The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #3 reads as follows:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is a great prompt to tackle if you tend to be a bit more cerebral and theoretical. Whereas prompt #4 is more pragmatically oriented (focusing on solving a specific problem), this prompt wants you to express how you think and the values underlying your beliefs and ideas. Choosing this prompt provides a whirlwind tour of your mind and worldview to your reader and reveals your willingness and ability to challenge the status quo and stand up for your beliefs and values. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #3:
1. Colleges privilege certain beliefs and ideas over others.
Not all beliefs and ideas are valued equally. That is just a cold hard reality of this world, especially in higher education. You can call it a liberal bias. You can call it political correctness. Whatever you want to call it, it exists in some form on most college campuses, including admissions offices. It is part of the culture or spirit of modern university life. These days, most colleges, including those that are more focused on science and technology, aim to provide students with a broad liberal arts education that stretches young minds, challenging them to think critically about their beliefs and values and be open-minded to new and diverse experiences and perspectives. An underlying progressive assumption of this prompt is that it is good to question or challenge beliefs or ideas (i.e., iconoclasm as sexy); thus, the prompt wants you to share an example of when you did so, why you did so, and what happened as a result.
You are not writing a persuasive brief for a polarizing U.S. Supreme Court case at the center of America's culture wars. This is not the proper forum for you to engage extremely politically and religiously charged topics and try to persuade your reader that your thinking is sound and good. If brilliant people have been passionately arguing about your topic for decades and have still failed to find common ground and make much progress, what makes you believe that you can suddenly change anything in 250-650 words in a personal statement for admission to college? Pick your topic carefully and use your tact and common sense. If your topic would probably lead to a verbal (or physical) fight at the dinner table, then it is probably best to just leave it there and not bring it into your essay.
Think small! Don't bite off more than you can chew. Instead of picking a big topic that would require much analysis and exploration to adequately discuss (probably in the form of an entire book or dissertation), think of picking a specific and narrow sub-topic that is not as categorical or general. The more specific, narrow, and personal your topic, then the more wiggle room you will have to make your point without offending your reader. For example, let's say that you were thinking of writing an essay on the pro-choice versus pro-life debate. This is obviously a contentious topic very intermingled with abortion. And going down that route would probably lead to doom and destruction for your essay. However, maybe there is a sub-topic of this larger topic that interests you. Maybe you have personal experiences that have led you to think about the more narrow and specific sub-topic of euthanasia, assisted suicide, or death with dignity. Maybe you come from a very religious background and espoused pro-life views for most of your life. But maybe you also had a grandmother whom you loved dearly, and you saw how much pain and suffering she endured as a result of her Alzheimer's. While you may not have completely flipped your thinking as a result of this very personal and painful experience, maybe it opened your eyes to some different arguments and perspectives and made the topic more visceral and real for you. And those insights that you gained from this experience helped you develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of what it means to be pro-life. When you keep your narrative structure personal and specific like this, then it's hard for anyone (on either the left or the right) to demonize you or to take offense. Specificity and personalization are powerful neutralizers and disarmers.
2. Come down from the ivory tower and provide practical and personal examples.
Yes, this is a great topic for cerebral people who like to wrestle with challenging ideas and thoughts--people who love to debate and argue and syllogize. However, if you let this essay just stay in the ethereal Platonic realm of ideas and theory, then your essay will not be as compelling as it can be. Remember that at the end of the day, you are still writing a personal statement. The whole purpose of this essay is to show who you are, how you think, what you value, and how you will contribute to the vibrancy of a college community. Don't lose sight of the larger objectives of this essay. Colleges don't want to just hear your thoughts on random ideas and beliefs just for fun; they are using it as a means to understand you as a person better and explore the inner workings of your mind. Remember that colleges strive to build diverse classes, and even though they may be biased and imperfect in their admissions processes, they try to build classes of students who are also intellectually diverse.
How can you keep your essay grounded in reality and provide practical and personal examples? By answering the last two questions of the prompt: (1) What prompted your thinking? and (2) What was the outcome? Try to use a story to describe how you got involved in questioning or challenging whatever belief or idea that you are writing about. Maybe it was a family dinner discussion. Maybe it was a tragedy that you or someone close to you personally experienced. Maybe it was witnessing an injustice in your local community that prompted you to think more critically about a belief or idea that you held dear. Whatever it was, try to specifically and concretely tell that story to your reader to provide the background and context for your rethinking of a belief or idea. Moreover, after you describe how your thinking evolved, show how that changed your life or circumstances in specific ways. Use pithy anecdotes and examples, and by doing so, you will beautifully and organically mix theory with practice and show how you applied what you learned (or re-learned or un-learned).
3. Focus on showing the continual evolution of your thoughts and your comfort with uncertainty.
Remember when President Barack Obama discussed how his thoughts on gay marriage had evolved over time? In the world of politics, this is called flip-flopping or political expediency. For the rest of us, this is a natural changing of our minds as time passes and we mature. Colleges love to see positive growth and change in you--dynamism rather than stasis. Thus, in your essay, don't just focus on how your beliefs and ideas went from Point A to Point B. Focus more on the journey that led you to Point B from Point A and how this journey is ongoing--that point B is not the endpoint but perhaps just the midpoint or a checkpoint. Show how you are continuing to grow in your thoughts and beliefs and progressing towards a greater and better version of yourself as a member of society and your community.
Be comfortable admitting that you may not have all of the answers yet. That you are comfortable with uncertainty, doubt, and holes in your thinking. But be genuine and sincere about it. Showcasing your intellectual humility and curiosity as well as your willingness to learn will make a strong impression on your reader. Colleges are looking for students who are willing to change their minds, make new friends, try new activities and experiences, change majors, and stretch themselves academically, physically, socially, mentally, spiritually, and beyond. Colleges are supposed to provide safe environments for exploration and experimentation--the last bastions of imaginative play and study before you enter the "real world."
Show your incredible potential to continue growing. If I were a high school swim coach, I would rather work with a slightly slower swimmer with bad technique than with a fast swimmer with good technique. Why is that? Because the slower swimmer probably has more potential for growth. If I am able to help him improve his technique, he will probably eventually outpace the fast swimmer who already has good technique and has probably reached the upper levels of his potential. I will see much more dramatic changes in the slower swimmer. This is obviously an overly simplistic example, but the point I am making is that your potential matters. If colleges see that you have great potential--through not only your essays but also your teacher recommendations and grade trajectories--then they might be more willing to take a risk on your candidacy, especially if you are an applicant that is on the border in terms of GPA and standardized test scores. Colleges love boasting about their successful alumni, and if they see your real potential for growth, then they will have an easier time enthusiastically welcoming you into their ranks.