How to Write the Perfect College Essay for the Common Application–Beliefs and Ideas

stand up for what you believe inThe new prompts on the Common Application help give form and direction to your college essay.  They are relatively specific in focus, and it’s important that as you consider which prompt to answer that you consider all the elements of the question.  You need to address each portion in order to craft a solid essay that presents yourself in the best possible light.

In our last two installments, we have examined the “background story” and “failure” prompts.

Today we look at the “belief or idea” prompt.

Here’s the text of the prompt:

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

Once again, let’s examine the wording of the prompt to help guide the structure of the essay.  But in order to make it clear, we’ll look at the key words in order of their importance, rather than in order of appearance.

Belief or idea.  The pivot of this essay is some belief or idea.  This could be your own idea, or it could be one held by someone else.  Beliefs and ideas are abstractions—principles that inform your behavior and set your own standards for the behavior of others.  So no matter what else this prompt addresses, at its core must be some ethical or moral value.

A time.  This word implies a chronology; therefore, you will be required to recount a story. This narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We are looking for a specific incident or occurrence that you can relate in a very succinct, very dense manner.

Challenged.  The idea or belief at the center of your essay must have been tested in some way for this essay to work.  You are being asked to relate an incident in which you challenged or tested or criticized the idea.  Again, the idea could be your own or someone else’s.  But somehow you need to have disputed the truth or validity of this idea.  What was the substance of that challenge? Describe your critique of the belief.

Act.  This is a critical word in this prompt:  it asks for the action you took in response to the challenge.  What concrete steps did you take to criticize or reevaluate the idea or belief?  For some students, it may actually be that the student took no action…but later regretted it.  Nevertheless, the prompt implies that you took some specific action.  What was that action?

Prompted.  This may not seem like an important word, but it is related to the word “time.”  The assumption here is that some particular event or happening was the tipping point in challenging of the idea or belief.  This returns us back to the story you are being asked to construct.  What was the pivotal moment that propelled you to act?

The final question of the prompt is also important, even though no single word stands out in the sentence.  This question is to make you evaluate your action and to explain your own beliefs.  How would you assess your decision, as well as your action?  What were the positive outcomes from this incident, and what may have been the more negative aspects?  I recommend that as you brainstorm, you try to come up with at least three evaluative statements about the outcome of this action you took in challenging the belief.  Not all of these statements may end up in your essay, but because any essay is designed to help the reader understand how you think and feel, it makes sense to take some time to analyze your experience.

Of course, all of this is a lot to think about in only 650 words.  But as with any essay, don’t start with that word limit in your head.  Write expansively and comprehensively to start.  Address all of the aspects of the prompt as completely as you can, and then begin to edit it all down to a manageable length.  This is difficult, sometimes, but the result will be a richer, denser essay that helps your reader to understand your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions.

Tomorrow we’ll continue this series with a look at the prompt that focuses on a place or environment.



Writing About Failure

Writing About A Belief or Idea

Writing About A Place or Environment

Writing About the Transition to Adulthood

Writing About Your Background Story



Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. Much of your advice is helpful, but I really think you’ve misrepresented this question. The question is not “Describe a time when someone challenged YOUR belief.” Instead, it asks about a time when you challenged a belief. The belief could have been yours or someone else’s, but YOU are the actor in this question. You are not defending a belief that’s been challenged, but you are challenging a belief that you or someone else holds. There is much more power in an essay in which you challenge a belief than in one where you simply defend. There is more action. This is a vital difference, and I urge you to consider how you present this information. I also teach students how to write personal essays for the common app, and I think you should reflect on your advice for this question.

  2. Dear Cynthia,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Upon reading it, I did reexamine my post, and determined that you were right. I was not careful enough in my writing of the post to describe which sorts of ideas might be challenged. I placed too much emphasis on the writer’s ideas, and not enough on the possibility (or desirability) of the writer challenging someone else’s idea or belief. I agree that there may be more action in challenging someone else’s belief. However, I also would say that by challenging (or defending) one’s own belief requires a great deal of self-reflection–which is also very powerful on a college application.

    In my own advising, I have seen students write very solid essay challenging (or reconsidering) closely held beliefs, and I have all seen solid essays in which the writer challenges the belief of another. I’m not sure I’d say that one direction is better than another, but the post did require revision.

    At any rate, your comments were useful, and I have edited the post to reflect them.

    Thanks again.

  3. Very helpful advice. And can we be imaginative and write about it rather than a true event because I haven’t had any experience in challenging a idea. Is it ok for me to create my own scenario or true event is strongly recommended?

  4. It is absolutely necessary that your “Scenario” be true. Otherwise, you would be writing fiction. And in this case, writing fiction would be tantamount to lying on your application. What you need is help in identifying a real and true experience that will show off your ideas and abilities to admissions committee. You need not have ended slavery in Mauritania or cured Ebola in Liberia in order to be accepted. Even Stanford and Harvard are not looking for superheroes. They are looking for genuine, interesting people who have potential for doing great things. Do not fib on your application, lest it come back to bite you later.
    Let us know if we can help you with your essay.

  5. Any suggestions for a situation where this is the only essay prompt for a college application and you have never really been in a situation like is described in the prompt?

  6. Well, this is a conundrum. Since you don’t provide the prompt, it’s hard for me to pull advice out of thin air. But usually there is some way for students to dig into their bag of tricks and come up with something that will work. Bring it on!

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