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How to Write Common Application Essays 1-7


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How to Write the Common Application Essay Prompts 1-7

How to Write Common Application Essays 1-7Looking for expert guidance on how to write your Common Application essay?

Need help choosing a prompt, or knowing that the prompt you’ve chosen is right for you?

Then read on!

This is my 2018 series on How to Write the Common Application Essays.  In it, you’ll find professional guidance, tips and techniques to write your best Common Application Essay. I include examples of successful essay topics, too.

My goal is to help you find YOUR story. Because everyone has a story to tell.

Let’s Start with Common Application Essay Basics:

  • The 2018 Common Application has seven prompts. You answer one of them.
  • The Common App essay must be between 250-650 words.
  • You can’t upload more than 650 words.
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check every college on your list for its essay requirements.
  • Click here for the entire list of 2018 Common App essay prompts.

“Ugh. Why Do I Have To Write This Essay???”

Common Application essay instructionsGreat Question. Your essay tells the schools something you want them to know about you apart from your courses, grades, and test scores. It’s your opportunity to write about something you care about and has meaning to you. It establishes a personal connection and helps you stand out from the crowd.

Below Are The Links to The Entire “How to Write” Series. You’ll see I’ve written individual posts for each Common App prompt. In each post, you’ll learn about that particular prompt and the keywords, the “do’s and don’ts” of writing that essay, and reasons for why that prompt might be right for you. I also analyze essays written by students so you can see what succeeds (or doesn’t). Here are the links:

Remember—my goal is to help you find YOUR story. Because you’ve got a story to tell.

I hope you’ll like my Facebook page or leave a comment for me here. I love inspiration!

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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How to Write Common Application Essay 7 topic of your choice


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application Essay 7 topic of your choiceWhich Common Application prompt should you choose? In this seven-part series I’ve been helping you answer that question. We’ve come to the final prompt. (Phew!)

For the complete list of 2018 Common Application essay questions click here.

Ready for #7? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #7

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Is this Prompt for You? Answer Yes IF:

  • The other prompts don’t speak to you.
  • You’re inspired by another school’s prompt.
  • You want to ask and answer your own question.
  • You’ve already written an essay that showcases you as an excellent college candidate.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Don’t Stress Over this Prompt. This prompt is meant to reduce your stress, not add to it, says Scott Anderson at The Common Application. Anderson adds, “Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice.” If the prompt feels too unstructured use one of the other prompts.
  • Don’t Submit Less Than Your Best. If you’re submitting an essay you’ve already written, make sure it’s well written and showcases you as an excellent potential college student.
  • Don’t Forget the Fundamentals. Prompt #7 doesn’t provide as much guidance as some of the other prompts. So this a good time to recap what schools look for in a Common Application essay:
    • Your writing skills
    • Your ability to communicate your ideas.
    • Your personality – what makes you laugh, think, hope, dream, care. In other words, what’s meaningful to you and why.
    • Schools like to see how you think, so show them that process.
    • Most of the best essays don’t have nice, easy stories. They’ve got an obstacle thrown in your path, a problem you need to solve, a decision you have to make, a realization you came to, or some other circumstance that’s helped shape you into who you are.
    • Essays include reflection—you need to be able to take a step back from your experience to understand how it’s shaped you and/or your goals.

Example of Successful Essay Topic

I had a student, James, who loved the novel The Stranger, by Albert Camus. The title character, Meursault, is estranged from the world, indifferent to society and unaffected by feelings.

So James wrote an essay in which he has a conversation with Meursault. In it, he counters Meursault’s view on the world. Instead of being unaffected, James tells Meursault that he attempts to live a purposeful life. He tries things for pleasure, like teaching himself to cook, because trying and learning give him a better understanding of the world. He tells Meursault about the joy of learning music. He talks about how he designed his own science experiments, and how he learned that, if you soak chicken bones in hydrochloric acid, they’ll bend at 45 degrees without breaking. No information is useless, James stresses to Meursault. At the end of the essay, he tells Meursault that he will always be glad he’s forged his own path and that (unlike Meursault) he has lived life to the fullest.

Why Does this Essay Succeed?

This topic didn’t fit into any of the other prompts, so prompt #7 was the natural choice.

James uses the conversation to show how he’s the opposite of Meursault—he cares, he’s involved, he’s eclectic, he’s engaged. The reader gets a clear sense of his personality, his intellectual curiosity, and his zest for life. It’s creative and original. These are all qualities colleges will like to see.

A Word in Support of Some of My Favorite Prompts from the University of Chicago:

If you’re still looking for essay inspiration, check out the University of Chicago’s essay prompts. UChicago prides itself on uncommon, fun essay questions. They encourage thought and reflection. And they always bring to light interesting aspects of the writer that might otherwise remain hidden. You might decide to answer one for the Common App or invent one of your own. Read the ones I’ve listed below to see how, with a little imagination, you can create your own question and let your imagination and personality fly.

A Sampling of UChicago prompts:

  • Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
  • History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
  • How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
  • Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.”…Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
  • “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)
  • Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
  • Click here to read more UChicago prompts.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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. I work 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 “How to Write” 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

How to Write Common Application Essay 6 what makes you lose track of time


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 6: Makes You Lose All Track of Time

How to Write Common Application Essay 6 what makes you lose track of time

You’re writing a Common Application essay.

Which prompt do you answer?

In this 7-part series I’m helping you discover which Common Application essay prompt is right for you.

For the complete list of 2018 Common App essay questions click here.

Ready for #6? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #6:

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Topic, Idea or Concept”…”Lose All Track of Time”…”Why”…”What or Who Do You Turn To”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

  • “Topic, Idea, or Concept” is a very broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small.
  • “Lose All Track of Time” is self-explanatory. You’ve found yourself so engrossed in something that you didn’t realize how much time had passed.
  • “Why Does it Captivate You?” The key word here is why. You need to figure out why this topic is so engaging, exciting, or thought provoking for you.
  • “What or Who Do You Turn To When You Want to Learn More?” This refers to your independent learning—the times you collect information on your own. You might have asked a teacher, searched Google, read books, watched videos, etc.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • You’re curious. When something intrigues you, you don’t just sit there—you do something.
  • You’re resourceful. You seek out new sources of information.
  • You’re independent. You’ve directed your own learning.
  • Colleges can picture you being an independent, curious learner at college.
  • Colleges can learn about something that’s meaningful to you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This Question Has 3 Parts—Don’t Leave Any Out. They are: 1. Topic, idea, or concept; 2. Why it captivates you; 3. Who or what you turn to when you want to learn more.
  • Don’t Shortchange “Why.” Discussing “why” is one of the most important things you can do in an essay. Through why, schools learn about you. They see how you think, what you care about, or what concerns you. After you’ve written your draft, read it again and ask yourself if you’ve explored all the reasons “why.”
  • Avoid the Boring Trap!

how to write Common App essay 6To me, this essay prompt is missing something — it doesn’t ask you to look for that little bit of grit in your story. Most of the best essays have some grit – they’ve got an obstacle thrown in someone’s path, a problem to solve, a decision that must be made. Grit makes your story more interesting. It uncovers more of you.

So when you’re writing this essay, find that time you had to think a little harder, become a little more self-reliant, make a decision, or solve a problem. You’ll make your essay more interesting, and avoid the boring trap.

Example of Successful Essay Topic

“The Artist”

Joanne is a an artist. She drew before she could talk. When she’s painting, Joanna loses all track of time. Art gives Joanne an expressive outlet for her thoughts and imagination and it’s helped her develop her sense of personal expression. She tries to interpret her world through her choice of colors, shapes, and setting.

In elementary school, Joanne’s teacher didn’t like her drawings of people and told her she had to draw them with the right number of fingers and toes. For a while, she did it the teacher’s way. But then she decided she didn’t have to be like anyone else and she’s been drawing her way ever since.

In her essay, Joanne wrote that she’s been influenced by two painters who use color and shapes in different ways: Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keefe. She looks carefully at how they portray their worlds. That gives Joanne ideas about how she can find original ways to interpret hers.

Whenever she can, Joanne takes art classes at the Art Barn down the street. She reads about her favorite painters and she’s learning about new ones. Next, Joanne says, she’s going to experiment with clay. She’s not sure what she’ll be creating or what she’ll learn about herself in the process, but she can’t wait to get started.

Why This Topic Succeeds

  • All the keywords are addressed. She identifies what makes her lose track of time, discusses why it captivates her, and says what she does when she wants to learn more. 
  • She doesn’t shortchange “why.” She digs deep to say why art captivates her.
  • She avoids the boring trap. Joanne’s elementary school story is important because it was a roadblock. It made her look inward and examine her relationship to art, something she continues to do. By including this story, Joanne added that little bit of grit—this is a young lady who decided at an early age that she’s going to follow her own path.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

Next: How to Write Common App Prompt #7

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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. I work 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 “How To Write” 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: Questioned or 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

How to Write Common Application essay 5 accomplishment event or realization


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 5: Accomplishment, Event or Realization

How to Write Common Application essay 5 accomplishment event or realizationThe Common Application essay prompts are out.

Which question should you choose?

In this 7-part series you’ll discover which Common Application essay prompt is right for you.

You’ll learn how to think about each question and what pitfalls to avoid. I’ll give you essay examples, too.

For the complete list of 2018 Common App essay prompts click here.

Ready for prompt #5? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Accomplishment, Event, or Realization”…”Personal Growth”…”New Understanding of Yourself or Others”

Do The Keywords Apply To You?

  • “Accomplishment, event or realization” is a broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small, that you experienced, accomplished or realized.
  • “A Period of Personal Growth” is when this occurred. It’s also the process of what was changing inside of you.
  • “A new understanding of yourself or others” is your learning experience. It’s what you learned and how your perspective changed. When you’re writing this section think about how your experience shaped your attitude, outlook or actions, and how it helped you become the person you are today.

Why Should You Consider This Question?
Colleges Can Learn About:

  • Your maturity
  • Your ability to develop relationships within your family or community.
  • Your insight—you can take a step back and reflect on how an experience shaped you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Answer the Entire Question. This question has three parts: 1. Describe your accomplishment, event or realization 2. Explain your period of personal growth 3. Reflect on your new understanding of yourself and others. You must answer all three parts.

  • Avoid Being Superficial. Dig deep for your learning experience. It’s a key way you can differentiate yourself and your essay.

how to write college essaysExample of How to Dig Deeper: My student, Alex, wrote about being a tutor. He said his new understanding about himself was that he liked to help people. While this was true, it was also superficial. Lots of students like to help people. And what did the reader truly learn about him? Not enough.

So I asked him to write out a list of words that showed the positive results of helping people, and then choose one to focus on (he could have chosen more). He chose “potential.” In his revised draft, instead of saying he “liked to help people,” he wrote about how he came to understand how much he enjoyed helping people achieve their potential, and how tutoring helped him realize his own potential as well. Alex dug deeper for his learning experience, and found a way to differentiate his essay.

Still Not Sure This is Your Topic?
Here are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

  • Did you have an experience that helped you become more compassionate or understanding?
  • Did you have the opportunity to teach younger students and found that you grew or matured in the process?
  • Did you have a life event that forced you to take on more responsibility?
  • Did you start your own business or volunteer program, and in the process became more understanding of your community, or your own responsibilities or actions?
  • Did you undertake a task, trip, or adventure that helped you mature and understand yourself better?

Example of a Successful Essay Topic

On the Flip Side

Paige was a successful competitive gymnast until she got injured and couldn’t compete. She felt lost; so much of her identity was being a gymnast.  A few months later she started volunteering as a coach of the Special Olympics gymnastics team in her town. Paige made practices fun. She taught her team exercises and developed routines. But most of all, Paige taught her athletes that it didn’t matter if they won or lost, as long as they competed as a team. The team lost at state competition, but they supported each other. To Paige, that was a win.

During her experience, Paige found herself growing as a coach and mentor. She discovered that as a teacher she was capable of making sports a positive experience for others. In her essay she wrote that working with her athletes changed her; as she instilled confidence in them, they did the same thing for her. Paige also realized something fundamental about herself—it was important to her that everyone, no matter his or her differences, gets the chance to win, lose and compete. While Paige isn’t sure of her career plans, she knows she wants to continue to work with people, and support them so they can achieve their best.

Why is This Topic Successful?
All the Keywords are Addressed.

  • Paige became a Special Olympics coach and trained her team for state competition—an event or accomplishment.
  • It sparked a period of personal growth—she developed as a coach, teacher and role model for her team.
  • She ended with a new, more mature understanding of herself—she realized that she didn’t have to be a gymnast to feel accomplished, and that it was even more fulfilling to use her skills to help others, which is what she plans to do.
  • She ended with a new understanding of others—working with her Special Olympians helped her realize how important it is that everybody be given the opportunity to win, lose and compete, no matter their differences. This understanding helped shape her future.

Tip: While Paige ended up with a new understanding of herself AND others, the prompt asks for a new understanding of yourself OR others. So, if you don’t have an experience that applies to both, you’re still good.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

Next: How to Write Common App essay 6

 

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How to Write” 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: Questioned or 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

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve


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How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

Are you looking for college essay help?

Do you want to find your best college essay topic, or learn which Common Application prompt is right for you?

Would you like to write a creative and memorable essay?

You’ve come to right place. This is my series on the 2018 Common Application essay prompts. In this post, you’ll learn about Common Application Prompt 4 and discover if it’s right for you.

Ready? Let’s do it!

Common Application Prompt 4

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”…”Steps you took or could be taken”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF:

  • You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
  • You’ve actively worked on a solution – OR – Although you haven’t taken any steps, you have an idea what steps are necessary to find a solution.

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • It’s the chance to write about a meaningful idea or experience.
  • You can show off your problem-solving skills.
  • You can show off your critical thinking skills.
  • Colleges love to see how you think. This question lets you show them how you’d plan a course of action to achieve a goal.
    how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid: 
  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has four parts: Describe a problem, explain its significance to you, identify a solution, and describe either how you achieved it or might begin to achieve it. You must answer all four parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods, but so what? Make sure the problem you’re writing about matters to you.
  • Don‘t be Generic. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But even a large-scale topic needs to be of personal significance. Sure, you could write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Or will you be writing phrases like, “Everyone should get along” and “Peace will help save the world”? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or means something to you. That’s the only way your personality will land squarely on the page.
  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. If your essay spends most of its time describing the problem and only a couple of sentences on achieving a solution, then it’s unbalanced. Make sure to devote space to discussing your solution. This should include your thought process—what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it, and the decisions that result. You’re showing colleges what kind of critical thinker and problem solver you’ll be at college. Show them you’ll be a darn good one.
  • You Don’t Have to Solve The Problem Alone. You may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal. That’s okay. Write about who they are (scientists,  politicians, researchers..?) and what they’ll contribute. Part of your problem-solving process is to figure out what support you’ll need.

Not Sure This Question Relates to You?
Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

  • Are you a budding scientist with research ideas?
  • Do you have an idea for a product that solves a problem?
  • Have you figured out a way to make everyday life a little easier?
  • Were you ever creative or resourceful when it came to solving a common problem?
  • Have you been involved with a group, program, or internship where you’ve learned about a problem that became important to you, and now you have ideas about how you can continue to think about or work on it?

Examples of Successful Essay Topics

Brain Farts

Jeremy was driving home and missed the turn down his street. He was stumped. He couldn’t figure out why he’d missed doing something he had done a hundred times. He wanted to know what caused his “brain fart,” so he found the scientific name (maladaptive change) and developed a two-part experiment to identify and predict when these changes would occur. Jeremy hopes to get the chance to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. In this essay, he was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and problem-solving skills.

Water Pollution Detective

During a school research project, Liz helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. Helping her community meant a lot to her, and she wanted to do more. So now Liz plans to contact local authorities and work with them to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills. She hasn’t implemented the solution yet, but can explain the steps she’d take.

Saving the Crops

Lily, a student from China, witnessed locusts destroy her entire community’s harvest. Lily reasoned that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, they might be able to save crops and even combat hunger. To work on the problem, she plans to set up a research project in college. The project will use mathematical applications to more accurately predict the insects’ life cycle. Lily dreamed big, but at the same time her story was specific: She had a personal connection and a passion for solving a large-scale problem.

Interested in Common App essay #4? Include your decision-making process. Explain how you came up with (or would come up with) a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?). Make sure you explain why this topic is meaningful to you. And write a great problem-solving essay.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #5.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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 “How to Write” 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: Questioned or 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: 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

 

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 questioned belief or idea


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3: Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 questioned belief or idea

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:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“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.

how to write 2013 common app essay

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-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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

How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstacles


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 2: Lessons We Take From Obstacles

How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstaclesHave you ever faced an obstacle and had to figure out how to get through it? Did you succeed—or maybe not?

Have you ever failed at something? I mean really tanked.

Did you learn from your experience?

Then Common Application Essay prompt #2 may be for you.

This is the second in my series on how to write the 2018 Common Application essay prompts.  In this post, you’ll discover how to approach Common Application Essay prompt 2 and decide if it’s right for you.

Are you ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #2:

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?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay
“Obstacles”…”Lessons”…”Challenge”…”Setback”…
“Failure”…”Affect you”…”Learn”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • AND you learned from your experience.
  • AND you can reflect on how it affected you.

how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid:

  • This question has three parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.
  • Don’t wallow in the obstacle. It’s not the obstacle that’s important. Colleges are looking for how you responded and what you learned. Don’t spend too much space on what happened. Mention it and move on.
  • Avoid writing about a bad grade or marking period. Lots of students have a bad grade or marking period. If you write about it, the risk is that your essay will sound like a lot of others. (“I worked hard and learned that I could persevere.”) Remember: If your gut says it’s a common topic, sounds boring, or doesn’t differentiate you from other applicants, then choose something else to write about.

Tip: Failure isn’t the only option. Some students think this question is only about failure. It’s not. That’s why the prompt includes the keywords “obstacle,” “challenge,” and “setback.” Your experience doesn’t have to rise to the level of failure for you to write about it. And you certainly don’t have to try and manipulate a setback or challenge to make it sound like one.

Successful Essay Topic Example:

“Snowbound Night”

When he was 15, Andrew started a snowplow business using an ATV he had purchased. But the ATV wasn’t good at plowing deep snow. Andrew knew that, and would plow out his customers two or three times during a big snowfall. But one night his alarm didn’t wake him up, and by morning there were eight inches of snow on the ground. When Andrew started to move the ATV, it got stuck in his driveway. He knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV, and plowed out his customers just in time for them to get to work.

After that experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment so he could serve his customers better. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. Now he would like to pursue a business career.

Why this Topic Succeeds:

•    All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
•    It also shows he has good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.

But should you really write about a failure?

Absolutely. It’s a character-building experience.

Colleges wonder whether or not you can succeed in college by handling a bad grade, a difficult roommate or another frustration. When they see you’ve already been able to handle a significant challenge, you’ve given them that answer. They start to envision the kind of person you’ll be after college, too.

how to write 2013 Common Application essay

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?

how to write Common Application how to write essay personal statementDON’T BE.  Remember, colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.

In fact, Christine Hamilton, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission at Babson College, tells me she sees a lot of failure essays and that’s okay with her. She learns a lot about the character of incoming students by hearing how they’ve coped with failure.

CAUTION: Never write about failures that include very risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving).

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Next: How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3 A Time You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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.

Other posts in Sharon’s “How to Write” series:
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 1 – Background, Identity or Interest
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 2Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3 A Time You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 4Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 5Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 6: What Makes You Lose All Track of Time
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 7: Topic of Your Choice