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College Admissions: Common Application Prompt #3

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


This is an actual college application essay written in response to the Common Application prompt: Challenge a Belief. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective. 

The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.

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

“My doodlebot isn’t working, Miss!” A little hand pokes at my shoulder, drawing my attention away from the motor that I’m currently attempting to liberate from its six-layered prison of lime-green duct tape. 

“What’s up, Arely?”  I stand up, handing the sticky-yet-now-probably-functional motor to another girl before following Arely’s yellow hard hat through the sea of fifth graders to her table. Arely is one thirty girls who got their hard hats this year at my fledgling outreach program, Physics and Engineering for Girls. After what was—perhaps pathetically—an earth-shattering realization that being angry and complaining about the lack of women in STEM does not actually get more women into STEM, I decided to spend my anger points on something other than words and started the program in my district. If strong emotions are the currency of action, I think PEG is a good investment.

 We arrive at a table covered in what used to be white butcher paper but is now a leprechaun’s experiment in abstract art: loops and circles and lines and squiggles in every color of the Crayola washable rainbow. Arely sighs and flops down in a plastic chair that’s three grade levels too small for her before presenting her problem robot. At first glance, Arely’s doodlebot is perfect—a Dixie cup with four markers poking out the bottom mixed up in a jumble of wires with a small motor perched precariously in a nest of duct tape above a nine-volt battery. At second glance, it looks exactly the same way: perfect. Except for one important detail. 

 “It keeps falling over.” Arely explains. “Why doesn’t it draw like theirs?” She points at the other girls’ bots, which are currently buzzing and humming as they leave unique Technicolor trails of doodle in their wakes. The variations in design stem from PEG’s intentionally vague instructions. Their Dixie cup drawing machines sport designs varying from the popular dorsal-motor-external-battery-tri-legged model to the less common, yet inspired, battery-on-the-inside-motor-on-the-outside prototype. 

This remarkable freedom of design is part of what is so unique about my program. When the Beaverton Education Foundation adopted PEG last spring, they opted for more structured lessons, claiming that girls from low-SES and Title One schools wouldn’t have the intellectual chops to excel without step-by-step guidance. Honestly, at that point it took all of my willpower not to storm out of the room and leave their money and support, because that’s exactly the kind of preconceived notion about who can and cannot do STEM that I want to combat with PEG. (Also, my pilot school was a low-SES Title One school, and the girls did fantastically.) But I didn’t storm out of the room, and I didn’t leave the money and support the BEF is now providing. Next year, PEG will be a very different experience with more “learning targets” and “I Can” statements than intellectual wiggle-room, but I realize that instead of being angry about the perversion of my initial vision, it’s more pragmatic to accept that while the program might not be what I originally imagined, it’s still an improvement over nothing. 

Arely presents her dysfunctional doodlebot for inspection. “What’s wrong with it?” 
Smiling, I kneel to get on eye level with Arely, already having identified the device’s mechanical hamartia: a weight imbalance that arises from the positioning of the motor and battery. But what will she learn if I just tell her that? In the spirit of problem solving, I give her an answer she’ll hate, an answer she probably already knows is coming. I turn off the doodlebot and push it across the table to Arely.
“What do you think?” (Elise, CalTech, Class of 2019)

Conor’s feedback: This student would make a wonderful teacher one day and this essay really shows a wisdom and maturity in her actions that are made more impressive by contrasting them against the passionate voices and emotions she shares with the reader from her internal dialogue running throughout the essay.

Anna’s feedback: I love that this student talks about an issue that concerned her and took action. She relates this concern to her own interest in STEM and makes it relevant to her college application. What takes this essay to the next level, though, is that she sandwiches this statement with a story that brings it to life. I can see care and conviction.

Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student takes initiative. She is also amazingly mature. I admire her pragmatic decision that even a diluted version of her program is better than no program. I’d want her in my college cohort because she seems energetic, patient and results-oriented.

Conor O’Rourke is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Pomona College, which is also his alma mater. Contact Conor at: [email protected] 

Anna Aegerter is the Director of West Coast Admission for Sarah Lawrence College In her twenty year career, Anna has worked at Lewis & Clark College (her alma mater), Trinity University (TX), Lawrence University, and Pitzer College. She also was the Director of College Counseling for an independent school in Seattle before returning to Admission to work at Sarah Lawrence College. Contact her at: [email protected] 

Jodi Walder-Biesanz is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. She has also worked as an application reader for Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Contact her at: [email protected].


Related Slideshow: Slideshow: Favorite College Majors in 10 Western States

Oregon has a disproportionately high rate of students majoring in 'Forestry,' according to a Business Insider study that defines each state by a college major. See what majors define these other  Western states. 

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