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

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.

  1. Introduce the obstacle or adversity
  2. Describe your emotional response
  3. Discuss the actions you took to face the problem
  4. Share the outcome of the situation
  5. 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. 

  1. The adversity: My family moved across the country between my sophomore and junior year.
  2. Emotional response: I was devastated to lose my friends and scared to start over in a new place.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Dr. Leslie Tucker College Consultant

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