How to Respond to Prompt Three of the Common Application

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

Everyone has beliefs and ideas they hold dearly. They are cornerstones of what make each and every one of us unique in how we present ourselves and process our world. However, sometimes their validity comes into question, and sometimes we can even outgrow previously held notions. Prompt three of the Common Application allows space to consider how your beliefs or ideas have evolved over time.

One of the most special parts of this particular prompt is how it opens the potential for critical and independent thinking to unfold. Holding an idea is one thing; to question or challenge a belief is another. This in and of itself shows an element of attention to yourself or the world as you are getting older and beginning to see things through a new lens. You are no longer accepting things merely because it is what you have been told or it’s the way things always were — you are beginning to think for yourself and connect dots you may not have seen before. This prompt allows you to open up about how you think about things and why.

There are a couple exciting aspects about this:

1) Admissions officers will learn something vital about your character, values, beliefs, etc. and

2) You will simultaneously show them your cognitive processes with critical thought and independent thinking.

This can be beneficial because at the collegiate level, you will be asked to engage in work that requires more applied and dynamic thinking. You will constantly be presented with new information, perhaps information that even contradicts previous knowledge, that you will then critically engage with and come to a solution. This prompt allows you to show them the way your mind works as it navigates information, and moreover, show them that you are thinking critically and ready for collegiate-level work.

While you can certainly discuss concrete actions or events, this prompt has been rephrased from previous versions to focus on your thinking. They want to understand what sparked you to question or challenge something important to you and to then discuss the outcome of this cognitive event.

It is important to note that this could mean a drastic mindset shift, but it could also be something more subtle. Perhaps it is your own opening to understanding looking at something from multiple perspectives and assessing it critically, or perhaps the questioning allowed you to ultimately land more firmly in your belief with the knowledge that it is your belief, and not simply what you are told to believe.

There are ultimately many ways that you might navigate the topic. To begin, brainstorm the first part of the question: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.” See what ideas some to mind. As with brainstorming, I suggest writing down any and all ideas so that you have them tangibly in front of you. A certain instance might immediately rise to the top as an obvious choice, one that your gut tells you is important. Whether or not that occurs, then think to yourself if the particular topic showcases a part of you that highlights something vital you’d want admissions officers to know — personal beliefs or values, personality traits, background, identity, etc. This can also help you to know if this feels like a significant response to use it as your topic of the personal statement.

The next part of the prompt asks you to consider: “What prompted your thinking?” Again, this is focused on your internal processing to the particular event. Think about what particular moment — perhaps it was an event, something you read, something you heard, etc. — that prompt into question your belief. Explore this pivotal moment of evolution.

The final part of the prompt asks you to assess: “What was the outcome?” After you have had your time of critical engagement with your particular belief or idea, what happened? How did you change as a result? Did anything around you change? Did your perspective shift? Following through with this part of the prompt allows the reader to see some resolution to the event as well as to follow through to the conclusion of your thoughts.

One important thing to note about this prompt, especially with the word count at the precious 650 words, is that you should be focused on the questioning or challenging of said belief or idea and the outcome versus spending too much time discussing and setting up beliefs and their entire background. Some of this is okay for context, but keep in mind that actual intent of the prompt to ensure that it hits the more critical depth of you assessing how and why you questioned particular beliefs and what occurred afterward as a result.

The particular way you decide to answer is certainly unique to you. Some people might be interested to write about politics or religion, perhaps questioning beliefs that have been engender from their family, and come to some conclusion on their own. Other people might be drawn to write about ideas around gender and sexuality, perhaps ways they think they or others should act or be. Others may choose to write more philosophically about a particular impression they had of the world and how it shifted overtime to be something more suited to reality. Either way, it allows you to explore critical and independent thinking that has shaped who you are today.

To begin the prompt, consider the following questions:

What belief or idea is important to me?

Have I ever had moments of doubt when I questioned them?

How have these been shaped over time? Have they ever changed?

What happened as a result?

How has my mindset changed?

Why is this important to me?

Did I ever learn something that differed from what I previously knew?

How did this realization shape a new understanding of myself or others?

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