as how it pushed you to grow.

How to Choose a Topic for an Essay on Overcoming Challenges

When it comes to finding the best topic for your overcoming challenges essays, there’s no right answer. The word “challenge” is ambiguous and could be used to reference a wide range of situations from prevailing over a bully to getting over your lifelong stage fright to appear in a school musical. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when selecting an essay subject.

1. Avoid trivial or common topics

While there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules for choosing an essay topic, students should avoid overdone topics.

These include:

  • Working hard in a challenging class
  • Overcoming a sports injury
  • Moving schools or immigrating to the US
  • Tragedy (divorce, death, abuse)

Admissions officers have read numerous essays on the subject, so it’s harder for you to stand out (see our full list of cliché college essay topics to avoid ). If events like these were truly formative to you, you can still choose to write about them, but you’ll need to be as personal as possible. 

It’s also ideal if you have a less traditional storyline for a cliché topic; for example, if your sports injury led you to discover a new passion, that would be a more unique story than detailing how you overcame your injury and got back in the game.

Similarly, students may not want to write about an obstacle that admissions committees could perceive as low stakes, such as getting a B on a test, or getting into a small fight with a friend. The goal of this essay is to illustrate how you respond to adversity, so the topic you pick should’ve been at least impactful on your personal growth.

2. Pick challenges that demonstrate qualities you want to highlight

Students often mistakenly assume they need to have experienced exceptional circumstances like poverty, an abusive parent, or cancer to write a good essay. The truth is that the best topics will allow you to highlight specific personal qualities and share more about who you are. The essay should be less about the challenge itself, and more about how you responded to it.

Ask yourself what personality traits you want to emphasize, and see what’s missing in your application. Maybe you want to highlight your adaptability, for example, but that isn’t clearly expressed in your application. In this case, you might write about a challenge that put your adaptability to the test, or shaped you to become more adaptable.

Here are some examples of good topics we’ve seen over the years:

  • Not having a coach for a sports team and becoming one yourself
  • Helping a parent through a serious health issue
  • Trying to get the school track dedicated to a coach
  • Having to switch your Model UN position last-minute

Tips for Writing an Essay About Overcoming Challenges

Once you’ve selected a topic for your essays, it’s time to sit down and write. For best results, make sure your essay focuses on your efforts to tackle an obstacle rather than the problem itself. Additionally, you could avoid essay writing pitfalls by doing the following:

1. Choose an original essay structure

If you want your overcoming challenges essay to attract attention, aim to break away from more traditional structures. Most of these essays start by describing an unsuccessful attempt at a goal and then explain the steps the writer took to master the challenge. 

You can stand out by choosing a challenge you’re still working on overcoming, or focus on a mental or emotional challenge that spans multiple activities or events. For example, you might discuss your fear of public speaking and how that impacted your ability to coach your brother’s Little League team and run for Student Council. 

You can also choose a challenge that can be narrated in the moment, such as being put on the spot to teach a yoga class. These challenges can make particularly engaging essays, as you get to experience the writer’s thoughts and emotions as they unfold.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have succeeded in your goal for this essay. Maybe you ran for an election and lost, or maybe you proposed a measure to the school board that wasn’t passed. It’s still possible to write a strong essay about topics like these as long as you focus on your personal growth. In fact, these may make for even stronger essays since they are more unconventional topics.

2. Focus on the internal

When writing about past experiences, you may be tempted to spend too much time describing specific people and events. With an Overcoming Challenges essay though, the goal is to focus on your thoughts and feelings.

For example, rather than detail all the steps you took to become a better public speaker, use the majority of your essay to describe your mental state as you embarked on the journey to achieving your goals. Were you excited, scared, anxious, or hopeful? Don’t be afraid to let the reader in on your innermost emotions and thoughts during this process.

3. Share what you learned 

An Overcoming Challenges essay should leave the reader with a clear understanding of what you learned on your journey, be it physical, mental, or emotional. There’s no need to explicitly say “this experience taught me X,” but your essay should at least implicitly share any lessons you learned. This can be done through your actions and in-the-moment reflections. Remember that the goal is to show admissions committees why your experiences make you a great candidate for admission. 

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the g arb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This essay is an excellent example because the writer turns an everyday challenge—starting a fire—into an exploration of her identity. The writer was once “a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes,” but has since traded her love of the outdoors for a love of music, writing, and reading. 

The story begins in media res , or in the middle of the action, allowing readers to feel as if we’re there with the writer. One of the essay’s biggest strengths is its use of imagery. We can easily visualize the writer’s childhood and the present day. For instance, she states that she “rubbed and rubbed [the twigs] until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers.”

The writing has an extremely literary quality, particularly with its wordplay. The writer reappropriates words and meanings, and even appeals to the senses: “My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.” She later uses a parallelism to cleverly juxtapose her changed interests: “instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano.”

One of the essay’s main areas of improvement is its overemphasis on the “story” and lack of emphasis on the reflection. The second to last paragraph about changing perspective is crucial to the essay, as it ties the anecdote to larger lessons in the writer’s life. She states that she hasn’t changed, but has only shifted perspective. Yet, we don’t get a good sense of where this realization comes from and how it impacts her life going forward. 

The end of the essay offers a satisfying return to the fire imagery, and highlights the writer’s passion—the one thing that has remained constant in her life.

“Getting beat is one thing – it’s part of competing – but I want no part in losing.” Coach Rob Stark’s motto never fails to remind me of his encouragement on early-morning bus rides to track meets around the state. I’ve always appreciated the phrase, but an experience last June helped me understand its more profound, universal meaning.

Stark, as we affectionately call him, has coached track at my high school for 25 years. His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running. When I learned a neighboring high school had dedicated their track to a longtime coach, I felt that Stark deserved similar honors.

Our school district’s board of education indicated they would only dedicate our track to Stark if I could demonstrate that he was extraordinary. I took charge and mobilized my teammates to distribute petitions, reach out to alumni, and compile statistics on the many team and individual champions Stark had coached over the years. We received astounding support, collecting almost 3,000 signatures and pages of endorsements from across the community. With help from my teammates, I presented this evidence to the board.

They didn’t bite. 

Most members argued that dedicating the track was a low priority. Knowing that we had to act quickly to convince them of its importance, I called a team meeting where we drafted a rebuttal for the next board meeting. To my surprise, they chose me to deliver it. I was far from the best public speaker in the group, and I felt nervous about going before the unsympathetic board again. However, at that second meeting, I discovered that I enjoy articulating and arguing for something that I’m passionate about.

Public speaking resembles a cross country race. Walking to the starting line, you have to trust your training and quell your last minute doubts. When the gun fires, you can’t think too hard about anything; your performance has to be instinctual, natural, even relaxed. At the next board meeting, the podium was my starting line. As I walked up to it, familiar butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Instead of the track stretching out in front of me, I faced the vast audience of teachers, board members, and my teammates. I felt my adrenaline build, and reassured myself: I’ve put in the work, my argument is powerful and sound. As the board president told me to introduce myself, I heard, “runners set” in the back of my mind. She finished speaking, and Bang! The brief silence was the gunshot for me to begin. 

The next few minutes blurred together, but when the dust settled, I knew from the board members’ expressions and the audience’s thunderous approval that I had run quite a race. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the board voted down our proposal. I was disappointed, but proud of myself, my team, and our collaboration off the track. We stood up for a cause we believed in, and I overcame my worries about being a leader. Although I discovered that changing the status quo through an elected body can be a painstakingly difficult process and requires perseverance, I learned that I enjoy the challenges this effort offers. Last month, one of the school board members joked that I had become a “regular” – I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.

Just as Stark taught me, I worked passionately to achieve my goal. I may have been beaten when I appealed to the board, but I certainly didn’t lose, and that would have made Stark proud.

While the writer didn’t succeed in getting the track dedicated to Coach Stark, their essay is certainly successful in showing their willingness to push themselves and take initiative.

The essay opens with a quote from Coach Stark that later comes full circle at the end of the essay. We learn about Stark’s impact and the motivation for trying to get the track dedicated to him.

One of the biggest areas of improvement in the intro, however, is how the essay tells us Stark’s impact rather than showing us: His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.

The writer could’ve helped us feel a stronger emotional connection to Stark if they had included examples of Stark’s qualities, rather than explicitly stating them. For example, they could’ve written something like: Stark was the kind of person who would give you gas money if you told him your parents couldn’t afford to pick you up from practice. And he actually did that—several times. At track meets, alumni regularly would come talk to him and tell him how he’d changed their lives. Before Stark, I was ambivalent about running and was on the JV team, but his encouragement motivated me to run longer and harder and eventually make varsity. Because of him, I approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.

The essay goes on to explain how the writer overcame their apprehension of public speaking, and likens the process of submitting an appeal to the school board to running a race. This metaphor makes the writing more engaging and allows us to feel the student’s emotions.

While the student didn’t ultimately succeed in getting the track dedicated, we learn about their resilience and initiative: I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.

Overall, this essay is well-done. It demonstrates growth despite failing to meet a goal, which is a unique essay structure. The running metaphor and full-circle intro/ending also elevate the writing in this essay.

Where to Get Your Overcoming Challenges Essay Edited

The Overcoming Challenges essay is one of the trickier supplemental prompts, so it’s important to get feedback on your drafts. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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overcoming adversity essay structure

One Expert's Advice to Help You Write a Strong Overcoming Adversity Essay

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Leslie Tucker PhD, Jun 07, 2021

Learn how to pick the right adversity story and write an impressive overcoming adversity essay

Whether you’re working on college or scholarship applications, you’re bound to come across the overcoming adversity essay sooner or later. While every type of college application essay is unique, the overcoming adversity essay presents particular challenges for students.

What’s the best way to talk about the adversity in your life? What if you come off as too whiny? What if you don’t have any significant obstacles to write about? Will you be at a disadvantage?

Every year, my students ask me how to tackle this tricky part of their college applications. Luckily for you, I’ve developed a fool-proof approach for writing the overcoming adversity essay , and I’m eager to share it.

Keep reading to learn why the adversity essay is important, how to choose the best topic, and how to write an impactful overcoming adversity essay.

Why the overcoming adversity essay is important

When colleges ask you to write a personal hardship essay, what are they trying to learn? Many students think they’re trying to find and admit the applicants who have faced the most adversity. Not true! Trust me, the adversity essay is NOT a competition to see who has it worse.

The purpose of the overcoming adversity essay is to reveal how you respond to difficult situations. Think about it. College is hard—not everyone has what it takes to succeed. Colleges want to accept students who have the skills and resilience to persevere through the adversity they’re bound to face.

So when an admissions officer reads your adversity essay, they’re trying to answer these questions:

●      How do you manage stress?

●      How do you attempt to resolve adversity?

●      How do you reflect on the challenges you face?

●      How do you apply lessons to your life?

If you can successfully answer these questions, you’ll write a stand-out overcoming adversity essay.

Not sure how to recognize an overcoming adversity essay prompt? Here are a few examples.

The Common App

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The University of Miami

Considering your ability to control your own motivation and behavior, how have past experiences helped build your courage and resilience to persist in the face of academic and life challenges so that, once these storms pass, you can emerge in continued pursuit of your goals?

The University of California

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?

How to select the best story for your overcoming adversity essay

Choosing what to write your overcoming adversity essay about can be a challenge. The hardest things you’ve faced in life might not actually be the best topics. So I always encourage students to brainstorm lots of ideas before committing to one.

Here’s what I suggest. Sit down with a family member or close friend. Write a list of all the adversity you’ve faced—big and small. From challenging school projects to your parents divorce to the death of a family member, add everything you can think of to your list.

Next, you’ll want to remember and record how you reacted to each of the obstacles on your list. What were you thinking? What actions did you take?

To choose your adversity essay story, you’ll actually focus on your reactions list. Search for the instances when you showed impressive grit, strength, resilience, and problem-solving skills. These are the best stories to use for your overcoming adversity essay.

Weak topics for your adversity essay

As you’re selecting which topic to write about, beware of choosing a story that falls into one of these categories.

●      Adversity you faced due to COVID or virtual learning—everyone dealt with these circumstances, so it’s not a unique topic and won’t help you stand out.

●      Obstacles you dealt with in elementary or middle school—it’s a bit too outdated. Find a more recent instance of your grit and resilience.

●      Interpersonal struggles you had with a teacher or coach—these essays can come off like you don’t get along well with adults, which isn’t the impression you want to give.

Strong topics for your adversity essay

Any story that shows your maturity and problem-solving skills is a good choice for your overcoming adversity essay. Even so, there are few topics that might be better options for you than others, depending on your circumstances.

●      Ongoing obstacles you’re still facing but you’re handling well—important if this obstacle will carry on into college.

●      Adversity that interfered with your academic achievement—important if you had a GPA dip you’d like to explain.

●      Something that will resonate with the school you’re applying to or the career you’re pursuing—important if adversity drove you to choose a specific type of school or major.

How to write an impressive overcoming adversity essay

Now we’ve arrived at my fool-proof overcoming adversity essay formula. Once you’ve chosen the right story that demonstrates your resilience, just apply this formula to create a memorable adversity essay.

This formula is simple. It’s all about crafting a narrative. Remember, you’re telling the story of when you faced an obstacle. So you want it to sound like a real story, not a school report.

Here is the five-step formula to writing the perfect overcoming adversity essay.

  • Introduce the obstacle or adversity
  • Describe your emotional response
  • Discuss the actions you took to face the problem
  • Share the outcome of the situation
  • Reveal what you learned from the experience

See? It’s a piece of cake. Now let’s see how it looks applied to an adversity story.

  • The adversity: My family moved across the country between my sophomore and junior year.
  • Emotional response: I was devastated to lose my friends and scared to start over in a new place.
  • Actions taken: I scheduled regular talks and virtual hang outs with my old friends to ensure we’d stay in touch. Then I pushed myself to join two clubs at the beginning of the school year.
  • Outcome: I stayed connected with friends from home. And even though it was intimidating to make new friends, putting myself out there helped me quickly meet people who shared my interests. I felt less alone and adjusted to my new environment sooner than I expected.
  • Lessons learned: I am stronger and more adaptable than I thought I was. I am capable of thriving in new places and creating a new community for myself wherever I go.

With extremely little effort, I made a strong outline for an adversity essay using this formula. You can do the same!

Dos and don’ts for your overcoming adversity essay

The formula will take you a long way in structuring your adversity essay, but here are a few additional tips and tricks to make sure your writing is outstanding.

●       Don’t try to garner sympathy or pity —be honest about what happened, but remember your purpose isn’t to make the reader feel bad for you.

●       Do maintain a positive and upbeat tone throughout your adversity essay.

●       Don’t spend too much time describing the problem —keep it brief and to the point.

●       Do focus the majority of the essay on how you responded to and resolved the obstacle.

●       Don’t forget to include the outcome and the lessons you learned —self reflection is impressive to application readers.

●       Do connect what you learned with your future in college or in your chosen career.

Remember, one of the great things about the overcoming adversity essay is that you’re telling a story. You’re not making an argument or delivering an informational report. Once you have your story and the structure in place, have fun with the rest!

Final thoughts about the overcoming adversity essay

I’ll never say writing a college application essay is easy. But hopefully I’ve convinced you that the overcoming adversity essay isn’t as intimidating as it seems. In fact, I hope you have an enjoyable time writing your adversity essay and celebrating your resilience. Be proud of yourself. You are amazing!

I want to hear from you! What are your thoughts and concerns about the overcoming adversity essay? Drop a comment below, and I’ll be happy to address them.

Confirm Deletion

How to write about your biggest challenge or adversity

Your adversity statement, often called “the challenge essay,” has the potential to be a major contributor to your medical school application. The goal of the essay is not just to explain the adversities you faced or the challenges you experienced, but rather to demonstrate your ability to overcome them and grow from them. The specific challenge or adversity itself is often times the least important part of the essay! Instead, the majority of your limited word count will be dedicated to demonstrating your preparedness for the many challenges and adversities that you will face in medical school and beyond. Looking at the prompt from this angle may help it seem a bit less intimidating. Now, let’s tackle this essay in three simple steps: 

Step One : Reread the prompt, and select the experience you want to talk about 

Before you even begin brainstorming, reread the prompt! In your excitement (or nervousness) to get started, you may have missed a helpful detail that will narrow the scope of your essay. Depending on the school, you may be asked to discuss a professional challenge, a personal challenge, or even an academic one. Make sure that you understand which of these, if any, is being asked for. Once you have a sense of what type of experience is being requested, start to brainstorm the adversities you have faced, no matter how big or small. As you make a list, make sure each example fits the following criteria: 

  • You have overcome the obstacle or have made meaningful progress towards the goal of overcoming it
  • You have completed the emotional processing of the obstacle/experience and are comfortable talking about it in writing and potentially in an interview 

Once this is done, take a look at your list and see what experiences you are most confident in. Do those align with the narrative of the application you submitted in your primary application/personal statement? Is this an experience that you’ve discussed extensively in your 15 activities or personal statement already? Asking yourself these questions will help you narrow down the list further until you make a final selection that will complement your application and demonstrate your characteristics well. Examples include: losing a loved one, not succeeding in a class, navigating a health concern or diagnosis, overcoming a language barrier, navigating financial hardship, and more. 

Step Two: Map out the essay by talking through exactly how you overcame the adversity/challenge 

You have your experience selected, but before writing the essay, you need to be sure of the characteristics you wish to demonstrate. Knowing this before you write will help you frame the story in such a way that these characteristics shine through. Remember, you are only using a small amount of the essay to describe the event itself; most of the essay should focus on your journey overcoming the adversity/challenge, so you need to be direct and clear from the start! You can also use this time to get a sense of how long the essay will be. Do you find yourself taking 5 minutes or more to fully explain your story? You may need to be more succinct in order to condense that into an essay with a limited word count. 

Step Three: Write, write, write 

Dedicate a brief intro of the essay to describing the circumstances of the challenge/adversity you faced. No need to be too detailed, but give the reader enough information to understand what you were up against. Next, explain your feelings throughout the experience, how you were affected, and how you overcame. The key to this step is alluding to the qualities you are demonstrating without actually stating them. Rather than saying, “I was resilient,” simply explain the steps you took to keep pushing through despite the circumstances. Do this, and the key words and characteristics will leap off the page between the lines of your story! Once you’ve described the actions you took to overcome, close out the essay with a brief statement about how the experience changed you or gave you an opportunity to grow. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to reflect and use any experience as a learning experience. 

When you are finished, be sure to go back to the prompt one last time and make sure that your essay answers it appropriately. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments, and keep in mind that the readers of your essay are looking to recruit their future students, colleagues, and patient care providers. What qualities would you be looking for if you were in their shoes?

overcoming adversity essay structure

Olivia attended the University of Rochester, studying Neuroscience and American Sign Language. She's pursuing her MD at Harvard Medical School, where she’s exploring her interests in pediatrics and neonatology.

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Writing the hardship essay for your college application.

In a lot of essay prompts, you are either asked to write about overcoming hardship, or you find that you need to explain adversity you’ve faced in your life. The colleges frequently want this information not just to learn more about you, but also both to know whether you deserve an extra leg up in life and in the admissions process, as well as to see how you’ve dealt with difficulty in the past (since college years can be turbulent ones for some). (Or more cynically, so that they can advertise to the public all the disadvantaged people they’ve admitted.)

Here I will give an overview of how to approach this particular prompt.

Drama girl standing near where people are in a hurry in different directions. Production of the composite picture of the story. A scene filmed overall plan. Abstract image of the double exposure.

But first, I know that some of you will be thinking that you don’t have any real hardship to speak of, especially compared to many others in the world. Perhaps you believe that if you’re applying to college in the first place, then you’re ahead of the game, so to speak. (Only about a third of Americans enroll in and graduate from college, and only about 7% worldwide do.) If this describes you, bless you. You are either fortunate enough to have lived a safe life or you have the wisdom to keep perspective on your good fortune. If I’m describing you, and you genuinely don’t have any true or perceived difficulty to overcome, you may want to avoid writing about this topic in your essays, wherever they may show up. (For example, you wouldn’t want to complain about getting a Honda Civic for your 16th birthday instead of the BMW you wanted because that’s what all your friends drive. So no first-world problems in this essay, please.)

And I would also like to point out that many people, though they may appear outwardly happy and successful, have faced many kinds of difficulties that aren’t apparent at all. For example, you may be the president of your Future Singing Veterinarians of America club, but secretly you battle depression and don’t feel like you’re understood or appreciated, but you try hard to hide it from others because you don’t want to burden them. So in a word, hardship is often hidden, and definitely relative—what may be easy for some is a real challenge for others, and those who appear to have perfect lives almost certainly do not. (Don’t believe what you see on social media!)

A working definition of hardship or adversity

Again, as I mentioned, hardship is relative, and what may be difficult for one may not be for another. I may struggle to lose twenty pounds while one of my students may be struggling to gain twenty pounds. One person may excel in math, but struggle with writing essays. And another is the opposite.

Hardship is anything significant that you believe has held you back from reaching your potential, something that’s a particular challenge to you, just you.

For example, you may have a learning difference that you’ve had to overcome in order to keep up with your work in school. Maybe that learning difference was undiagnosed for many years, and you had a few teachers who were not patient with you and yelled at you, leaving you a little scarred. (It happens a lot, unfortunately.) Perhaps your parents divorced, and it was difficult for you to adapt to your new life, especially if you had to take on more responsibility or work part-time. In essence, something can be considered hardship if its absence would have made a big improvement in your life.

Again, if it’s not there, and you don’t feel disadvantaged, yay! You don’t need to go make something up. (As a parent, I can tell you that our first goal for our children is to raise them in a happy, safe environment, and many parents are actually able to do this.)

Let’s get more specific with examples of hardship.

Some examples of hardship or adversity

Here are some examples that I’ve seen students write about in the past, as well as a couple I’m suggesting:

  • Overcoming a diagnosed learning difference, such as ADHD or dyslexia.
  • Overcoming an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia. (If this is you, my heart goes out to you.)
  • Losing a parent or close relative. (I’m very, very sorry if you’ve experienced this.)
  • Struggling in a particular academic subject. This one is especially common, so be sure you write about how you assessed the problem, developed strategies to overcome the hardship, and of course, the successful outcome.
  • Adapting to a new country and a new language, ie, you immigrated to the US, experienced culture shock, and had to learn English. Note that for me at least, this is a very common subject to write about, and in California, where more than a quarter of the state’s population was not born in the US. (See below for more comments about this particular situation.)

Next up is vital—that you managed your situation with intense determination.

Demonstrate grit, tenacity, and perseverance in your essay: Always show that you’ve overcome the hardship, not that you’re still in the middle of it

This is key, perhaps even the most important part about writing the hardship essay: You must absolutely show that you’ve successfully managed the challenges you’ve faced and have a reasonable chance of succeeding in college in the future. That’s the kind of person you are. You don’t give up, you get back up if you’re knocked down, you’re unstoppable. You don’t want the people reading your essay thinking, Whoa, poor kid. Man, my heart goes out to him, but I’m really, really not sure that college is the best thing for him right now. He needs to get his life together first, and then think about college .

Yeah, that’s right—if it looks like you’re still in the middle of dealing with your various problems, they’ll decide that college will be a hindrance for you, not a leg up, even if it would be. Or they might think that you would be better off elsewhere, at a different college (they’ll use a euphemism like “not a good fit right now”), perhaps even part-time at a two-year college near where you live.

In general, you want to show that you: a) recognized the problem; b) analyzed your situation; c) came up with a reasonable and effective solution; and d) implemented your solution successfully with enormous determination and resilience. In other words, when life gives you lemons, you’ve got your own perfect lemonade recipe handy, and you’re not afraid to use it.

Now let’s take a look at some topics that seem to show up a lot, so may not set you apart in the way you’re hoping.

Some “hardship” topics that are commonly written about

Every year, I read a few essays that discuss these topics. Most of them are done very well, and show true challenges that the writers have faced. However, just be forewarned that the following are topics that a lot of people, at least the ones I’ve worked with, either use these topics or consider using them.

  • Shyness. “I was shy all throughout elementary school, so in middle school/junior high school I decided to break out of my shell.”
  • Transferring to a new school. “High school was a big transition for me, especially since I was coming from a private school to a public school.” (This one’s especially iffy because of the private school part.)
  • Immigrating and having to learn English in addition to adapting to a new culture. “In third grade, I came to America, and didn’t speak a word of English. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher was saying. I was scared and cried.”

If you’re going to write about these, be extra careful to make it unique and heartfelt. After all, any admissions officer with enough experience will tell you that there’s pretty much no topic she hasn’t read about before in an application.

Some final tips on writing the hardship essay

Some final thoughts, a couple of which I’ve already mentioned, but want to put here again.

  • Open up and tell the truth. But if you’ve got nothing to say about hardship, then don’t. You’re probably not required to write about this, and even if you’ve heard that “admissions offices love to read about adversity,” it’s probably better to skip this if you’ve led a storybook life.
  • Don’t manufacture hardship. Don’t take something that happened and turn it into something huge. If your avocado plant died in third grade, and you were sad, that’s not going to get you into Stanford.
  • Avoid the “pity me” essay—you don’t want to make a list of all the hardships you’ve endured as if they earn you points. Yes, you should talk about your difficulties, but also focus on your resilience and grit.
  • Remember that, in itself, facing adversity doesn’t earn you credit—you’re not going to gain admission as compensation.
  • Always show that you overcame the hardship. You’re past it. You beat it. You improved.
  • Avoid super-common or near-universal hardships. For example, going to high school or not being athletic enough apply to almost every applicant, so others will pretty much just expect you to have overcome these particular challenges.
  • Tread lightly: There are a few subjects that we pretty much always avoid talking about in admissions essays. They are the ones that relate to criminal activity, relationships, sex, and drugs. So unless you really think you’re going to write a gut-wrenching essay or you had a life-changing epiphany, writing about overcoming an addiction to nicotine (in the form of vaping) probably won’t win you any points with the admissions office.

Finally, as always, these are just guidelines. You could very easily write a beautiful essay that breaks some of the rules mentioned above as long as its heartfelt, genuine, and relatable. Trust your own judgment if you can, or ask others for their opinions if you have any doubt.

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The Classroom | Empowering Students in Their College Journey

How to Write an Essay on Overcoming Adversity

How to Write College Scholarship Essays

How to Write College Scholarship Essays

College admission boards and scholarship committees often want applicants to write an essay about how they have overcome adversity in their lives. The key to writing a successful essay about diversity is to stay positive and focus on the outcome rather than the problem itself. Learning how to write a good essay about overcoming diversity has the effect of your story pulling on the heartstrings of the people reading it.

Student reading in library

Read successful essays about overcoming adversity. Many college websites and websites with advice about applying to colleges offer examples of successful essays. There is a difference between writing positively about overcoming adversity and whining about your problems. Reading good essays written by other people will help you understand that difference.

Student taking notes at desk

Make an outline of your essay before you write it. Writing an outline gives you a starting point for getting what you want to say on paper. It also can help avoid writer's block or stumbling when you don't know where to go next. The standard format for an essay is to start with an introduction that briefly tells the reader what to expect, then the body that goes into greater detail about your adversity and how you overcame it, followed by a conclusion that sums up what your essay is about.

Young female student typing on laptop

Be positive in your own essay. Talk about your adversity and what you learned from it. Let the reader know how you grew and what impact the adversity and overcoming it had on your life. Also, let admissions and scholarship boards know how overcoming your particular adversity will make you a better student and an asset to their program.

Female student looking through library books

Be honest in your essay. You have overcome your adversity and there is no reason to embellish the details. If you do, chances are the embellishment will stand out to the reader in a way it might not to you. Being caught in a lie or coming across as insincere will almost definitely result in your being denied admission or the scholarship you are applying to.

Close-up of hands typing on keyboard

Use proper grammar and spelling. Most word processing programs have spell and grammar checks. Make sure to run these before submitting your essay. These programs, however, don't pick up every mistake. Read your essay once for grammar and again for spelling, paying attention to every word and punctuation mark. Ask someone who you trust has a good handle on grammar and spelling to proofread your essay for you.

Young female student reading over her essay on a tablet

Read your essay out loud before submitting it. Sometimes when you've read your own work many times your eyes glance over problems. Reading out loud will give your ears a chance to pick up on awkward wording or pacing in your essay. Fix any problems before submitting.

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Shaunta Alburger has been a professional writer for 15 years. She's worked on staff at both major Las Vegas newspapers, as well as a rural Nevada weekly. Her first novel was published in 2014.

Overcoming Adversity: How to Stress Your Experiences When Applying to Medical School

Use your application essays to show admissions officers your resilience and your gratitude for overcoming adversity.

Adversity and Applying to Med School

overcoming adversity essay structure

The time has come that students must be willing to share their trials and tribulations that they experienced or witnessed. Getty Images

After the Supreme Court's recent ruling that the practice of affirmative action in considering racial background of college applicants violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, medical schools are scrambling to understand how this decision will affect their admissions processes while potential minority applicants may fear not being accepted. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges has reported that three-fourths of medical students come from the top two quintiles – or top two-fifths – of parental income . Minority medical school applicants, particularly those of Black or Hispanic descent, are more likely to have significantly lower levels of parental income. That remains a problem for patients who need doctors who understand poverty, systemic racism and other aspects of their lives that are very different.

Medicine is not out of your reach even if you are not from the top two quintiles.

I worry that after the Supreme Court decision, some aspiring physicians may be hesitant to apply to medical school. My hope is to convince you to apply with even more passion and enthusiasm. You are needed in medicine!

What does it mean that the Supreme Court has decided race can no longer be used in a limited way during the admissions process? If you have a very high MCAT score and GPA, you may not care much about this.

However, it means you have to be creative if your MCAT and GPA are not ideal. You have to tell more of your story.

In a nutshell, this is what the Supreme Court decision states, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion: Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as the discussion is completely tied to a quality of character, or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.

Applying to medical school has encouraged students to consider how they will take care of all patients of any race or ethnicity. Even when consideration of race was allowed, I know of multiple students who downplayed any advantage by omitting commentary on that so no one would accuse them of trying to get ahead of others.

The time has come that students must be willing to share their trials and tribulations that they experienced or witnessed. They may also describe how they will be more compassionate and understanding of others, even though they or their families were not treated in that manner. Maybe you will go out of your way as a result to help others less fortunate, or underresourced.

What character strengths have you found as a result of what you have witnessed happening to others? Are you more likely to stand up against bullies or someone trying to take advantage of another’s status, ranking or label? You can do this by giving a detailed description of how you showed courage and compassion, verbalizing for others who couldn’t do that for themselves.

Med school admissions officers believe in class diversity for many reasons. So do survey results from students who report that learning from others different from themselves is highly advantageous. Different qualities among students contribute to class discussion and awareness.

If a student came from a family of a lower income level, experienced housing insecurity or food insecurity, or came from an underresourced school that lacked funds for many courses and activities considered normal for other schools, it should be described on the medical school application. Illness in the family, especially if the student took a lot of responsibility for their relative, is another issue that should be described.

Semesters abroad and global health volunteering are out of reach for many applicants. Parental income, education and occupation can also influence the help a student receives in applying to schools, taking test prep courses or getting a tutor.

If you were the first in your family to go to college, your parents may not be sure how to advise you. In depressed and underserved areas, counselors and other school officials may be stretched too thin or not have adequate experience to help you with medical school goals.

Some students have to work to pay some of their nuclear family’s expenses, in addition to their own tuition. I had a student who slept in a pick-up truck at out-of-town construction jobs to support his family because he couldn’t afford an inexpensive hotel room.

Be proud of what your parents, grandparents and others endured to get you to the place where you are today. Show what you learned. Have you had to work hard, too, and are you grateful for how others have encouraged you?

The University of California at Davis School of Medicine has used a socioeconomic disadvantage scale to help select their students and found these students more likely to work in primary care or in locales where doctors are scarce.

Exposure to trauma in childhood can lead to lower flourishing as an adult. Others can push through and become more resilient.

You may feel ashamed or fearful and worried that selection committees will believe that you are damaged. By overcoming that fear, you can become a stronger candidate.

Describe how the adversity or trauma transformed you. Remember that old saying: If something didn’t kill you, it can make you stronger. Just make sure that admissions committees know from your personal statement in the primary application and then your secondary application essays how hot that fire was that you endured. Eleanor Roosevelt quipped that you wouldn’t know how strong a person was until you put them in hot water, just like a teabag. The implication is that going through adversity can lead you to the success you seek.

The bottom line is to show what adversities or mountains you had to climb, and how resilient and grateful you are now. End on an upbeat note. They will want you in their school!

Where Famous Docs Earned Medical Degrees

FILE - In this Oct. 7, 1954, file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh. Tens of millions of today's older Americans lived through the polio epidemic, their childhood summers dominated by concern about the virus. Some parents banned their kids from public swimming pools and neighborhood playgrounds and avoided large gatherings. Some of those from the polio era are sharing their memories with today's youngsters as a lesson of hope for the battle against COVID-19. Soon after polio vaccines became widely available, U.S. cases and death tolls plummeted to hundreds a year, then dozens in the 1960s, and to U.S. eradication in 1979. A handful of cases since then have arrived in visitors from overseas.

Tags: medical school , graduate schools , education , diversity , students

About Medical School Admissions Doctor

Need a guide through the murky medical school admissions process? Medical School Admissions Doctor offers a roundup of expert and student voices in the field to guide prospective students in their pursuit of a medical education. The blog is currently authored by Dr. Ali Loftizadeh, Dr. Azadeh Salek and Zach Grimmett at Admissions Helpers , a provider of medical school application services; Dr. Renee Marinelli at MedSchoolCoach , a premed and med school admissions consultancy; Dr. Rachel Rizal, co-founder and CEO of the Cracking Med School Admissions consultancy; Dr. Cassie Kosarec at Varsity Tutors , an advertiser with U.S. News & World Report; Dr. Kathleen Franco, a med school emeritus professor and psychiatrist; and Liana Meffert, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine and a writer for Admissions Helpers. Got a question? Email [email protected] .

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Overcoming Adversity: A Challenge That Makes You Grow as a Person

Overcoming Adversity: A Challenge That Makes You Grow as a Person essay

How does adversity build character?

  • Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59(1), 20-28. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.59.1.20
  • Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Beacon Press.
  • Masten, A. S. (2011). Resilience in children threatened by extreme adversity: Frameworks for research, practice, and translational synergy. Development and Psychopathology, 23(2), 493-506. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579411000198
  • Masten, A. S., & Barnes, A. J. (2018). Resilience in children: Developmental perspectives. Children, 5(7), 98. https://doi.org/10.3390/children5070098
  • Park, C. L., & Fenster, J. R. (2014). Stress, coping, and health: The significance of spirituality. In The Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping (pp. 245-261). Oxford University Press.

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Home — Essay Samples — Life — Adversity — Effective Way of Overcoming Adversity


Effective Way of Overcoming Adversity

  • Categories: Adversity Overcoming Challenges Overcoming Obstacles

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Works Cited

  • Hamilton, J. (2018). Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape a Child’s Brain. CommonLit. https://www.commonlit.org/en/texts/orphans-lonely-beginnings-reveal-how-parents-shape-a-child-s-brain
  • Mason, T. (2020). How Surrounding Yourself With Positive People Will Help You Overcome Adversity. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-surrounding-yourself-with-positive-people-will-help-you-overcome-adversity/
  • Weintraub, P. (2015). The New Survivors. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201505/the-new-survivors
  • Rizzo, S. (2017). You Can Overcome Any Challenge With A Positive Attitude. The Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/you-can-overcome-any-challenge-with-a-positive-attitude_b_594fa49fe4b0a3a837bcf040
  • Masten, A. S. (2014). Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child Development, 85(1), 6-20.
  • Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.
  • Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: A new perspective on psychotraumatology. Psychiatric Times, 21(4), 58-60.
  • Segerstrom, S. C., & Sephton, S. E. (2010). Optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity: The role of positive affect. Psychological Science, 21(3), 448-455.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.
  • Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

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overcoming adversity essay structure

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Overcoming Adversity Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: History , Life , World , Choice , Fate , Bachelor's Degree , Situation , Adversity

Published: 12/23/2019


Life is what we make it. No matter what happens today or tomorrow, the world will turn, the sun will set and rise, and the earth will still be round. These clichéd lines come to mind when faced with a difficult situation, where one wonders if there will ever be a better time. Yes, bad times and bad situations do come into our lives. However, it is up to us, if these situations where we seem to feel bad and unable to break free from will have a positive effect in our lives, or we’ll let it remain as a burden to bear for the rest of our lives.

History teaches us a lot of things. More so, on how greatness is forged not from an already existing fame and fortune, but from impossible situations, where heroes are made and the most impossible adversity are overcome. Even tyrants in history, have one or the other found their niche, because of discovering their ability to conquer impossible situations. Looking back, the world that we see and live in today will not be what it is if our ancestors were complaisant in accepting their fate as it is. Yet, they questioned their lives and wanted something better, and here we are today.

However, overcoming adversity is not only for the greats. Even simple lives have their own hurdles to rise above from. It is in this simplicity even, that we gain our strength. It is up to each and every one of us, on how we will be able to surmount these trials that we face. After all, there are choices that we can make. There are paths to take that will lead us through different roads. Some might lead to greatness; some might further create difficulties for us. But no situation is ever so impossible. Life only ever throws these hurdles at us, because we can conquer them in the end. Each of us, have been created with strength of will and character, defined to combat back the hardships we have to fight against during the quest of our lifetime. Destiny is just a matter of choice. We can choose to be a looser or we can choose to push back on what fate dishes out and be great.


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