writing college essays

Universities are places where debate and argument are fostered in all academic realms:  science, philosophy, law, culture, politics.  More often than not, they are places where students encounter the “other” — those holding beliefs that might seem “different” or “strange.”  Conflicts are bound to arise in such environments.  But how does one conduct himself when he sees an opportunity to make an argument that goes against the grain?  That’s the question facing students who choose to answer the Common Application’s essay prompt number three:

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

Attempts at logic and reasoning can be fodder for winning personal statements, no doubt, but it’s important to steer clear of essays that resemble arguments, themselves. To keep you focused on producing an essay that is more personal statement than battleground, we’ve come up with five simple rules of engagement:

1. Make note of the prompt’s question marks.

Sometimes students think their personal statement needs to be a deliberative argument filled with reasoning and logic.  Tread carefully, though — this prompt isn’t asking you to convince your reader of your position.  The questions in this essay are centered upon what prompted you to act and whether or not you would make the same decision again.  This is not a term paper — it’s a personal statement.

2. Don’t argue for the sake of arguing.

No one likes a contrarian, and unlike most television network roundtables with bickering, partisan pundits, this essay prompt doesn’t require you to vanquish or bully any adversaries.  You are, however, expected to reflect upon your actions.  Did you demonstrate courage of your convictions?  Any triumphs or regrets?  Focus on how this essay reflects upon you as a person, not your argument.

3. Play well with others.

Logic, reasoning, and debate can sometimes be overplayed — especially when one forgets there are human beings who might hold an opposing position.  Given you’re seeking admission into an academic community, can you highlight instances where you’ve demonstrated respect and appreciation for those with whom you’re arguing, rather than disdain?  How well do you play in the sandbox?  Your reader needs to know.

4. Be on the right side of truth and justice.

Okay, this one might seem overly simplistic, but it’s important.  Because we’re talking personal statement here, not whether or not you have the ability to take an argument to extreme logical absurdities, cite instances where you’ve used your powers of persuasion for good or truth.  You’re not being admitted based upon smarts alone — sometimes you’re admitted based upon how you intend to use those smarts.

5. Highlight your strengths.

Were you able to convince others of your arguments or sway other people to your side?  Did you receive private commendations from others thanking you for taking on an issue of importance?  Let your reader know if your arguments had impact.  Admission officers love that!

It’s not easy challenging an idea or belief, especially when that challenge runs against the current.   Such stories, however, often speak of courage, leadership, or great analytical thinking — traits that my fellow College Coach admissions consultants and I sought out in our past lives as admissions officers. Add the positive impact you’ve had on others as a consequence of your powers of persuasion, and you just might have a winning personal statement on your hands.


Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory. Visit our website to learn more about Zaragoza Guerra.