College Essay Ethical Dilemma

In a regular Magazine feature called “The Ethicist,” a columnist answers people’s questions about everyday ethical issues, from whether to report people who don’t do their jobs to how to determine who gets the prize in a lottery if the winning-ticket holder didn’t buy the ticket. What ethical dilemmas have you ever faced? How did you solve them?

In a recent column, “Letter of the Law,” a reader, I.N. from New York, writes in with a question, and the Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, answers:

I asked a former professor to write me a recommendation for law school. It was particularly important to me that this professor write the letter, as my top-choice law school specifically asks for a letter from a former professor, and she is the teacher who knew me best. She said she was too busy, but if I would write it, she would gladly “edit as needed” and submit it under her own name. I felt uncomfortable writing my own letter, but I did not wish to jeopardize my chances of being accepted into my top-choice school by being overly conscientious. May I do so? I.N., NEW YORK

Sure you may. If the professor had asked you to come discuss your strengths, would that trouble you? What if she asked you to discuss them — and then leave your notes with her? What if she asked you to just e-mail her some notes? In effect that’s what she has done.

Writing about yourself in that way can be uncomfortable, but it’s not unethical. (Many companies that engage in an annual-review process invite their employees to write self-evaluations, which can serve as a learning tool for reflective workers but also a crib sheet for forgetful managers.)

Perhaps you’re worried that the professor won’t follow through on her promise to “edit as needed.” She could, theoretically, send your words on to the school as her own, but that would not be your fault, any more than if you handed her a blank page and she filled it with a bunch of made-up platitudes. So go ahead, sing your praises. And don’t forget to include “ethically conscientious.” It never hurts, not even in law school.

Students: Tell us what ethical dilemmas you’ve faced in your life, whether at school, at home, with friends, in a romantic relationship or while working or pursuing a hobby. What did you do about them? Why?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. Please use only your first name. For privacy policy reasons, we will not publish student comments that include a last name.

Teachers: We also have a lesson plan based on this feature, “The Good, the Bad and ‘The Ethicist.’ “

Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.

Common App 4: Problem-Solving

The Prompt

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

The Essay


I have a scar above my left eyebrow from when I fell from a tree when I was five years old. I landed face-first on a particularly pointy rock. Now, you're probably thinking, "Where were this kid's parents?!"

Oh, my dad was nearby, sipping on a Corona in a lawn chair (as he does). Once I saw the blood, I bawled my eyes out. My dad, on the other hand, calmly walked over, examined my wound, and told me it was just a small cut, which it absolutely was (the branch I fell from was only five feet high). To make me feel like I wasn't overreacting, my dad butterfly-stitched my bloody face with two Band-Aids.

If my five-year-old had fallen from a tree onto their face, I would have rushed them to a hospital. I would have dramatically held them in my arms in the waiting room while quietly sobbing about the oh-so-real possibility of a concussion, infection, or brain tumor.

You know, I probably wouldn't have let them climb the tree in the first place.

My dad's the complete opposite. He hardly ever stresses out. He's cool, calm, and collected. And in my junior year, he had to spend a few nights in the hospital due to high blood pressure.


They said the cause was most likely stress. Stress from what? I thought to myself. He was a stay-at-home dad. For the most part, he takes it easy, eats healthy, exercises regularly, and doesn't have anger issues. There really wasn't a reason for him to be stressed out, let alone have high blood pressure due to stress, but he did.

I was very distracted when he spent those couple of days in the hospital. I struggled with my homework, I was distant, and I wasn't eating very well. The medical issue my father had was so common. It could also kill him. How could we not know the cause of the stress? I thought about this extensively. It felt completely hopeless.

I snapped out of it once I figured out what I could do about it. In the face of adversity, the worst a person can do is dwell. I was stuck on the hopelessness of the situation. The solution? Become a doctor, of course.

Okay, easier said than done. That goes without saying. Still, I couldn't help but feel that there was something I could do about it, so at that moment, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I enrolled in a few extra classes at my community college. Now, if all goes according to plan, I could get a Bachelor's in pre-med in as little as two years.


I still have no clue how my dad has high blood pressure due to stress. My general classes didn't teach me any of that. What I do know is that I'm my father's daughter, and I'll most likely have the same medical issues. If I stress so much about stressing out, I know I'll be dead before my dad, who I'm sure will live to be a hundred at least.

That's why I'm writing this personal statement.

Why This Essay Works

The key to making this personal statement work is focus. It's all about spending enough time talking about the right things, not leaving anything out, and not getting too far off track.

In the introduction, we meet the writer's father. He's basically her foil. He's calm and laidback, she's neurotic and controlling. This lays the foundation for her to answer the prompt. The thesis comes a bit later than expected, and the conclusion ends rather abruptly, but what else is there to say?

The body paragraphs tell the story introduces what exactly the problem is: her father has high blood pressure due to stress and doesn't know why. This essay's all about how the writer coped with that problem and what solution they came up with.

It's a personal statement, so while focusing on solving a problem to answer the prompt is important, what's more important is the writer talking about herself and her personal development.

In the beginning, the essay discusses her dad. In the end, it's about her.

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