How To Write Your Common App Essay – Part 4 Of 8

This week, Noodle Pro Kate Fisher discusses Prompt 3 of the Common App essay: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? Kate explains how students can amplify small, everyday moments in their lives to showcase something unique and strong about their character.

Kate Fisher is has been tutoring the SAT, ACT, writing, and a wide array of college prep subjects for 9 years. She attended the Horace Mann School and has a BA from Hunter College in New York City.


This Common App prompt is a great vehicle for personalizing your application by demonstrating not only what you are passionate about, but also what you value. Don’t be afraid of thinking “too small” for this one. Instead of writing about a specific skillset or hobby that you’ve already established by listing your extracurricular activities and academic achievements, write about a moment that highlights your individuality.

Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements. Writing about a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea is an opportunity to demonstrate why you are unique as an applicant. More importantly, it’s a chance to show, rather than tell, a college or university why it should offer you a place in its freshman class.

One of the best college essays I read recently was by a student, Aaron, who wrote about what may seem like a pretty insignificant moment in a teenage boy’s life. Here’s an excerpt from his essay (used here with his permission):

We were talking about our usual nonsense when two of my friends started laughing and pointing at something behind me. I turned around to see a girl I had never seen before walking into the cafeteria. She had a limp and seemed to have special needs. I immediately started yelling at my friends to stop. They started to make fun of me, saying she was my girlfriend and other obnoxious comments. I didn’t mind them saying these things to me. Even though I became the target of their cruel jokes, I felt good about myself because they had stopped making fun of someone who didn’t deserve their cruelty or scorn.

Those six sentences reveal more about who Aaron is and what his values are than any achievement, accolade, GPA, or standardized test score could. The moment he chose to highlight may not seem significant. He didn’t write about doing groundbreaking research at a summer internship or winning an award for community service. Aaron told a story about an otherwise average lunch period that changed his dynamic with his closest friends because he defended someone he didn’t know. He chose to be vulnerable because he thought what his friends were doing was cruel.

Don’t worry about the outcome of the moment you choose to write about. Maybe you questioned an idea or challenged a belief and were proven wrong. That’s even more powerful. Write about why you were wrong. Write about what makes you a three-dimensional person, and not just another folder on an admissions officer’s desk.

Don’t choose this prompt if you want to go into detail about one of the items you’ve listed somewhere else on your application. Choose this prompt so that you can share a story that will showcase who you are, what you believe in, and how you react when you encounter an idea or situation that you don’t think seems right. So much of being in high school is about hiding what makes you feel vulnerable. This is the time to own and celebrate those vulnerabilities. They are what make you human (and ultimately, that’s what college admissions officers are looking for).

Related Topics: 

How To Write Your Common App Essay – Part 5 Of 8

A Case For The ACT

Why The “Why This College?” Question Matters — And How To Answer It

Lessons From The Essays Of Yale Quadruplets

Noodle Pros Essay Specialists