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College Essay Series: Writing the Personal Challenge Essay (UC Prompt #5)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Students who have started the Personal Statement may have already started to reflect on the personal challenges that have affected them in high school. As it turns out, there is a UC prompt that addresses this topic as well:

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?

At 350 words, students don’t have much space to accomplish this task. Read on for some strategies for answering the UC5 prompt.

What’s my “greatest challenge?”

Don’t let these words get in your head. You don’t need to have the greatest challenge ever, or the greatest challenge of anyone you know, or even what you think others will agree is a great challenge. In fact, I give you permission to remove the “-est” from “greatest challenge,” and discuss any significant challenge that you worked to overcome. 

So, if it matters to you and there’s a story to tell, try writing about it and see how it looks. That said, responses to the UC5 prompt should be about personal challenges. Academic challenges belong better in a .

Try to avoid challenges that are not significant enough to do justice to the essay prompt, such as how you missed the school dance, how your parents didn’t allow you to get your driver’s license, or how you struggle with procrastination. Similarly, avoid any challenges that would paint you in a negative light or create a negative tone for the essay. (E.g. a teacher didn’t like you, everybody talks behind your back, etc.)

You have a topic to write about.

Many students read this prompt and have one of two reactions.

Some students see the words “greatest challenge” and immediately dismiss the prompt, feeling that they lead either a charmed or very boring life. I remind these students that no one moves through life without any resistance at all. Nothing comes easily to everyone, and if it did you probably would have taken over the world by now. What were the things you meant to do, and (whether you achieved them or not) what got in the way of achieving your goals? What are the elements of your personal life that you take for granted as everyday but really take your attention and require more of you? Your greatest challenge is likely right under your nose, but you don’t recognize it because it’s something you have already come to accept as a part of your life. After you fully brainstorm potential UC5 responses in your journal, if you don’t like any of them, you can move on to another essay prompt you like better.

Other students have the opposite reaction. They read the prompt and immediately think of a very personal and disruptive challenge, perhaps one they’re currently in the midst of. Maybe it’s a challenge they haven’t shared with others yet. How understandably overwhelming! I invite these students to breathe, take a step back, and release that sensitive topic for a minute. Brainstorm all the potential answers to the prompt. (Remember, not “greatest” … a “great challenge” is just fine!) As you’re reflecting and mapping potential essays, you may decide that your very personal challenge has lost some of its edge, and you want to try writing about it. You may also decide that the challenge is worth discussing because it is such a part of who you are. Or, you can settle on one of those other challenges, which are perfectly valid to write about for a UC5 essay.

Aim for a 20/80 ratio of problem to solution.

The number-one pitfall for writing a UC5 essay is talking too much about the problem. Here’s why:

  • It creates a negative tone for the essay.

  • Dwelling on the problem implies your head is still stuck in the problem.

  • You give yourself less space to show yourself overcoming the challenge.

A great ratio of problem to solution is 20-80. 

You really want to get the problem out fast. The most valuable part of showing the problem is that you set yourself up to rise out of it. Try to be done and ready to move on without taking more than 20% of the essay, which is about 70 words. You can do it!

Overcoming the challenge is what shows your growth and will impress the reader. Spend as much of the essay as possible detailing exactly how you worked to get over or around your personal challenge.

At the end of the essay, the reader should see a story of struggle and (hopefully some) success, and not a story of a problem.

You don’t need to totally resolve the problem in the essay.

You can still write about a topic for UC5 if the challenge is ongoing, as long as you can keep the essay in line with the advice above. 

The essay will work as long as you have lots of to say about the struggle, even if it doesn’t end in a solution. List all the actions you took, whether they were effective or not. Let us know whom, how, and when you asked for help. Write about how you coped internally (mentally and/or emotionally) as you discuss how you battled the challenge externally. It’s very possible this could make for an even more engaging essay than one that resolves too easily.

After you write the essay, check in with it. Is it negative? Does it dwell on a problem? Does it paint you as ineffective? If it doesn’t work, explore other topics and prompts.

Worry about academic achievement last.

Since your essay topic is personal, and not academic, there will be a personal journey to take in the essay. I encourage students to tackle that first, since it’s at the heart of the prompt. When that’s in place in your outline, consider then how the challenge affected your performance in school.

Here are some ways to discuss academic achievement in this essay:

  • Say the negative effect near the beginning, then follow up with how it improved at the end.

  • Or, just say it all near the end, so that the personal essay isn’t interrupted with your academics. 

  • If you can connect your challenge to any low grades or decreasing/increasing grade trends, do that explicitly.

If the personal challenge doesn’t connect much to academic achievement, or if you’re an all-A student, you could write a sentence explaining how you were able to maintain your performance in school despite the trouble.

Also, remember that academic achievement doesn’t have to be a discussion of tests, projects, and grades. You’re in school to learn! So anytime your challenge kept you from learning to your best ability, retaining the information, and applying the knowledge in or out of the classroom, you have something to discuss for UC5.

Now you know about the greatest challenge essay, but to craft your best PIQ responses you'll need to understand all the prompts so you can choose between them. Get my completely free UC Essay Planning Guide to see what the UC readers are looking for in all 8 UC essay prompts:

The previous post in our UC Essay blog series was about UC4, the academic opportunity or barrier prompt. The next post is about UC6, the academic interest prompt.

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Follow College Torch by joining our Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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