Question about essay topic "Reflect on a time when you questioned a belief or idea."

This essay prompt is required for one of my school applications, and I’m unsure of how to handle it. I know there are two ways you can go with this essay - talk about your stance on major topics such as religion, or talk about a “smaller,” more personal experience.

I’d rather go with the second option, and I’m debating what kind of experience I should highlight. I know the idea questioned can be my own, so I’m thinking about writing about my time at my first Model UN Conference held at a different school, when I was in a completely unfamiliar situation. I wanted to go just to try it out - I wasn’t totally sure of everything that was going on, and I was worrying that I would mess up or embarrass myself in some way.

But I had no choice but to continue with the conference. Eventually, I got more and more comfortable as the conference went on, and I ended up winning Honorable Mention for my committee. I challenged my idea that I would only be able to do well in my comfort zone, and overcame my self-doubt.

Is this a good idea? Does it really follow the prompt? Is it too shallow for a relatively long application essay?

I’d really appreciate your thoughts and insights - thank you so much!

Always go with the more personal experience on an essay. They want to know something about you, about your personality. You are trying to show them something about yourself, which is not apparent in your profile. An opinion piece doesn’t really do that, but a personal experience does.

A second thing - you do not have to show How You Met A Challenge And Overcame It. Your essay does not have to end with your eventual Triumph Over Adversity. Had you not won anything, it still would be interesting. If you had doubts which plagued you to the very end, that also would not make your essay any less engaging or interesting.

Moreover, remember “show, don’t tell”. Showing that you learned something is far more powerful than any “I learned something important” sentence.

I think that this is a chance to show that you are really willing to examine your own truths, a chance to show that you understand that the world isn’t black and white. You can show how you think about things and who you are.

Your proposed essay topic sounds pretty cliche. You could probably use that space on your app to give the AO a better sense of who you are.

Stay clear of topics that involve politics, religion or other potentially polarizing issues. You may be able to write a great essay about such a topic, but you introduce unnecessary risk because you don’t know who the readers are.

Choose a topic that doesn’t involve a sport you are recruited for or a common EC…they tend to be cliche. It doesn’t have to be a major turning point in your life…it just needs to reflect the way you think and who you are.

And run your topic idea past adults who know you. Strangers on a forum can only help so much.

I think they are looking to see how you think and if you are open to changing your opinion based on various factors ( so many aren’t these days). While I’d be careful about how it is written, I certainly wouldn’t suggest staying away from topics you feel strongly about inlcuding topics which encompass religion or politics. Most of the readers are going to get bland essays about mundane topics but if you have something you really care about and have thought long and hard about, then you should write about that. Demonstrate through your writing that you have passion and compassion ( maybe by showing the other side).
I agree with Altras in the sense that you don’t know your reader, so don’t ever assume your opinions are their opinions. Just make the case for why you are an independent thinker. This is harder than it seems. A well written essay has room for growth and demonstrates acumen rather than being about what is right or wrong.

I think you are getting some really good advice here.

I would add this perspective: Have you created a master list of all the things that you want your applications to show about you? Some sort of document that reflects the most important things every school needs to know about me (could be 4-5 bullet points, a few sentences, or whatever). If not, I would strongly strongly suggest that.

Now that you have this list or document in front of you – is Model UN the biggest, most important item on that list? If not, it really has no business being the star of the biggest essay.

Is religion your biggest part of that document-about-you? If not, then it has no business being your biggest essay. (I bring this is up to show you how absolutely this should NOT be your essay, to answer your original post, unless truly, religion really is the biggest part about you. It might be. But it sounds like you were distracted by the question, not digging deep into your soul here.)

I guess what I am suggesting is: get clear on who you are, and what you need to share to communicate that clearly, and write it down on a document. And then: Stay focussed! Don’t get distracted by these super interesting open-ended questions! Use them to tell your story. What is your story? It’s all right there in your document. I’ll say it again because it’s important: Use their questions to guide you into telling YOUR story. (Yes answer the question. But answer it with your story. So you have to do two things at once here: Manage their actual question while also revealing your true self.)

One other thing to note: Your “list” may not be “activities.” In fact, in my opinion, it’s more compelling when they aren’t just a bunch of activities/ECs/academic subjects. I prefer to think of them as “themes” or “the point or takeaway” of an activity. For example, if you like basketball and skydiving, then maybe the bullet point is you love adrenaline and adventure. Now basketball and skydiving are examples of the “thing” but they themselves aren’t the actual “thing.” Does that make sense? An essay about adrenaline and how you love it (working in basketball and skydiving as the examples) and how that will have you trying new things at BS is more interesting than an essay about basketball.

Also: in case you haven’t then already noticed, using themes has additional advantages: it allows you to work in more than one activity in a way that feels natural. And, it does the hard work for your admissions team to categorize yourself for them. (Rather than forcing THEM to figure out: oh he must love adrenaline rushes because he loves multiple fast-paced sports ). And it makes it easier for them to make the mental leap to picturing you there when you say: So this makes me imagine I would love the rush of being on the water so I want to try crew when I come to your school. (Or whatever. I am making up an example, and admittedly it’s not great.)

Thank you so much, @Calliemomofgirls and everyone! I’ve decided that the topic I originally thought of isn’t the best idea for this prompt - I’ll work on creating a master list of the important things schools should know about me, and I’ll continue working on managing the question while also revealing my true self. Thank you again for all the help!

@skyhigh1203 Also, I should have said before: this is just how I would approach it. Know that there are a thousand ways to skin a cat. But if how I would attack the problem proves helpful for your brainstorming, then great. But if not, feel free to ignore whatever I might suggest that isn’t helpful to you. You know yourself best.

@Calliemomofgirls While I definitely agree with you that the theme should be about the OP’s personality, not about the event perse, I disagree that the essay has to focus on the biggest deepest part of their life. Essays do not need to be some soul-baring reveal about the writers deepest emotions and aspirations.

It should show something personal, something interesting, and something that is beyond the list of facts and data that are on the resume and the LoRs. An essay which highlights how the OP dealt with having to deal with publicly supporting an opinion with which they didn’t agree would be great.

Most high school students rarely will be in a situation where they question their beliefs. The way schools in most middle class school districts are set up, most kids will not have to question their beliefs in the classroom, nor will they generally do it at home, and, in these days, most people have few, if any, family friends with whom they disagree on religion, politics, etc. In today’s USA, the majority of 17 or 18 year olds have not had many cases where their beliefs and opinions have truly been questioned in a situation in which they had to deal with it.

So for many teens, Debate is likely the only place where this has happened until now. It may be a cliché, but it is also the reality in which we live.

Just to clarify because I think I might have poorly communicated if the takeaway was that an essay must be about some majorly deep life thing. Not at all. I would consider my example of loving adrenaline and fast-paced sports to be an authentic, perfectly lovely essay topic (albeit perhaps not my very best work ?), but I would definitely not consider that a big, deep, life thing. Debate club – great! But I would make sure I wrote the essay about why that mattered and how that impacted me. Meaning (as my high school English teacher used to say): you did debate club – but what is the big deal about that? Go one layer more, she would say.

Side note: I would actually suggest that the best writing isn’t about writing about THE BIG THING. But about having some keen observations on the small and medium things in life. (Like basketball or debate club or whatever.).

Your example of an essay to talk about how an opinion was challenged seems perfectly workable, and probably a great essay could be written. I would just make sure that there is enough of the student shared in there so that it supports the 4-5 things that the students wants to fit in the application. Put another way: If the admissions team doesn’t learn anything about the applicant or like the applicant more after reading it, then I do feel like that’s a missed opportunity for the long essay. Essay word space goes very, very (!) quickly, so there’s not a lot of space to present oneself to an admissions team, most of whom did not get a chance to meet the student.

But – at the end of the day, as I said above – this is only how I would approach the essay battery, and there are indeed a thousand ways to skin this cat. Most kids (and adults), frankly, don’t have the writing skills to dazzle, but everyone has the ability to connect, so that is definitely my go-to.

@skyhigh1203: The topic concerning Model UN is weak as it is unlikely to reveal much regarding intellectual depth and reflection.

Do not shy away from topics concerning religion, politics, or other potentially polarizing issues. This is almost the opposite of what the essay prompt is designed to elicit from you.

Forget about themes or greatest this or that.

This is simply an exercise designed to measure your intellectual depth, thought process, and maturity.

I couldn’t agree with more with Calliemom about figuring out what you want to get through to admissions and work from there.
Last year my DD had a required essay writing class at her LPS first term. One of her first assignments came from a past UChicago admissions prompt, “Find X”. The teacher gave them the prompt and a word count, no other explanations. As a freshman in her first few weeks of HS, she freaked out because she had no idea what the teacher wanted. That was the point. Think creatively and you don’t always have to be so literal in interpretations of a prompt. There are definitely more then two ways you can go with that essay. Looking back, my DD is so thankful that she got stuck with that class first term despite the frustrations it caused. In the end, it made all the difference in the essays she wrote for her BS application.

Thank you so much, @Publisher and @mommysmalls!

I would like to read an essay (from our son) on “Why I Do Not Share My Mother’s Belief That Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness.”

I don’t think you have to reach too deep to find something interesting to write about. Remember, they are evaluating your writing skills and how you think. The topic, IMO, is pretty irrelevant.

@skyhigh1203 – I am always thinking about people reading these threads a year or two down the road, so in that spirit, I’m going to add a thought or two.

As you can see, there are many roads to Rome.

In this case, you can choose to treat this long essay as a merely showcase for your writing, and nothing more, as a few folks have suggested. In that case, maybe it doesn’t “matter” what you write about. (And you can then “forget themes and XYZ” as someone so, ahem, gently proposed.)

I’ll tell you two (of many) reasons why I disagree.

  1. It is harder to be impressive than it is to be liked. To impress with your "great writing" is very hard to do. You'd better be really, really good. Why? Because you are only engaging their head, not their heart. So gosh -- you better really knock it out of the park! And yet, weirdly -- you don't want to be "too good" because you will come across as a snob rather than a 13 year old kid. It's a hard target to hit.
  2. Treating an essay as an opportunity to impress means you will spend, say, half of ALL THE TIME YOU WILL EVER HAVE WITH THE ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE and they will have exactly ONE piece of new information about you: that you are a good writer. And guess what? Even if this is true, guess what -- this is actually NOT NEW INFORMATION!! Why? If you are a really good writer -- tippy top amazing (which is what you really better be if you go this academic-only route), well then they already know this because it's all over your academic record, it's all over the recommendation from your teachers, and it's all over your personal essay.

My strong advice: Don’t waste your chance to connect by worrying about your chance to impress. Trust that you are smart enough to impress while you connect. (Now, if you have 10 essays and you want to get academic on 2 of them, OK totally fine. But when you have 2 essays that are 500 words each, well it’s a real waste to treat one of those as an academic exercise, in my opinion.)

Again – many roads to Rome, so you can choose the one that feels best to you.

Cheering you on from the sidelines!!

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Oh and I’ll add – in case it sounds like I don’t agree with this piece – that it actually really does NOT matter what you write about – but what does matter is what you reveal. In other words, you can write about a tiny moment, and still make it a revealing, connecting essay. You could also write about something really “academic” and make it a connecting essay. You don’t have to write about an EC, I guess is what I am saying, in order for it to be a connecting essay.



@Calliemomofgirls I did not imply that the prompt should be forgotten. Instead, that any prompt can be utilized in a way to show admissions a greater look into who the applicant is. The OP said:

As my own DD learned, that’s taking a narrow view, instead there can be many more ways to write about “Reflect[ing] on a time when you questioned a belief or idea.” It doesn’t have to be a stance or experience. Like my original reply suggested, prompts don’t always have to be taken so literally. One could write how they “questioned” why (insert school) is the best school for them and blah, blah, blah… I wasn’t going to give specific ideas to OP, but my reply could have led to some google searches that could help.
I think we are in agreement that the essay can be used as a tool for the AO’s to get to know the students more or why that school is where they belong. Writing well is a given for most of these kids, these essays can really differentiate an applicant and why they are special.
Just my opinion, no more valuable then anyone else’s here. Every student my DD meets at BS, has had different approaches to the application and multiple paths there.
Not sure why any adults here are taking “ahem” shots at other’s opinions.

No BS applicant is ever going to submit great writing, so no worries there. Whatever the topic, it will be evaluated for interest, expression, and a grasp of the fundamentals of form and grammar. This exercise is not about showcasing writing; it’s about the writing not getting in the way of what you have to say. Make sure whatever you submit is interesting and well-written as you will be competing against others who know how to reveal themselves through a well-constructed essay.

@mommysmalls Oh, it wasn’t you at all. I actually thought you and I were on the same page. (?)

It was @Publisher, whom I adore and respect, but who also fully can handle my side-eyed (and well-deserved) “ahem” who said in response to my suggestion to consider ECs as themes:

"Forget about themes or greatest this or that.

This is simply an exercise designed to measure your intellectual depth, thought process, and maturity."

No anger or frustration intended at all to anyone. But a little poke at someone who basically says “forget completely what the weirdo above me just said” is totally legitimate.

And I’ll end as I really always try to with a caveat: my opinion is only my own, and there are lots of ways to proceed. Whatever doesn’t work for OP (or others), please feel free ignore.

Lots of ways to skin a cat. My kid definitely had no issue finding several fairly deep subjects to write about. Unlike another postEr who thought this age had no depth, we often talk at dinner about exactly this type of thing and kids have done debate so seeing both sides of an issue and exploring issues and controversies from both sides is second nature. Showing this skill was natural.
I like the idea of using it as another “opportunity” to showcase something else and round out their application but my kids didn’t/wouldn’t go that route. I think showcasing their thinking not their writing is what is warranted.
Again, lots of approaches without ahem.
No single one is best.
Just don’t write a flat essay. When the reader finishes they should be able to answer the question why do I care?