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College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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How to Write 2016 Common Application Essay #3: Reflect On a Time When You Challenged a Belief or Idea

How to write 2016 Common App essay prompt 3 reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea Hooray! You’re applying to college!

How do you choose which Common Application essay to write?

In this 5-part series I help you figure out which 2016 Common Application question is right for you.

  • For the entire list of 2016 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 challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Challenged a belief or idea” “Prompted you to act”…”Would you make the same decision again?”

When Should You Choose This Essay?

Answer this question ONLY IF:

  • You were confronted with a belief or idea which you felt compelled to challenge or change.

What are Colleges Looking For?

Colleges are looking for your critical thinking skills. Show them your thought process (the steps you took to make your decision) and then reflect on your experience (which will show them maturity and insight).

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Understand the keywords. “Challenged a belief or idea” means that you took some kind of action either on your own behalf or on the behalf of someone or something else.
  • This question has THREE parts—don’t leave one out. Discuss what prompted you to act, then reflect on your decision and say whether you’d do it again.
  • Don’t forget to include a learning experience. What did you learn? How did you grow?
  • 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.

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. (Give the colleges good reasons to want to admit you.) If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

A student’s elementary school teacher wasn’t a kind woman and picked on many of the children in her class. As a result, the student’s self-esteem suffered and her grades dropped. It took a long time for the student to learn to stand up for herself, but when she finally did she started to excel. In high school, she became a leader and mentor and spoke to teens about how to combat bullying. She taught them the harmful power of words, and how to use words in a positive way.  In her essay she explained why she would make the same decision again: “My passion for making a difference stems from my own experiences where negative criticism created a lasting effect on me…Becoming emotionally and physically independent and having the confidence to challenge social norms have become the most powerful tools in my possession.”

Is This Topic Successful? Yes.

  • All the keywords are addressed. The student told her story, described what prompted her to act, and explained why she would make the same decision again.
  • She included a learning experience. Once she learned to stand up for herself, the student took on the role of a mentor and leader, and worked to combat bullying.
  • She conveyed positive qualities. This student exhibited personal strength and moral character. She was able to pull herself out of a difficult situation to personally excel and to help others.
  • She gave colleges excellent reasons to admit her: She was a leader, a compassionate human being, and someone with high standards who wanted to make a difference.

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.
  • Interesting Fact: Last year, this was the least-answered Common App essay prompt. Since admissions officers won’t read as many of these essay answers, your topic could have a better chance of standing out.

Tip: It’s okay to say you wouldn’t make the same decision again. Colleges want to see that you have the maturity and perspective to understand your actions.  Just remember—by the end of the essay you should be saying positive things about yourself.

For more information on the Common Application visit their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #4.

Also in this series:
For the entire list of 2016 Common App essay prompts click here.


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. We work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.





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What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 1): The Hook

Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About WritingPart 1 The HookSince I have over a decade of experience writing and managing analysis for senior US policymakers and another decade of experience writing novels, reviewing manuscripts, writing cover and catalogue copy for a publisher of commercial fiction, as well as blogging and tweeting, what I’ve learned about writing couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog. So I’ve decided to craft a series of posts with what I consider the most important lessons.

Number 1:
Always hook the reader with the first line.

Policymakers, book buyers, and college admissions officers have at least one key thing in common (besides their need to breathe oxygen). They’re busy people facing a lot of choices. Policymakers need to know why the issue you’re writing about requires their attention more than the all the other crises that have landed on their desk. Book buyers, scanning the cover jacket of your novel or the first page, want to know why they should choose your story over all the other books in the store. And college admissions officers want to know, why you?

What makes a good hook?

When you read the title of this blog did you wonder what the CIA and bodice rippers have in common? Were you curious about whether I might let national security secrets slip? Or were you simply intrigued? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I hooked you.

An effective hook includes what I like to call the three “I”s, that is, it intrigues, invites, and introduces. More specifically, it includes an intriguing statement or idea, invites you into a world, and introduces you to the narrator.

Here are some examples of great first line hooks. The first two I’ve copped from a 2015 list published by the British newspaper, The Telegraph. Number one on the list, and probably number one on most such lists is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In a single line, Jane makes a teasingly intriguing statement (are all wealthy men really in need of a wife?), invites you into a world where matrimonial pursuit it all-important, and introduces you to a narrator who has her tongue masterfully tucked in her cheek.

The opening line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby cues you in that your narrator is going to invite you into a past experience he’s had, one that’s shaken his traditional beliefs:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticising any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Intriguingly, the line suggests that despite this experience, the narrator holds so tightly to these beliefs, (his father’s advice) that despite his experience, he may still not be ready to abandon them.

The last example, from M.T. Anderson’s FEED, isn’t from the list, but it’s one of my favorites:

“We went to the moon. And the moon sucked.”

In two very short lines, the narrator has given you a wealth of information. First, he’s telling you that you’re entering a world where travel to the moon is not only possible, it’s so commonplace that the narrator and his companions find it boring. The language (the moon sucked) makes it clear he’s young and jaded. If this young narrator lives in a world where trips to the moon are passé, what, the reader has to wonder, could possibly happen to shake up his life?

So what does great literature have to do with college essays?

At this point, you may be thinking, sure it’s easy to write a good hook if you’re an English lady, living in the roaring twenties, or regularly traveling to the moon. I’m just a senior in high school. Take another look at these lines. Jane Austen’s talking about dating. Fitzgerald’s talking about questioning parental advice. And Anderson’s talking about a trip. It’s their voices, Austen’s snarky, Fitzgerald’s questioning, and Andersen’s blunt and bored, that draw you in.

So how do you craft your hook?

For starters, don’t expect to start out with something amazing like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”  

Because you can bet dollars to donuts, Dickens didn’t either.

Find your story. Find your voice—are you passionate, questioning, offbeat, funny? Do you text or tweet? That’s also a good place to find your voice.

Let it shine through. Write your draft. Write several. Circle back. Now find what makes your story intriguing, introduce yourself, and cast your line to reel your readers in.

Next! Read the other posts in this series:
Part 2: Keep it Simple, Stupid
Part 3: Beware Disconnected Ideas

With oJoanna Novinsver two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.