September 7, 2018

The Common Application Essay 3

Common App

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

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #3

Another great prompt.

Imagine looking at a photograph of an average-looking person, under average lighting, on an average day, with average-looking skin. “Normal-looking skin” by most standards. Imagine you were asked, what do you think of that person’s skin? You might answer, “Uh, it looks perfectly average to me. Not a single thing out of the ordinary.” And in one sense, you might be right.

But imagine if you then found out that that person had recently been involved in a horrible plane crash, barely survived, having clawed his way out of a crumpled fuselage engulfed in a fireball, had third-degree burns all over his body, was told he might not survive at all, let alone look anywhere close to normal ever again, underwent major reconstructive surgery…

… Let’s ask it again: “What do you think of that person’s skin?”

Looks a touch different now, doesn’t it? What changed your conclusion? Not the picture, but rather, the context.

Back to Common App Essay Question #3. Before we can appreciate your questioning/challenging a belief or idea, we need CONTEXT first. Setup. Background. Establish the status quo. Establish the normal.

Let’s look at another example. Say the coach of the high school basketball team is known to be incredibly tough, borderline mean. But ultimately respected and revered. Parents, teachers, students, and players all agree that while the coach can be tough, his intentions are sound and his methodology, while challenging to endure, is ultimately better than others’ who have come before him. If, under those circumstances, you were to take a stand against the coach somehow, it may beg the question, is this an act of short-sightedness? Immaturity? Etc.

Let’s replay the scenario. Let’s say that the coach were incredibly tough, borderline mean, but not respected by everyone. Universally disliked in fact. But no one said anything because he had influence (somehow) over the principal, and over teachers. If under those circumstances, you were to defy the coach and take a stand – where others had the exact same instinct, but lacked the courage to do so – now all of a sudden, you’re a hero of the people.

See the difference? See how pivotal the background is? So, context is the first essential component for a great answer to this essay prompt.

There’s another key aspect though. The most compelling version of challenging a prevailing belief or idea includes some element of INCONVENIENCE to the challenger. Some potential cost.

When Copernicus challenged the belief that the sun revolves around the Earth, he was taking a huge risk positing that. (Want proof? Homeboy ended up in jail for suggesting it!) That risk made his stance that much more compelling.

Without the inconvenience, it won’t weigh as much. If you challenge the idea today that the sun revolves around the Earth, no one will care. Why? Because it’s the popularly- held belief. It isn’t “inconvenient” to you in any way to hazard the theory that it’s the other way around. So, a good test of whether your story makes for a good response here, is whether the STAKES were high. What did you stand to LOSE if things didn’t go your way? If you stood to lose something, but you acted in spite of that risk… now we’re getting somewhere.

Approaching the Essay

Step 1 is to set the stage. Establish the “normal.” Or, establish the “before” picture. Create an itch in your reader by making us feel what you felt. If you do this correctly, we will develop the same desire to spring into action the way that you did.

But go slow, don’t get ahead of yourself. Consider how this situation looked from other angles. Try to see it the way OTHERS saw it—others for whom it was reasonable NOT to challenge in some way. Explain that rationale, if you can. (This is a muscle “smart people” use … walking AROUND a problem, trying to develop a 360 ̊ view.)

Then, after you’ve established the “normal,” now reveal some kind of dilemma. Something giving you pause about acting/challenging. There must have been SOME cost, otherwise (as we suggested earlier) it won’t make for much of a challenge story. Explain what you stood to lose. Reputation? Respect from some people? Breaking a promise? Hurting the feelings of someone along the way? Something else? Walk us through the inner dialogue:

  1. “Here’s why I should challenge this thing.” (Your Reason for Challenging)
  2. “But I’m afraid XY and Z might happen if I do.” (The Cost)
  3. “But I’m willing to risk all that, because I feel more strongly about X than Y.” (The Tilting Factor)

Walk us through the actual act of “challenging” the belief/idea. Take us through it in real-time (as though it were happening now), and let us hear your thought process while it’s all happening. (This is a neat writer’s trick, writing in present tense for this kind of material.)

Which brings us to the final section, the outcome. Part of it is simply what you’d expect on the face of it, “how did it literally turn out”? Just so we get a sense of the facts. But then, there’s another layer, the one we’re really interested in. The deeper reflections:

  • Would you do the same thing again?
  • Would you approach it differently?
  • Did it indeed come at a cost, and was it worth it?

It’s okay if the answer of whether you’d do it again is “no.” Maybe you were impulsive and acted hastily. Maybe you didn’t act impulsively enough. Maybe time has taught you a lesson that casts this experience in a different light. Patting yourself on the back for handling the situation perfectly the first time around isn’t necessarily the most impressive response. In fact, it can be somewhat predictable. Ideally, there’s SOMETHING you’ve learned along the way that imbues this moment from your past with richer insight. Bring it. Let’s see that you’re someone who matures. And grows. Life is gonna grow more (not less) complex. Show us here – in this reflective moment – that you can wrap your head around these complexities, such that the next time you meet a challenge, you’ll be that much better equipped to battle it.


Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

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