How To Write the Common App Essay: Prompt 3, 2018-2019

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep repeating it: we ignore the essay prompts. However, we also understand that for kids that are ‘going it alone’ or who will have to vie with 30 other students for hands-on help from a teacher, the essay prompts can serve a very important purpose. They offer direction and they provide structure, so we’re breaking them down, one-by-one, just for you.

Essay Prompt #3.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

*If you just read this and are already thinking “ehhhh, not for me.” Check out our posts on the other prompts.*

If this prompt is appealing to you, let me first tell you that there is only one reason that this one is ok. The reason is that it can be a straight-up vehicle for illustrating your growth through a specific and detailed story. College essays should be stories — always — and this prompt demands one. “Reflect on a time,” is literally asking you to tell the reader about a specific time. It’s pretty obvious, and if you’re not working with someone who can guide your feelings and thoughts and serve as a ‘Northstar’ for you, this can help because it absolutely requires a beginning, middle, and an end.

In addition to asking you to focus on a specific moment, this prompt requires that the moment you choose is linked to the questioning or challenging of a belief or idea. It does not say that you have to hold that belief or idea (it could be one held by your family, community, or faith), but it should be one that is very close to you. If something doesn’t pop to mind pretty much immediately, this prompt is probably not for you. If you dig for something to talk about for this one, it will be painfully obvious, so it’d be better to move on.

If something does pop to mind, there is potential. Take the time to interrogate it and explore it. Can you find a precise moment in it that you can turn into a story? Is it tied to who you are? Is it not represented anywhere else in your application?

The best essays that come out of this prompt are based on emotional changes and developments. They may have been triggered by physical changes, but it’s the emotion that matters. Things that our students have tackled successfully include sexuality and self-identification, religion, politics, disagreements with parents or friends, or divergence from community expectations or norms. All of these are struggles that have a lot of room for exploration.

Then there are the last two questions lumped on at the end.

“What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

These questions are tricks designed to turn beautiful essays into cheesy gook. If you’ve done it right, you’ve already answered them by the time you even get to look at them. Your story has an arc, so of course, it includes a point of conflict that prompts your thinking. It also has an ending, so there absolutely better be an outcome worked in.

But what these questions do is that they make you wonder, “Maybe I should be more obvious? Do I need to spell things out? Maybe I should do it in the conclusion?”

Maybe, Maybe, and NO.

Yes, you should ensure that each part of your story is clearly visible. There are no bonus points in this game if you hide something from the reader or make them guess too hard.

No, you should not do it in a way that could ever be called “spelling it out.” Spelling it out is for five-paragraph essays and the “memoir” you wrote in fifth grade.

And no, under absolutely no circumstances should you be stuffing all of this into one neat little conclusion paragraph that documents how you discovered yourself and found the meaning of life. No matter how miraculous your discovery, it will sound cheesy.

So yes, this is a prompt that is more workable than most of the rest, and it is a great fit for someone with an internal story to tell, but proceed with more caution than you think. If you decide to dive in, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re committed. You can always pull back, and pick a different prompt. Perhaps that’s the most fun part of the essay writing process: they try to make it look strict, but you can really do whatever you want.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on approach, let us know. We’re pros at turning great stories into stupendous essays.