If I was a betting woman I’d put money on my hunch that Common Application prompt No. 3 will be the least popular of the five choices offered this year.
The prompt: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?” speaks to a small audience of students who have been engaged enough to have taken action.
When I ask students to take a look at the five Common Application essay prompts and eliminate two or three, invariably prompt No. 3 is the first to go. It isn’t that all high school students are complacent or sedate, it’s just that there aren’t that many of them who have been outraged enough to have challenged a belief or idea with action.
This is a great prompt for the student who identified a problem at their school or in their community and then created a club, wrote letters to protest or tried to solve the problem.
If this prompt appeals to you, you’ll need to break the question into three parts:
1. Discuss the idea or belief you challenged and analyze your feelings. There are no parameters on what that belief or idea might be, which is both good and bad news. Narrow your challenge by asking yourself the second and third parts of the question.
2. What prompted you to act? Was it a conversation with someone? Were you prevented from doing something you felt you had a right to do? Was a new rule created at your school? Were you uncomfortable with the way some people were being treated in your community? This is the part of the essay that allows you to provide an interesting backstory. Be sure to share why you reacted the way you did.
3. The last question – “Would you make the same decision again?” – isn’t necessarily an automatic “yes.” This is the part of the essay where you can talk about what you learned from your experience challenging an idea. You will need to ask yourself, “Was it worth it?” Did you alienate friends, supervisors, teachers or your family? Did you achieve your goals? If not, why? What lessons did you learn about yourself and your leadership style?
Challenging accepted ideas is a bigger part of college life than high school. If students are able to articulate what’s important to them and why, most colleges will expect they will be successful students who contribute to life on the college campus.
Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com
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