Essay Prompt #3: 2016/17 Common Application

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Prompt 3 is the least popular prompt on the common application. According to, only 4 percent of applicants last year chose to write on this topic. So what scared everyone away?

Well, Prompt 3 is the most specific and narrow prompt of the bunch. It isn’t set up to illustrate a student’s backstory as clearly as the other prompts.


If you have something powerful to say about this challenging a belief or idea, choosing the least popular prompt will probably help your chances of admission.


In the application process, you need to take every opportunity you have to stand out from the crowd. How better to do this than by writing an essay that most other students shy away from?


First, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the prompt.

a time when you challenged a belief or idea”


This is straightforward: the prompt tells you without any ambiguity what you should write.

There are a few caveats though, so here’s what you shouldn’t write:

  • Anything political (you never know who’s going to read it, and whether they will agree)
  • Anything that portrays you as disrespectful (especially of a teacher or school staff member)


You should always assume the person reading your essay will disagree with every position you take. If you think the essay can still be appreciated by this reader, you’re on the right track.


“What prompted you to act?”


The background behind why you decided to challenge this belief is probably more important than the belief itself. Be sure to spend a little time exploring what exactly motivated you to take the active route instead of the passive one.


You’ll revisit this motivation again when you answer the second (and most important) question in the prompt…

Would you make the same decision again?”

You can’t write a good essay without answering this question. You can explain your actions, but without reflection, the words lose substance. The reader needs to know what you learned and how it will affect how you act in the future.


A good response to this question transforms your writing from a stale diary entry to a true personal essay.


The question itself is open ended, reminding you that you don’t have to have won the battle over this idea you challenged. Maybe you learned how wrong you were. Maybe you came to understand the other person’s side and you’re not so sure anymore. Maybe you learned that it wasn’t worth starting an argument over something that was going to lead to tension, not solutions.


Think about a time you learned something important that changed your worldview in an unexpected way. Writing about something like this shows the admissions board maturity, open-mindedness, and willingness to be wrong. These are rewarding qualities to have, and to show that you have.

The multitude of possible answers to this final question expand the prompt from a very narrow discussion of one event to a much larger picture of your character. Make sure you answer it with a clear “yes” or “no”, and use your reason why to

Overall, this may be a difficult prompt, but answering it well can give a big boost to your application. Remember your audience, write about the big picture, and focus on what you learned. A powerful and persuasive personal essay will follow.

Jeremy Baxter

Jeremy is a rising freshman at Cornell University. He graduated in the top 10 of his 500-member high school class and scored a 35 on his first sitting of the ACT. He is a recovering procrastinator who wants to share the methods he uses to get work done and succeed.