Are you wondering which Common Application essay is right for you?
Are you ready to learn what makes college essays successful, and how you can be successful, too?
The Common Application essay may be the most important college application essay you’ll have to write.
In this post you’ll learn about writing Common Application essay #3. It’s part of my series on how to write the Common Application essay.
For the entire list of 2018 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?
- You can show off your critical thinking skills.
- It’s a chance to illustrate one or more of your personal values. (Not sure of your personal values? Click here for my personal values Worksheet.)
- Colleges love to see how you think. They like to see what’s going on under the hood. It helps them envision you as a student when you get to school. Writing about what makes you think more deeply or how you’ve made some tough decisions will let the schools see what kind of independent thinker you’ll be when you get there.
Do the Keywords Apply to You?
A “belief or idea” can include:
- Something you learned or were taught.
- A belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
- A belief 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 discover 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.
Beliefs and ideas can also be challenged on a bigger scale. 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.
- 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? The ability to reflect demonstrates insight and maturity.
- Don’t jump to the end result. Show your thought process. Thinking is a process. It goes step by step. It’s important to show how your thought process worked when you’re writing your story.
Here’s an example of how thought process works:
There’s a pebble in my shoe, so I reach down and take it out. Done deal? Wait! Let’s back up and pay attention to how my thought process worked: I feel something bothering me and I wonder what it is. I figure I should see what’s annoying me, so I reach down and realize it’s a pebble and decide to take it out of my shoe.
That’s thought process. It’s a simple example; but what if I wrote, “I had a pebble in my shoe and 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—jump to the end and you miss the process.
Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:
- 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?
- Have you ever changed your beliefs because you learned something new?
- Has someone or something ever caused you to question a strong personal value?
- Have you always assumed something, but then found yourself in a position where you had to rethink that assumption?
- Did you always think there was a way something should or shouldn’t be done, and then changed your perspective?
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 here’s the caution: You never want to offend your reader. A belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so weigh your topic choice and be respectful when needed. Also 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 you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Bottom line: If you feel your topic could impact your admission, choose something different.
Tip: 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”
Sam was a student with autism. Every year, his high school held an event in support of autism awareness. Students wore blue t-shirts, participated in programs, and raised money for a prominent charity devoted to autism. But Sam had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity—they felt the charity didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community and had made some very negative statements. After researching the charity Sam agreed, and decided he wanted the school to end its support. 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 Sam’s material, the Board agreed with Sam and decided that future events would no longer include the charity. Sam was both surprised and delighted. In his essay he wrote that he learned if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would respectfully listen and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he had made a positive difference.
Why This Topic Succeeds
- All the keywords are addressed. Sam 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. Sam 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 illustrated some of his personal values: Community, Fairness, Responsibility.
- 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 have stood out.
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Next: How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
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 creative and 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.
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
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