The Common Application Essays: #3

By Ryan Hickey + updated on September 14th, 2015

Part of becoming an adult is forming our own ideas and opinions about a broad variety of issues. Sometimes, this means challenging the status quo and offering a different perspective than the one shared by others. It can also mean challenging our own point of view and adopting an opposite or more nuanced understanding of things. For this article in our five part series, we’ll delve deeper into the third of the 2015-2016 Common App prompts.

Here’s the prompt:

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


The prompt is clear that the admissions officers are looking for three distinct and well-developed sections in the essay.

1. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.

In this part of the essay, you need to tell the reader what happened. You could probably fill the entire essay just by explaining the story. Therefore, you may want to go ahead and write the whole thing out first and then trim back to give sufficient space to other aspects of the prompt.

2. What prompted you to act?

This is probably the most crucial aspect of the essay. With this question, the admissions officers are letting you know that they don’t want to read an essay about something that only happened inside your mind. Although broadening our perspectives is an important part of life, the admissions officers are looking for an experience where you took some action.

3. Would you make the same decision again?

While it can be exhilarating to challenge a belief and emerge victorious, don’t be afraid to explore times when things didn’t go so well. Despite having the better idea, others may not see things from our point of view due to differing value systems or simple fear of change. In other words, a story about challenging a belief or idea where everything went smoothly doesn’t make for the most compelling essay. If you choose this prompt, then also choose an anecdote where there was some tension or struggle. Finally, it’s okay to say that you would not make the same decision again. Either way, the admissions officers are looking for self-reflection in this section.


One of the biggest challenges of this prompt is avoiding the temptation to paint things in terms of black and white. When writing about challenging the beliefs or ideas of others, be careful not to present the other person or the other group as a caricature. Regardless of how difficult or blatantly incorrect the other opinion, you’re still writing about a real person who is much more than their views on this one issue. The most effective way to counter this pitfall is simply to acknowledge that, while you wholeheartedly disagree, you can understand the other perspective. This shows maturity and empathy – characteristics that all admissions officers are seeking in applicants.

In college, you’ll continually be expected to defend your point of view, so choosing this prompt can be a great way to demonstrate that you have the courage, humility, and analytical skills to excel in the college environment. Show understanding for yourself and others throughout the essay, and then conclude with how you have grown from the experience.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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