How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #3, 2019-2020

We’re moving through these prompts in our series on the Common App essay prompts for this 2019-2020 application season. We’re going through every prompt and investigating, contemplating, and analyzing them down for parts. So many words, so little time! So little direction! It’s a lot. We know. That’s why we’re calling it like we see it with each prompt and giving you a bit of wisdom for if (and when) you’re feeling stuck. Here are our thoughts on prompt #3:

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

This is a good opportunity for you to tell a story about a very small, short, or seemingly insignificant situation that occurred where you stepped up or stepped back to reconsider your positioning about something. This doesn’t mean that this is your time to take down a complicated issue that you think will make you seem smart and capable. Remember that this is a story that you are telling the reader about an instance that caused you to either act or take pause. There are some rules for this question:

  • If you have to Google search your topic, nix it.

  • Words spent on explaining the context or background of your topic need to be minimal. If you’re finding that you have to use 350 words (over half of the story) explaining the ins and outs of a situation to your reader, then choose a different story to tell.

  • Think about your audience.

We’ll expand on that last rule. It’s always important to consider your audience. But this one in particular is asking for you to choose a topic that could potentially alienate the reader of your application. We know that choosing a controversial topic to take down is tempting because you feel passionately about it, but this is not the time to tackle the question of: are migrant camps actually concentration camps? And the resulting fight that you got into with your humanities teacher about that question. It’s just not.  

We had a student a few years ago who chose this prompt. They wrote about the relationship that they developed with the person who owned the bodega on their corner. Every morning they would go to their corner bodega and get their sausage, egg, and cheese on a roll with hot sauce and ketchup and chat it up with the owner. The bodega ended up getting a rent increase which was stressful for the owner and because they were friends, the owner shared this with our student. All of a sudden, the certainty of their daily breakfast sandwich was called into question. It spurred a series of phone calls and investigatory visits to their city councilmember’s office, an interest in housing subsidies, and how urban policies shape the community that carried them into college. But it all started with the security of a daily sausage, egg, and cheese, which was what the story was about. It was titled: How the Sausage Gets Made.  

What we will say is that if you choose to answer this prompt, do not do so in order to seize an opportunity to step up on your soapbox. No, no. No one wants that. Not because your opinions don’t matter, but because this portion of your application is not for your rant. It’s not the best way to use this opportunity. Even a well-thought-out rant on your most artfully and intelligently designed soapbox will come off as whiney and result in either literal or figurative eye-rolls. We promise. If you want to write about a topic that doesn’t quite fit this prompt in a creative way, then move onto prompt #7. That’s probably a better fit for you.

As always, let us know if you have any questions, concerns, or stressful situations that you need us to help you out with.