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Taking Things On: 3 Tips to Answer Common Application Essay Prompt #3

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Aug 16, 2016 5:00:00 AM

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You do something new, and you see yourself and the world differently. If you’ve had one of these moments, you will know. I once interviewed an applicant for Princeton whose parents had kicked him out when he told them he was gay. He had lived with a friend for a while, and was applying to college from a homeless shelter.

“How did you find the courage?” I remember asking him. “Would you do it again?”

“I just couldn’t live a lie anymore,” he said, looking directly into my eyes.

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?

The keywords in this Common Application question are “reflect,” “challenged,” and “act.” It’s almost a series of questions, inviting you to describe a time that you took on something established, what you did, and what you learned: there is the challenge itself, what caused you to act, and then—this is the “reflect” part—would you do it again?

First, what is the issue, the belief or idea that you challenged? Perhaps it was a time you stood up for something for the first time, like calling your friends out for bullying. Perhaps it was the intersection of something personal and political, and perhaps the stakes are high, like the young man who came out to his parents and lost his home. Here are three tips for answering the Common Application question on challenging a belief:

Show the situation from your perspective. Engage your reader by taking them into your world and showing them what your world looked like before the change, what catalyzed the change, and how your world was different afterwards.

Remember to reflect, not argue. The danger in this question is shifting to an analytical essay and arguing for your own beliefs like you would in English class. People who are leaders in debate find themselves quickly down this rabbit hole. But the question asks you to “reflect” and even to challenge your own actions with the phrase “would you make the same decision again?”

Reveal who you will be in college. If you tell a story about a moment you took action, your reader will get a clear picture of what they can count on you for. That is one of the most important things college admissions officers are looking for in your essays: What will you do when you are confronted with new situations? Not what will you think or even what will you say, but what will you do? How will you act?

And what if you are not a person who challenges beliefs and ideas? For this Common App prompt I encourage you to explore what life would look like if something was so important to you that you chose to act.

Want more tips for Common App prompts? Check out our Guide to the Common App.

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Topics:High School and College

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