Do You Know What an Ethical Dilemma Is?

The Common App's essay prompt #1 lets you write about an "ethical dilemma" and its impact on you. If you're considering this prompt, yes, it's a fantastic idea to understand what an ethical dilemma is. Today's application essay tips help you understand three aspects of an ethical dilemma.

3 Application Essay Tips for Writing about an Ethical Dilemma

To get you started on the ethical dilemma essay, here are three application essay tips:

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Give your dilemma a deadline.

Without the urgency of a deadline, there's no excitement, and without excitement, you'll lose your reader. We've all seen movie scenes where someone's defusing a bomb. As the clock counts down to zero, the hero must decide which wire to cut. The time pressure of the countdown creates drama. Try imagining the bomb scene with no countdown. The hero still has to choose which wire to cut, but he can take his time. Not as dramatic, right? If you want your ethical dilemma to make the reader care (and you do), then you need a deadline. A dilemma is not just a choice; it's a choice with an imminent deadline.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Make sure your dilemma is a choice between two equivalent options.

If I see a man fall down, I can either help him up or steal his wallet. But because my two options are not equivalent - the right choice is obvious - that's not really a dilemma. A dilemma can be a choice between two good outcomes, like whether to spend time studying or helping a friend. Or it can be a choice between two bad outcomes, like whether to kill 1 innocent to save 100 lives (a "lesser of two evils" scenario). But it should never be an obvious choice between a good outcome and a bad outcome (like my old man falling down example). If your dilemma has an obvious right answer, keep brainstorming until you identify a choice between equivalent options. When you write about choosing between two equivalent options, you create tension, and tension keeps the reader interested.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #3: Reveal conflicting values.

Get ready for some critical reading. The prompt invites you to write about an "ethical dilemma," not just a "dilemma." Ethics has something to do with values, and values vary from person to person. For me, deciding what to eat might be a dilemma, but not an ethical one, because I don't associate my food choices with any of my values. But if you're a vegetarian, then deciding what to eat might very well be an ethical dilemma.

If you agree that an ethical dilemma relates to your values, then you probably also agree that you can start brainstorming for this essay by listing your values. Your values might be the broad ones ones that colleges often seem to emphasize, like initiative/leadership, service to others, and intellectual curiosity/vitality. Or they might be narrow ones, like always returning the shopping cart. When you choose which values to write about, the important thing is not whether you've chosen broad or narrow values, but rather whether the values you've chosen will help the admission officer understand who you are.

After you identify your values, reflect on when two of these values have been in conflict. Be specific in articulating your dilemma. If I were sitting down with you, I would ask you these questions:

  • When - in what specific moment - did you first become aware of the dilemma?
  • What were the two options?
  • Why did you think they were equivalent?
  • What were the benefits and drawbacks of your two options?
  • What was at stake?
  • How did you decide between the two conflicting values?
  • Did you look to another personal value or another person for guidance?
  • Did the dilemma change your perception of your values?
  • Would you make the decision differently if you faced it again?
  • What did you lose from your decision?
  • What did you gain?
  • How have you applied what you learned from this dilemma to other situations?
  • What about the decision-making process and its aftermath surprised you?


If you start answering these types of questions, you'll have a better chance of writing about your conflicting values in a way that makes the reader care about you, which is your whole goal. I hope today's discussion of the ethical dilemma will give you some ideas for handling this prompt. If you liked today's application essay tips, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.