Monday Morning Essay Tip: How to Answer the Ethical Dilemma Essay Question

Dilemma: An argument presenting two or more equally conclusive alternatives against an opponent (according to Merriam-Webster)

Over the years, we have found that one of the essay questions that gives candidates the most grief is the dreaded “ethical dilemma” question. Although most candidates clearly understand the difference between what is and is not ethical, the problem usually lies in the word “dilemma.” As you can tell from the definition provided, a dilemma occurs when two equally conclusive sides exist simultaneously—with an emphasis on “equally.” Here we offer two examples of responses to an “ethical dilemma” essay question. The first presents only one reasonable side, and the second offers two.

Example 1: “While I was working at ABC firm, my boss asked me to book our second quarter revenue in advance so that we could create the appearance of a great first quarter. I firmly told him that this was unethical and refused.”

In this example, the candidate is asked to do something that is clearly unethical. However, because the argument really has only one reasonable side—the reader would not want to hear the story if the candidate had agreed to book revenue ahead of schedule!—no ethical dilemma actually exists in this case.

Example 2: “As the marketing manager for a small pharmaceutical company, I had to set the price for our breakthrough drug. I needed to consider that on the one hand, a rock-bottom price would mean that our life-saving drug would be available to all, but on the other hand, even though a high price would serve a smaller market, it would make the drug far more profitable and would ensure that we could continue to conduct valuable research into additional life-saving compounds.”

In this second example, the candidate outlines a true dilemma. This applicant could be entirely comfortable telling the reader that he pursued either of the pricing strategies, as long as he walks the reader through his/her rationale.

The test to determine whether the experience you are considering discussing in your essay involves a true dilemma is fairly simple. Ask yourself, “Could I comfortably discuss the alternative to the path I chose?” If the answer is “yes,” you are clearly on the right track. If the answer is “no,” try again.

For more advice on how to write your essays, check out our Essay Writing Guide and Optional Essays Guide, which present clear and easy-to-understand instructions for creating time-saving (and stress-reducing) outlines and for crafting comprehensive, engaging and effective essays.

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