Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief

Tips and Strategies for an Essay that Reflects on a Time You Challenged a Belief

Portrait of three friends protesting with blank placards
Challenging an idea or belief. Fabrice LEROUGE / Getty Images

The third essay option on the Common Application was slightly revised for the 2017-18 application season. The current prompt reads: 

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

The focus on a "belief or idea" makes this question wonderfully (and perhaps paralyzingly) broad. Indeed, you could write about almost anything that you've ever openly questioned, whether it be your school's daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, the color of your team uniforms, or the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

Of course, some ideas and beliefs will lead to better essays than others.

Choosing an "Idea or Belief"

Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with an "idea or belief" you have questioned or challenged that will lead to a good essay. Keep in mind that the belief could be your own, your family's, a peer's, a peer group's, or a larger social or cultural group's.

As you narrow down your options, don't lose sight of the purpose of the essay: the college to which you are applying has holistic admissions, so the admissions folks want to get to know you as a whole person, not just as a list of grades, test scores, and awards. Your essay should tell the admissions officers something about you that will make them want to invite you to join their campus community. Your essay needs to show that you are a thoughtful, analytical, and open-minded person, and it should also reveal something that you care about deeply.

Thus, the idea or belief that you reflect upon shouldn't be something superficial; it should center on an issue that is central to your identity.

Keep this points in mind as you brainstorm your topic:

  • The belief can be your own. In fact, your own belief can be an excellent choice for this essay option. If you are able to reevaluate and challenge your own beliefs, you are demonstrating that you are a student who has the self-awareness, open-mindedness, and maturity that are essential ingredients for college success.
  • The belief or idea can take many forms: a political or ethical belief; a theoretical or scientific idea; a personal conviction; an entrenched way of doing things (challenging the status quo); and so on. Realize, however, that some beliefs can send your essay into controversial and potentially risky territory. Tread carefully if you plan to explore one of these ten bad essay topics.
  • Your challenge of the idea or belief need not have been successful. For example, if your community believes in the value of killing snakes on Whacking Day and you ran a campaign to stop this barbaric practice, your efforts could lead to a good essay whether or not you were successful (if you were not successful, your essay might also work for option #2 on learning from failure).
  • The best essays reveal something that the writer is passionate about. By the end of the essay, the admissions folks should feel that they have a much better grasp on what it is that motivates you. Be sure to explore an idea or belief that will allow you to present some of your interests and passions.

Break Down the Question

If you choose this prompt, read the question carefully. The question has three distinct parts:

  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea; reflective writing is popular in higher education today, and to respond effectively to this prompt it is important to understand what reflection is and what it isn't. Reflection is far more than summarizing or reminiscing. Your task with this question isn't simply to describe a time when you questioned or challenged a belief. To "reflect" upon something you did is to analyze and contextualize your actions. What were you motives? Why did you do what you did? What were you thinking at the time, and in retrospect, were your thoughts at the time appropriate? How have your questions and actions played a role in your personal growth?
  • What prompted your thinking? If you did the first part of the question effectively ("reflect"), then you've already responded to this part of the question. Again, make sure you aren't just describing what you were thinking and how you acted. Explain why you were challenging the belief or idea. How did your own beliefs and ideas motivate you to question challenge some other belief or idea? What was the tipping point that spurred your to question the belief?
  • What was the outcome? This part of the prompt is also asking for reflection. Look back at the big picture and put your challenge in context. What were the results of challenging the belief or idea? Was challenging the belief worth the effort? Did good come of your action? Did you pay a heavy price for your challenge? Did you or someone else learn and grow from your efforts? Realize that your answer here need not be "yes." Sometimes we challenge beliefs only to learn later that the outcome wasn't worth the cost. You don't need to present yourself as a hero who changed the world through your challenge of the status quo. Many excellent essays explore a challenge that didn't turn out as planned. Indeed, sometimes we grow more from missteps and failures than we do from triumph.

    A Sample Essay on Challenging a Belief:

    To illustrate that the belief or idea you questioned doesn't need to be anything monumental, check out Jennifer's response to Common Application essay option #3, her essay titled Gym Class Hero. The idea that Jennifer challenges is her own—her self doubt and insecurity that often hold her back from accomplishing something. 

    A Final Note on Essay Option #3:

    College is all about challenging ideas and beliefs, so this essay prompt engages a key skill for college success. A good college education is not about being spoon fed information that you will regurgitate in papers and exams. Rather, it is about asking questions, probing assumptions, testing ideas, and engaging in thoughtful debate. If you choose essay option #3, make sure you demonstrate that you have these skills.

    Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability.