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How to Write Common App Essay Prompt 3

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



What is Prompt 3?


The third prompt option for the Common App essay is as follows:


Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?


Today we’re going to analyze this prompt to form a better understanding of how to best tackle it and create a great response in the form of an essay.


Prompt 3 Tips and Tricks


Why Prompt 3 is Tricky


This prompt is difficult to answer because most high schoolers haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests that lend themselves to an awe inspiring response – for example, some instance  where you were fighting against social ills and making a huge difference in the world.


A more tenable alternative here would be to discuss a time that you went against social norms, whether it was becoming friends with somebody who was seen as “the weird kid” or an outcast or proudly showing off a geeky passion. If you ever participated in a situation in tandem with adults that found success, such as blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns, you can discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional circles.


You want to really strike a balance though, and one of the challenges of this essay is that you should describe these things and experiences without sounding morally superior. You don’t want to paint yourself as the only person in the world who goes against this convention or sound like you are saying “how could everyone else be so blind to just go with this?” You should be careful not to write about yourself as better than your peers simply because you pushed back against the norm. This essay should be about the process and the act of pushing back against something and conveying what you learned from this. 


Brainstorming and Planning


One way to go about this prompt is to discuss a time when you noticed a need for change. For example, maybe you wondered why medical records were handwritten at your doctor’s office or why a doctor’s visit was long and awkward, and challenged the norm by brainstorming an electronic recording smartphone app or a telemedicine system. Or maybe you led a fundraiser and recognized that advertising on social media would be more effective than the traditional use of printed flyers. You could write something along those lines, focusing on the experience that you had which caused you to recognize the need for change, how you followed up with actions, and the resulting outcome.


A good brainstorming exercise for this kind of essay would be to write your problem on a sheet of paper and then develop various solutions to the problem, including a brief reason or justification. The more you delve into the issue and the more thorough you are in justifying and explaining your solutions will make your essay more compelling.


As a whole, this prompt lends itself to reflective writing and, more specifically, taking the reader through your internal process and reflections. In many cases, the exploration of your thought processes and decision making is more important than the actual outcome or concept in question. In short, this essay is more about thinking, rumination, inquisition, curiousity,  or asking questions where people aren’t already and then how you went about making a change.


Focus on You


Of course, you wanna make sure that you’re focusing on yourself and your own experiences. This is an essay about you. It’s not an essay about a problem; instead, it’s an essay about you solving a problem. Therefore, make sure that while you justify your actions,  the focus is  always on you. 


Prompt 3 Essay Example and Analysis


One consultant with CollegeVine wrote her essay on this topic about the experience of growing up with a unique name and feeling pressured to be different from other people. She would sacrifice her own wishes and preferences just to make unconventional choices.


Finally, she challenged the idea of being different. She wanted to discover her real interests, so she defied what she’d always expected of herself. Here’s an excerpt: 


Whenever someone hears my name for the first time they comment, “wow, Genina is such a cool name. She must be pretty cool. She must be from somewhere exotic. She must be musical and artsy.”


When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task. But I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red during snack time. We would choose between apple juice and grape juice, and even though I liked apple juice more, if everyone else was choosing apple I had to have grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. After eighth grade, I moved to Georgia, and I soon discovered that my freshman year would be my new high school’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from five different schools, there was no real sense of normal.


I panicked – if there was no normal, how could I be unique? I realized I’d spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were. It was time to find out. I joined the basketball team, performed in school musicals, and enrolled in chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I did whatever I thought would make me happy, and it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. I’d finally become my own person.


One thing that this essay does well is that it shows growth over time. This prompt is asking for going against what people expect of you or social convention, and this person talks about how they’d always done that. They wanted to try being their own person rather than being different for the sake of being different, and so we see that they are discovering themselves over the course of the essay. This excerpt has been shortened, so a line like “I was no longer socially awkward” is abrupt and declarative, but in the full essay this would flow more smoothly.


Although this example describes a situation without giving any details or ideas about where that came from, keep in mind that this is just a shortened, edited excerpt. Building to a revelation like this would make for a very compelling essay. 


How to Perfect Your Prompt 3 Essay


Want to know if your response to Common App prompt 3 is strong enough for your top-choice schools? Try out our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free, anonymous, and secure review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills and earn CollegeVine Karma by reviewing other users’ essays!