Now that the Common Application for the 2016-2017 cycle is available, it’s time to start think about ideas for your essay. Because you will probably be sending the Common App to many of the colleges on your list, it’s a good idea to start planning what you want to say early on. Unlike some other parts of your application, such as grades and test scores, the essay portion is subjective and allows you complete control over how you present yourself. It gives you a chance to show sides of yourself that may not be evident in the more objective aspects of your application.

Prompt #3 of the Common Application asks the following:

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Unpacking the prompt

This prompt is a great way to show colleges who you are and what is important to you. While much of your application focuses on your intelligence, success as a student, hard work, and achievements, this is an opportunity to demonstrate your personality and willingness to take risks. Reflecting on a time you challenged a belief or idea allows you to show colleges what your values are.

This prompt may seem a little tricky at first because as a high school student, you may not have participated in many large-scale protests, which initially may seem like the only way to respond to this prompt. However, your response doesn’t need to present a time you radically altered the status quo. You can challenge beliefs in a multitude of small ways that may not even seem that radical to you, but may have made a difference—however big or small—to a person or a system. Of course, if you do have an example of a time you effected great change, this is a great opportunity to do write about it.

Usually, challenging a long-held belief or idea requires some kind of challenge or stress to your own way of acting. That doesn’t mean the incident you choose needs to have resulted in a massive consequence to you, or that you must have put everything on the line. But it does mean it should be something outside of your norm, and something that caused some amount of disruption to the way you and others typically behave.

Think about why you did what you did and why it was important to you. Was it something that bothered you for a long time? Did you know beforehand you were going to act, or was it a spur of the moment decision?

You should also be sure to explore some ways what you did affected you. Did you learn anything from your actions? Did it change or alter your views in any way? In answering whether or not you would make the same decision again, explain why or why not.

Developing an idea

As discussed above, your topic doesn’t need to be something that radically altered the norms of society. Even if you influenced just one person’s life, it may be worth discussing. For instance, you could write about a time you stood up for a friend or peer who was being bullied, or a time you befriended someone who was considered unpopular. Or you might describe a time you called someone out for using hateful or discriminatory language. The essay is less about the incident itself and more about what it demonstrates about you as a person.

Note that it is okay to write about something somewhat controversial here. But make sure you are limiting the controversy to the action or idea itself, and not how you present it or perceive it. For instance, if you engaged in an anti-war rally or a political protest, you should explain why the cause is important to you and your specific participation. Avoid disparaging others or explaining why you think the opposition is wrong or at fault—and never use insulting or derogatory language. There is definitely a such thing as too controversial. You should never write about a time when you did anything discriminatory, inappropriate, violent, or illegal. If you have any concerns about how something might come across or how you will appear, you may want to avoid writing about that particular incident.

If you are having trouble coming up with an idea for your essay, try making a list of values and opinions that are especially important to you. Then consider how you have presented these views. Have there been any instances in which you needed to get outside your comfort zone in order to express something that is important to you?

This is an opportunity to think outside the box a bit. Challenging a belief doesn’t necessarily mean you stood at a podium and vocalized your stance on a particular cause. Instead, it might mean you started a club or program aimed at feeding the hungry and encountered some difficulties in getting people to take you seriously as a teenager. Or perhaps you overcame your shyness in order to perform an act at a talent show. If you encountered any dissonance regarding adults’ or peers’ expectations of you and what you are capable of and powered through, that is an example of challenging a belief.

If the results of your challenge weren’t necessarily what you expected, don’t write it off as a bad idea for an essay. Such experiences provide an opportunity to explore how you might approach the situation differently in the future, or how you could manage or change your expectations. You could even write about a time when you challenged a belief and later realized you were in the wrong, and explain how you came to that conclusion and what you think about it now.

While it is certainly acceptable to write about implementing small-scale change, you should avoid topics that may come across as trivial or actions that you performed solely to directly benefit yourself. For instance, if you led a protest against your school’s dress code because you wanted to be able to wear tank tops to school, you may not want to share this story with colleges. However, if the protest spoke to larger issues with your school’s administration and unfair or unequal treatment of students, you might use approach it from that lens.

You should also avoid writing about a way you effected change that was meant to benefit you and no one else, unless it reflected a larger societal issue. For example, your campaign to institute more clam chowder days at the cafeteria because you particularly like clam chowder is not going to impress the admissions committee. However, if you attempted to institute healthier food options in the cafeteria because childhood obesity is on the rise, that might be an issue you could tackle in your essay.

Writing the essay

You are telling a story in this essay. Since this is an opportunity to talk about a particular experience that actually happened, keep in mind all the conventions of a narrative. It should have a conflict and a resolution, even if that resolution doesn’t feel final. The resolution could even be your own thoughts regarding the experience.

A good way to open the essay—and really, almost any personal essay—is to tell an anecdote. That helps draw the reader in and engage him or her in the narrative you are telling. In this case, you might start with the incident itself, or, if you are describing a long incident or series of experiences, a particular moment.

For example, if you are writing about a time you organized a trip to Washington, D.C. to participate in a political rally, describe the setting. Bring yourself and the readers back to the scene. Tell them what it was like to sit on the bus and what you were thinking. Were you nervous? What were you hoping to achieve?

If you have not already done so in the anecdote, fully explain what happened during and afterwards in detail, including the reactions of others and your personal response. What did you feel while you were doing what you did, and how did you feel afterwards?

Explain what prompted you to act. Why did you do what you did? Did anything or anyone influence you in a particular way? How long did it take from ideation to execution?

Describe the aftermath. What did you accomplish? Were the results positive, negative, or mixed? If you had it to do over again, would you? This is another opportunity to convey your values to the admissions committee, as well as any life lessons you may have learned. How did the experience affect you? Did it change you as a person? (If it didn’t affect you at all, it’s probably not worth writing about.)

Since you have a 650-word limit, precision of language is key here. That doesn’t mean you should skimp on the details—in fact, the more details the better. However, choose your details and the parts of the story to include very carefully. If a particular element is not integral to the story, don’t include it.

Presentation

Throughout writing the essay, keep in mind that you are presenting yourself. This is a chance for you to shine. Colleges want to know about your values and personality here—not those of a teacher, friend, or family member. Even if you are writing about a group effort, you should focus on yourself and your participation, as well as how it affected you and why you were involved.

Consider your tone in the essay as well. You can express that you are proud of yourself, but avoid acting superior or putting down others for failing to act. On the reverse side, avoid putting yourself down, deeming your efforts as useless or unimportant, or presenting yourself as a failure. A little self-deprecation is okay, as long as it adds something to the overall essay. But you don’t want to come off as too negative about yourself or anyone else. Remember, you want colleges to get a sense of who you are and what you deem important, and ultimately impress them.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine