"Gym Class Hero" - a Common Application Essay Sample for Option #3

Read a Sample Common Application Essay on Challenging a Belief

Runner Standing on Track
Runner Standing on Track. Fuse / Getty Images

Jennifer wrote the essay below in response to the 2015-16 Common Application essay option #3. The prompt reads, Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

After reading the essay, be sure to go to page two to read a critique of the essay.

Gym Class Hero

I’m not really an athlete. I’m all for a rousing game of badminton or tennis, and I enjoy cross-country skiing and hiking, but I enjoy these activities as recreation.

I don’t find enjoyment in testing my physical limits to the point of pain. I’m not competitive by nature; I rarely challenge others, or find myself face-to-face with an opponent. Except, to my surprise, if that competitor, that challenger, is simply myself. “Ok, I need some folks to run a mile,” Mr. Fox, the PE Teacher, bellowed over the 40-odd preteens loitering around the playing fields behind Lafayette Middle School. We were working through a unit on track and field events. Up to this point, I had managed to avoid participation. “It’s four times around the track. Any takers?” A couple people raised their hands and began assembling at the make-shift starting line. “Well, let’s get a few more out there,” he continued. Looking over the rest of us, he made a quick assessment and called out, “Johnson. Patterson. VanHouten. And, uh, Baxter.” I froze. Were there any other Baxters in my class?

No. Only me. And, to my dismay, I heard myself saying “Ok!” as I made my way to the track, my heart already pounding, my stomach in knots, with zero confidence in myself. I couldn’t do this.

Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth.

Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.” A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?

I ran a mile. There was nothing else to do; I didn’t have time to question it, or come up with an excuse. Sometimes challenging a belief is as easy as just doing something. It wasn’t a conscious “I’m going to challenge this doubt and insecurity I have.” I just started running. Four laps around the track—it took me thirteen minutes. Which, as I research it now, is not particularly impressive. But at the time, I was pretty proud. For someone who never ran, I was just happy I finished. I didn’t feel great; my legs were shaky and there was something rattling around in my chest, but I had proven myself wrong. I could run a mile. Of course, I ended up throwing up about five minutes later. Even if I had new-found confidence and a sense of accomplishment, my body wasn’t quite ready for it yet.

I’m sure there’s some lesson to be learned there—something about not pushing ourselves too far, too fast.

About knowing and assessing our limitations. But that’s not the important moral of the story. I discovered I wasn’t always right. I learned that I was too critical of myself, too cruel, too unforgiving. Yes, I’m not going to the Olympics anytime soon. Yes, I’m not going to set any records for track. But—once I stopped telling myself no, and just got on with the task at hand, I surprised myself. And that’s something I’m carrying with me into my future: the ability to shut off those doubting voices, and sometimes just going for it. I may surprise myself by discovering I can do much more than I thought possible.

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To learn about the strengths and weaknesses of Jennifer's essay, be sure to read the Critique of "Gym Class Hero"

For tips and strategies for each of the Common Application essay options, check out these articles: Option 1 | Option 2 | Option 3 | Option 4 | Option 5

Before we get into the critique, remember that Jennifer wrote her Common Application essay "Gym Class Hero" in response to 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?

Jennifer's Topic

As my tips and strategies for option #3 state, the vagueness of the terms "belief or idea" allow an applicant to steer his or her essay in a wide range of directions.

When asked about "beliefs" or "ideas," most of us will immediately think in terms of politics, religion, philosophy, and ethics. Jennifer's essay is refreshing in that she explores none of those things. Instead, she zeros in on something both commonplace yet remarkably important--that nagging internal voice of self-doubt that nearly everyone has experienced at one time or another. 

Far too many college applicants feel that they must write about something profound, some amazing accomplishment, or some experience that is truly unique. In fact, many applicants get overly stressed because they feel they have had unremarkable lives and have nothing worth narrating in their essays. Jennifer's essay is a beautiful example of the fallacy of these concerns. She writes about something millions of teens have experienced--that awkward feeling of inadequacy in gym class. But she succeeds in taking that common experience and turning it into an essay that let's us see her as a unique person.

 

In the end, her essay really isn't about running a 13-minute mile. Her essay is about looking inward, recognizing her sometimes paralyzing self-doubt, examining what it is that often holds her back, and ultimately growing in confidence and maturity. Those four laps around the track aren't the point.

What stands out is that Jennifer has learned an important lesson: to succeed, one needs to first step up and try. The lesson she learned--to stop telling herself no, and just get on with the task at hand--is one that the admissions committee will admire, for it is a key to college success.

Jennifer's Title, "Gym Class Hero"

When I first saw Jennifer's essay, my heart sank. If you read my list of 10 bad essay topics, the "hero" essay is on the list. As meaningful as that amazing touchdown or game-winning home run may have been to the applicant, the admissions folks are tired of reading essays about these moments of athletic heroism. The essays tend to all sound the same, too many applicants write that essay, and the essays are all too often more about gloating than self analysis and introspection.

Thus, the title "Gym Class Hero" immediately had me rolling my eyes thinking, "This tired essay. Here we go again." But the reality of the essay turned out to be something quite different. We quickly learn that Jennifer is no athlete, and her essay is not about heroism in any typical sense of the word. On one level, the title is ironic. A 13-minute mile is certainly not athletic heroism. Or is it?

The beauty of Jennifer's title is that she takes the overused word "hero" and recasts it so that it is something internal, a sense of personal accomplishment that few people outside of herself would see as heroic.

In short, there is a slight danger in Jennifer's title. My initial reaction would probably be typical among admissions officers, and it may not be a wise strategy to have a title that is going to shut down her readers before they even begin the essay. On the flip side, the beauty of Jennifer's essay is the way that it redefines the concept of the "hero."

Read more about essay titles.

The Length

Common Application essays need to be between 250 and 650 words. I'm of the opinion that an engaging 600 word essay is better than a well written 300 word essay. If the college wants an essay, it's because it has holistic admissions and wants to get to know you as an individual.

The school will know you better if you say more. Jennifer's essay comes in at 606 words, and they are 606 good words. There's little deadwood or repetition, and she tells an engaging story without digression or unnecessary detail. Learn more about essay length.

A Final Word

Jennifer is not going to win an athletic scholarship, and no college is going to recruit her for her 13-minute mile. But anyone who reads her essay will admire both her writing ability and her ability to look inward, analyze, and grow from an awkward moment in gym class. The big test of an admissions essay is whether or not it answers a couple key questions for the admissions folks: Does the essay help us know the applicant better? Does the applicant seem like someone who we want to invite to share our academic community, and is she likely to contribute to our community in meaningful ways? In Jennifer's case, the answer to these questions is "yes."

If you'd like Allen Grove's help with your own essay, see his bio for details.