A Guide to Writing a Narrative Essay About Overcoming a Challenge

Admission Essay
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A Guide to Writing a Narrative Essay About Overcoming a Challenge

What do you think of when you think of the word “challenge”? Do you think of a professional project? A class? Do you think of a family situation? A hurdle in your faith? Do you think of a health issue?

If you are an international candidate, perhaps what comes to mind is the “language barrier.” Whatever it is, there is a way to approach writing about challenges that can set you apart.

Selection of the Topic and Positioning

What first comes to mind as a possible topic is often the best topic, and one thing to keep in mind is this – how will the topic align with the rest of your packet? Will the challenge you talk about in your essay be something that is reflected in your overall packet? For example, if you are a business applicant, will you be describing a challenge in a professional situation that is referenced on your resume? If you are a Chinese applicant, is your essay about the challenge of learning English? It’s great if your essay helps the reader to understand your overall packet.  

Put the Reader in the Picture and Stay Humble

Your reader is in a hurry. Keep it simple. Use your opening paragraph to concisely explain the nature of the challenge and the particular setting. Keep it to four or five sentences. And keep in mind that your reader may not be familiar with the academic or professional setting that you are talking about in your essay, which means that it is a good idea to avoid any type of academic or professional “jargon” in this essay, because this can make you come across as someone who is trying to sound important.

Here is the thing: In your challenge essay, you’re going to have to convince the reader of how you overcame something, which is a form of promoting yourself. But as you have already learned in the process of developing your essays, promoting yourself can backfire very easily because nobody likes someone who toots her or his own horn. So you are walking a razor’s edge. Just stay humble, and you’ll be fine.

No problem. Everybody loves a challenge. No pun intended.

Don’t Overdo It

In fact, “downplaying” the challenge can be another effective strategy in this essay. This conveys to the reader that you realize that the challenge you are talking about is not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but it is something that has given you some self insight, which is what you want to share with the reader.

Again, this essay almost always has to take the form of self-promotion. So how are you going to stay humble? Just don’t take yourself too seriously in this essay.

The Language Barrier

Let’s say that you want to write about the challenge of overcoming the language barrier. Think of it this way:

Technically the challenge was this:

  • The language barrier

The challenge behind the challenge was this:

  • My pride (the ego’s constraints in a new language)
  • My fear (of never conquering the new language, if that would be true for you then or even now)
  • The culture (if the language was not the problem at all, which is often the case)
  • The timing (if you just were not ready for it)
  • The setting (I was in the city, I’d been in the country all my life, for example)
  • I was homesick (this can work but don’t let it get too negative)
  • I was sick (but did not realize it, another not uncommon scenario)


The thing to do is to take a personal approach to set yourself apart. The way to do this is to consider what the challenge was “behind” or “underlying” your particular challenge with the language. By using this approach you can develop an essay that focuses on a psychological perspective, which works very well in response to this prompt.

We all regularly overcome various challenges. This fact tempts people to think that describing it in an essay is a piece of cake, but this assumption is wrong. If you need someone to assist you in presenting your experience, you can turn to our essay proofreading service.

Another tricky prompt can be “Discuss a time you failed.” Learn how to tackle it!

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Robin W.
Professional essay editor and proofreader with 10+ years of experience. Education: Cornell University. PhD in English Studies and M.F.A in Creative Writing.
Update: August 22, 2022.

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