Focus on: Personal Essay Question 3 – Challenging the status quo

Writing Your College EssayPart 4 of Katrina Oko-Odoi’s Guest Blog Series: Writing your College Admissions Essay for the New Common Application

In the past three posts, we’ve addressed the general changes to the 2014 Common Application, and we’ve focused on essay questions one and two, considering which applicants these questions would work best for. I will now address essay question number three. Read on for some great insight and inspiration on writing your college essay!

The Basics:

Make it unique. This is your chance to differentiate yourself from your competition.

-When writing your first draft, shoot for 500 words. Chances are that after revisions, you’ll be closer to the 650 limit.

-Remember that your essay is a supplement to the rest of your application. Don’t repeat what’s already been stated elsewhere; tell your story beyond the test scores and GPA.

Common Application Question # 3:

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

Is this question right for you?

Let me remind you, once again, to take the time to read through all of the essay topics before choosing which one best suits you. Question #3 might be ideal for you if you have strong convictions or a deeply-rooted belief system that guides your decisions and actions in life, and you recall a specific moment in your past when speaking your mind constituted a pivotal moment for you. It would also be the perfect choice for you if you have never been very passionate about social or political issues, but a certain incident motivated you to take a stand for the first time in your life.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Are you a passionate advocate of a specific cause like animal rights, immigrant rights, homeless aid, poverty reduction, racial justice or religious tolerance? If so, it is likely that at some point, your passion has compelled you to speak up when you heard someone expressing an ill-informed belief that offended your personal convictions.
  • Do you normally ignore or avoid controversial issues or conflict over people’s beliefs or convictions? Perhaps you are pretty apathetic when it comes to politics or social causes. Did you witness something that disturbed you so much that you were inspired to take action? Maybe you didn’t really believe that people still experienced racism today, but you witnessed the blatant mistreatment and ridicule of a Latino teenage boy just for looking “Mexican.” The experience was enough to awake you from your apathy and motivate you to speak up in the moment, or in the aftermath, to get involved in an organization promoting racial equality.
  • Have your beliefs motivated you to organize a protest, campaign, support group, or class to raise public awareness about a certain issue? Perhaps your high school administration decided not to allow students to attend prom with a same-sex date. Instead of going along with it, you organized a boycott against the school-sanctioned dance and helped your friends plan an alternative prom that was accepting of people of all sexual orientations. Or maybe you disagreed with the city council’s decision to cut funding to the local homeless shelter, so you wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the community newspaper.
  • Do you follow politics closely and stay informed about local and national political issues? Or maybe you’re on the debate team and you appreciate the opportunity to challenge people’s beliefs and sustain an intelligent dialogue with them. Perhaps someone’s thoughts regarding the outcome of the recent election, or their beliefs related to a controversial issue like healthcare prompted you to challenge their statement. Why was this so important to you?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you are, unexpectedly, the minority in the group, and you decide to voice your opinion despite being outnumbered? Maybe you’re invited to hang out at your new friend’s house for the first time only to discover that her family is devoutly religious and intolerant of other belief systems. Standing up for the rights of people from other religious backgrounds may have constituted an important turning point in your life where you discovered your voice and your ability to speak out against situations that make you uncomfortable.
  • Did you ever speak out against someone’s belief or idea only to thoroughly regret it later? Maybe you weren’t well-informed about the issue being discussed, and your comment was expertly rebutted. Or perhaps you inadvertently let a stereotype influence your perspective on a certain subject, and were called out for it when you spoke your mind. What did you learn from this experience and how did it change your outlook?

If you are like me and you’re passionate about your values and beliefs, then it is likely that at some point in your past, you have stood up for what you believe in, challenging an idea or belief expressed by someone else because it didn’t sit right with you. Your experience and the action that you took does not need to be dramatic or newsworthy; what matters is that it was important to you, and that your decision to act had an impact on your life. Now, if your background or identity has shaped your ability to stand up for your beliefs or your rights throughout your life in a fundamental way, perhaps essay question one might be a better fit for you – allowing you to tell your own unique story. But, if a particular incident where you challenged someone’s beliefs, or you questioned the status quo, influenced your life in a significant way, this question (#3) is perfect for you.

Just remember that this essay is about you, not the opinions or actions of other people. So while you will be speaking about how you challenged someone else’s beliefs or ideas, make sure the focus is on the decision you made to act, what prompted that decision, what impact it had on you, and what that experience reflects about you as an individual, as a citizen, as a member of a larger community (like the community of students at your #1 college, for example). YOU are the moral of this story, so don’t stray from that focus, no matter how hard it may be for you to toot your own horn. You have permission to brag, just this once! Don’t miss my next blog on Common Application Essay Question # 4.

Katrina Oko-Odoi is the Founder and Chief Editor of, a writing and editing company specializing in academic writing. For more insight into college essay editing and more, follow her blog: 

Bobby Touran is the founder and CEO of ApplyKit. ApplyKit helps students manage their entire college application process and also provides key resources to help them excel every step of the way.