SHOULD YOU WRITE ABOUT “A TIME WHEN YOU QUESTIONED OR CHALLENGED A BELIEF OR IDEA”?
The Common Application gives you the option to write an essay in which you “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
The original version of this application essay prompt was: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
However, the Common App revised it for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle so that the emphasis is no longer just on challenging a belief. Now you’re encouraged to consider writing about a time when you questioned a belief or idea, asked to shed more light on your thinking (rather than just your action).
WRITING ABOUT “BIG” OR CONTROVERSIAL CHALLENGES
Many of my students used to immediately dismiss the “challenge” essay topic. The Common App revealed that during the 2015-2016 cycle, only 4% of applicants selected this prompt.
Some students said they couldn’t write an application essay on this issue because they felt that they’d never challenged a major belief or idea. Others shied away from this topic because they didn’t want to “rock the boat” in their essay.
The wording of the original topic was a bit intimidating because it seemed as though you had to write about challenging something big like someone’s political or religious belief.
Also, it makes sense to consider whether or not you’re likely to alienate readers by focusing on something controversial. Notice that I’m not saying you shouldn’t write about something risky. Sometimes “rocking the boat” is exactly what you want or need to do. You just have to make an informed decision.
Let’s say that you are Jewish, and in 10th grade you noticed that your school district’s calendar featured Jewish and Christian holidays but left out holidays related to other religions. Maybe this situation inspired you to talk with one of your Muslim friends to get her perspectives and eventually led the two of you to research school policies related to religious holidays and to create a student forum for discussing these issues. Then, in 11th grade, you met with the principal, superintendent, and school board to present a proposal that challenged the structure of the calendar, which resulted in the district agreeing to include a wider range of holidays in the calendar.
The most interesting details in this essay would be your collaboration with your peers, the way you created spaces for open-minded dialogues about complex issues, and how the experience changed the way you think about inclusiveness.
You can still write about seemingly “BIGGER” challenges, but the new version of the topic is more inviting.
CREATIVE WAYS OF RESPONDING TO THE
“TIME WHEN YOU QUESTIONED OR CHALLENGED
A BELIEF OR IDEA”
APPLICATION ESSAY TOPIC
You don’t have to write about political or religious beliefs and ideas. You can if you want to, but you’re definitely not limited to them.
Let’s consider some other angles.
1. WRITE ABOUT A TIME WHEN YOU INWARDLY QUESTIONED A PERSONAL BELIEF
Here’s an example to get your creative juices pumping. Maybe you’ve always felt unworthy because you’re overweight, and one day you started realizing how much time you’ve spent feeling bad about yourself and not wanting to draw any attention to yourself. You could write a really compelling essay about how you started questioning the belief that you’re unworthy because of your weight and how your inner and outer world has started shifting because of this initial questioning.
2. TAKE A CREATIVE APPROACH TO WRITING ABOUT YOUR PROCESS OF QUESTIONING A BELIEF OR IDEA
Check out my video that features a case study of one of my students who wrote about her experience questioning and challenging the decision a judge made at a Science Olympiad event.
Notice that she didn’t take the topic in a limited literal sense. She took advantage of the creative license that the Common App gives you. Remember, you are told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.” Instead of focusing on the kinds of things that might immediately come to mind when thinking of beliefs and ideas, she concentrated on questioning a decision.
Just FYI, this student was accepted to an engineering program at an Ivy League school. (Click here to get my strategies to increase your changes of getting into engineering programs.)
I give a very detailed account of how she structured her essay. You’ll also get my tips for creating a great narrative structure and using anecdotes to illuminate your process of questioning and challenging a belief or idea. Plus, I explain why admissions officers are interested in your response to this essay topic.
3. TAKE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS BEHIND THE SCENES IN YOUR ACADEMIC LIFE
Imagine that you read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and came up with a particular idea about Gatsby’s motivations. You believed in it and had plenty of evidence to support your perspective. However, when your class discussed the novel, another student spoke up first and shared a very different interpretation, which she supported with strong evidence.
You felt really rattled by this situation and challenged her idea, but instead of shutting her down and just clinging to your interpretation (which is what you used to do when confronted with ideas other than your own), you listened more closely to what she was saying, asked questions, and used what you learned to expand (not change) your interpretation. Your experience challenging a fellow class member’s idea led you to reflect on the nature of interpretation and analysis. It made you start wondering if there is one absolutely right truth or interpretation in literature and in other fields of study.
An essay like this would communicate valuable details about your level of maturity and ability to contribute meaningfully to class discussions, help admissions officers get a better sense of your critical thinking and capacity to respect the beliefs and ideas of others, and call attention to how individual experiences cause you to reflect on other aspects of your life.
Colleges are very interested in how you form ideas and beliefs, interact with others who have different perspectives, and draw connections between experiences, so you should take these things into consideration when you’re exploring ways of responding to the college application essay topics.
There are so many interesting ways of approaching all of the essay topics. Check out the Get Yourself Into College™ program if you want to learn even more about them and gain access to additional case studies and sample structures.