College Application Essays: How to Answer Prompt 3 of the Common App.
Who or What Have You Confronted Lately?
When you read the five options for your Common Application essay, one prompt probably will appeal to you first off. Others you will skim and choose to ignore.
This is how I felt about the third prompt–“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
It just didn’t inspire any topic ideas for me, and I assumed it was less likely than the others to work for you, too.
But when I gave this question a little more thought, I realized that I challenged a belief while I was in my teens. And it was a very big deal.
I was raised in a religion that is considered relatively radical and unusual, and when I started to think for myself (sometime around junior high) I decided it wasn’t for me.
I was not popular with my parents, some of my friends or my parochial school at the time, and it was hard sticking to my guns. Although rejecting my religion was challenging, painful and lonely, the process truly defined who I was and what I believed. It would have made an excellent essay topic.
So there. I have to eat my negative words about that third essay question.
I wonder what other possible topics could be for that question, besides challenging a religion that has been imposed upon you.
How about a gender belief? Or racial or cultural one? Could you stretch the meaning of a “belief or idea” into an assumption, opinion or prejudice? I think so, especially if you indicate that you have done that in your essay.
I also think if you try to think of a time someone or something first challenged you on a certain “belief or idea,” and then you challenged back, you might find more real-life examples to write about.
For instance, someone tried to hold you back just because you were a girl, and what you did about that (the belief you challenged: girls are inferior to guys).
Or someone kept you out of an activity or group just because of your race or heritage, and what you did about that. I’m imaging some type of confrontation or speaking up or fighting back (peacefully, of course).
I like that the prompt asks you pointedly to also include “what prompted you to act,” so you include some action in your essay.
It’s always a good thing when something actually happens in these college application essays.
The last question in this prompt, “Would you make the same decision again,” is meant to encourage you to look back and reflect, analyze and evaluate that decision to challenge the belief or idea.
A Sample Outline for Prompt 3
If you want to answer this prompt, here’s one way you could structure your essay to engage the reader with your challenging action, and go on to explain why you did it:
1. Start with an anecdote that describes a moment or “time” when you challenged the belief or idea you are writing about. This could simply be the conversation where you confronted someone about it, or some action you took to protest or react to that belief or idea.
2. After a paragraph or two where you described an example of a specific “time” you challenged the belief or idea (or assumption, stereotype, opinion, prejudice, etc.), then go back and give us the back story about this time. What led up to it?
3. Then start to explain how that incident made you feel, what made you decide you didn’t accept it, “what prompted you to act,” how you responded to it, and what you learned in the process. And of course, would you do it again?
The most important part of writing about this prompt, I believe, is to bring some action to your essay. It could be dull and long-winded if you only talk about your beliefs or ideas. Focus on a specific example where something happened and your essay is sure to be compelling.
The larger lesson here, at least that I’ve learned, in reviewing the five options for writing your college admissions essays for these new Common Application prompts is to try your best to think about and brainstorm ideas for each one. Even if one jumps out at you, give the others a chance. I think I could have written a great essay if I had thought more about my own time I challenged a belief or idea!
My new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, offers more complete steps and advice on how to write these types of “narrative,” or storytelling, essays, if you want more help: