How do you choose which Common Application essay to write?
This 7-part series will help you figure out which 2017 Common Application question is right for you. You’ll learn what colleges look for, what pitfalls to avoid, and read examples of successful essay topics.
For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
Ready for number 3? Let’s do it!
Common Application Essay Prompt #3:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Is This Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:
“Questioned or challenged”…”Belief or idea”…”Prompted your thinking”
Why Should You Consider This Topic?
- This is a great essay to show off your critical thinking skills. That’s why it says “what prompted your thinking”—they want to get a good peek inside your head and see how your wheels turn.
Do the Keywords Apply to You?
- A “belief or idea” can mean many things, including something you learned or were taught, or an opinion you or someone else holds. But it can also be bigger than that—take a look at the essay example below where a student challenges the existence of an entire school event.
Pitfalls to Avoid
- This question has THREE parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: The event, what prompted your thinking, and the outcome.
- Thoughts rarely arrive fully formed! Thinking is a process. It comes in stages. It’s important to show that process. For instance, if I have a pebble in my shoe, first I might think that something’s bothering me, then I want to see what it is, then I decide to take it out of my shoe. This is a simple example, but what if I wrote, “I had a pebble in my shoe and I took it out.” No! You actually thought about it before you acted. It’s like math class when the teacher makes you show your work—that’s what I mean when I say show the process of how you came to challenge your belief or idea.
- Don’t forget to reflect on your decision. Were you satisfied with the outcome? Did you learn something from this experience? Would you do it again? Reflection demonstrates insight and maturity.
- Caution: You never want to offend your reader. Remember that a belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so always watch your tone and be respectful when needed.
Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here are 3 ways you might answer this question:
- Were you told by an adult that you wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but you chose to pursue it anyway?
- Did you challenge what a group of friends told you to do because you thought they were wrong?
- Did you see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even yourself) and attempt to rectify it?
What Other Kinds of Beliefs or Ideas Can You Consider?
- It can be a belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
- It can be a belief or idea you’ve been taught (including your attitude or action toward others, or how something should or shouldn’t be done).
- It can also be your own belief—something that’s unique to you. What if you thought your sister came from Mars? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas: Consider the student who thinks being loudest is the best way to gain attention, or the girl who thinks she’s happiest being alone. What if the student realized he’d rather have friends than negative attention, or the girl pushed herself out of her comfort zone to find out she enjoyed being a leader at school? Think about what you believed when you were younger, and if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you (and answers the question), this prompt could be for you.
Which brings me to:
Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth. But remember the caution: You don’t want to offend your reader. So along with topic choice, consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own spiritual path than to say you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Bottom line: If you feel it could impact your admission, choose a different topic.
Hot Tip from College Admissions Officers: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar to them. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out. If it starts to feel generic, dig deeper into who you are and how this topic reflects your values, your ability to problem solve, or your goals. If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.
Example of a Successful Essay Topic:
“Standing up for Autism”
An autistic student’s school held an annual event that supported autism. The event also supported a prominent charity devoted to autism. But the student had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity. They felt it didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community, and in fact had made some very negative statements. After researching the charity the student agreed, and decided he wanted the school to end its support of the charity. But he knew he’d have to handle it carefully and respectfully. So he collected evidence and videos and presented them to his vice principal. Then he wrote a formal letter to the Board of Education. After discussing the student’s material, the Board agreed that future events wouldn’t include the charity. The student was both surprised and delighted. In his essay he wrote that he learned that if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would respectfully listen to him and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he made a positive difference.
Why This Topic Succeeds
- All the keywords are addressed. The student described the situation, discussed his thought process, and told the outcome.
- He demonstrated critical thinking skills. He researched the charity to come to his own decision and then decided on the correct way to approach the school.
- He included a learning experience. He learned that if he presented his views in a clear and respectful way that adults in authority would listen. He saw how he could make a positive change.
- He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He took on a leadership role, communicated well with adults, and worked to create change. Even if he hadn’t been successful these qualities would stand out.
Reasons Essay Prompt #3 Can Work for You:
- You can communicate your level of maturity.
- You can highlight your critical thinking skills.
- You can demonstrate that you’re open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others.
- You can show that your choices or ideas had an impact on yourself or others.
Remember: For your essay to be successful, show the schools some of your best qualities, and make sure they come away feeling that they’ve learned something interesting about what makes you, you.
Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #4.
Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve|
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice
Sharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.