One of the Common Application essay prompts asks you to “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
- Why Colleges Want to Read Essays on Your Experience Questioning or Challenging a “Belief or Idea” (which also gives you important hints about the types of underlying things you want to reveal about yourself in your anecdotes)
- What Not to Do in an Essay on a “Time When You Questioned a Belief or Idea” (to help you avoid falling prey to a common mistake)
2020 UPDATE & Why Most Students Don’t Write About a Time They “Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea”
Most students don’t write their Common App essays on challenging a belief or idea.
But you’re not aiming to be like most students, right?
Consider what the Common App team points out in their 2020-2021 update on the essay topics:
“While students aren’t inclined to discuss a time when they challenged a belief or idea, members appreciate what those essays reveal about the students who write them.”
[Just FYI: Members are the colleges that use the Common App.]
It’s interesting to get this feedback from the Common App because it aligns with the patterns I’ve observed with my own students.
Many of my students have immediately dismissed this essay topic, especially when it used to be phrased this way: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
They felt they couldn’t write a Common App essay on this topic because they. . .
- never questioned or challenged a major belief or idea
- challenged a belief or idea but that didn’t necessarily involve taking some big action
- didn’t want to “rock the boat” in their essay.
However, I want you to notice the BIG change in the Common App’s phrasing of the topic.
The emphasis is no longer just on challenging a belief or idea.
Now you’re also invited to consider writing about a time when you questioned a belief or idea and asked to shed more light on your thinking (rather than just your action).
Why Colleges Want to Read Essays on Your Experience Questioning or Challenging a “Belief or Idea”
Why do schools that use the Common App say that they “appreciate” what essays a “time you questioned or challenged a belief or idea” demonstrate “about the students who write them”?
Let’s consider some possibilities.
REASON #1: Colleges value students who are open to exploring and respecting perspectives other than their own. Sometimes this involves questioning or challenging your own beliefs or ideas and sometimes it involves challenging those of others.
A significant part of the intellectual and social experience of college involves opening yourself up to new perspectives and getting to know people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Some of the most interesting discussions and learning experiences occur when there’s a range of beliefs or interpretations shared during class discussions, while working on projects, or in student organizations.
Remember that this essay prompt is asking you about a “time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.”
That DOESN’T necessarily mean CHANGING them.
Questioning or challenging ideas or beliefs can also involve enlarging, developing, or refining them.
It could involve realizing that someone’s perspective (including your own) is limited and only applicable in certain circumstances.
REASON #2: Admissions officers are interested in your habits of mind, including your ability to engage in critical thinking.
Even if you’re writing about standing up against a significant injustice, you can’t just write an essay about squashing it.
You have to reveal how you grappled with the issues at hand and how best to address them.
Although the phrase “critical thinking” doesn’t appear in the wording of this Common App essay prompt, that’s one of the things admissions officers want to learn about when reading your essay.
The way you demonstrate your critical thinking in this essay is through your description of “what prompted your thinking.”
Let’s clarify what’s meant by critical thinking.
Wikipedia provides this definition of critical thinking. It involves:
“being inquisitive and curious,
being open-minded to different sides,
being able to think systematically,
being analytical, . . .and
In a previous version of this Wikipedia entry, I found this definition as well. Critical thinking. . .
discerns hidden values,
accomplishes actions, and
Someone who thinks critically doesn’t just take things at face value (even if they seem obviously wrong or bad).
They look beneath the surface to figure out the assumptions and values informing the information and situations they encounter. They also know how to evaluate evidence and consider what types of evidence are–and are not–being provided.
When you’re writing about “what prompted your thinking” in terms of challenging a particular belief or idea, you want to show evidence of these ways of thinking–of these ways of examining your beliefs and ideas and those of others. You definitely don’t have to demonstrate all of them.
REASON #3: The “challenged a belief or idea” essay is a great way to demonstrate your “intellectual vitality” that all colleges, not just Stanford, are looking for in applicants.
This reason combines the first two that we’ve covered but pushes them to the next level.
Let’s consider what the former director of Columbia University’s graduate nonfiction program has to say. In To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate points out:
“In the best nonfiction,. . .you’re always made aware that you are being engaged with a supple mind at work. The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out” (6).
Many students just don’t yet realize that “follow[ing] a live, candid mind thinking on the page” is extremely interesting and important for admissions officers (43).
Just as importantly, most students don’t know how to make their thinking processes spring to life in their writing. It takes time and lots of guidance to master the art of writing this way.
However, it’s this kind of writing that demonstrates the “intellectual vitality” that admissions officers are hunting for when they read your application material.
Many times it’s not the surface level of your narrative (in this case, the specific belief or idea you questioned or challenged) that matters most to admissions officers. It’s your process of thinking and acting.
What Not to Do in an Essay on a “Time You Questioned a Belief or Idea”
One of my former students wanted to focus on a time when he stood up for a student at his school who was being bullied (which involved challenging one of the bully’s core beliefs)
That was actually a good initial idea.
Even though it might seem like a cliched approach to responding to the essay prompt, it’s in the details–in the vivid anecdotes and insights–that you can stand out and make the essay your own.
However, this student had two friends who were constantly ripping his draft to shreds.
“Don’t tell, SHOW!!!”
Those are the kinds of notes I’d see in the margins of his draft.
His friends eventually convinced him to create an essay that was so exaggerated that it was unbelievable and stripped his writing of his deeper, more significant thoughts and feelings about the situation.
Yes, your essay needs internal and external tension or conflict, but it doesn’t have to be blown out of proportion.
Nuance and subtlety often have more power than you realize.
Yes, you need to show, but you also need to tell.
I strongly recommend checking out these two articles, which reveal effective strategies to use in your Common App essays.
“Challenged a Belief or Idea” Essay Example by Cornell Admit
Background Info: One of my students who was accepted to Cornell Engineering wrote about her experience challenging a Science Olympiad judge’s conclusion about the vehicle she created with her partner.
You can watch the video or read about her essay down below.
ESSAY STRUCTURE, MOODS, AND TONES:
To generate immediate interest, she plunged readers right into the moment before the event, a great strategy for helping readers feel like they’re there with you.
NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS:
Instead of jumping right into what happened during the event, she flashed back to the painstaking process she and her partner went through while preparing for the event.
She didn’t just tell admissions officers they’d spent all this time and energy on the project—she showed it through vivid, sometimes funny, examples about experimenting with various materials.
In this part of her essay, she was providing insight into her work ethic, attention to even the minutest details, ability to handle setbacks, and capacity to collaborate.
By this point, the student was in the middle of her essay, but the reader still didn’t know that she’s writing about a time she challenged someone’s idea or belief.
That’s totally fine!
You’re not writing an academic essay on challenging a belief or idea.
You’re immersing admissions officers in your world—taking them behind the scenes in your life—and, when the moment’s right, you can “tap” on the essay prompt.
SHIFTS IN MOOD AND TONE:
She started by creating an anticipatory mood, mixed the seriousness of preparation with a certain degree of humor, and then, after the flashback, gets to the serious part. She’s bringing readers back to the present moment to describe the engineering event itself and the judge’s decision. Because she so effectively described the process, readers feel the let down when something goes wrong.
Readers feel like they’re going on a journey.
That’s a good thing.
The student then described how she and her partner were so taken aback by the results and how they tried to make sense of what happened.
Through these anecdotes she demonstrates her critical thinking skills. She didn’t just jump to the conclusion that the judge was wrong.
She described how, when she realized the problem was with a certain measurement, her partner didn’t want her to say anything about it. She feared speaking up against the authority figure and felt they might suffer some sort of other penalty.
However, even though my student felt kind of queasy about challenging the judge, she did it and the decision was changed in their favor.
She drew her essay to a close with some insights into how this process of learning to speak up for herself—something she hadn’t really done before—changed her life in other ways. It’s not like she’s now always challenging authority but she feels more confident.
Your Next Steps for Writing a Great Common App Essay
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