How to Approach the New Common Application Prompt

The Common App recently added a new prompt choice to its college essay section. Here's what it is, what people think, and how you can approach it.

Have you heard about the new essay prompt on the Common App? We’ve been getting lots of inquiries about the new prompt from professionals who work with students on the college admission journey—and we’ve had some great conversations. The new prompt, prompt #4, reads as follows: Reflect on something someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? Let’s take a look at how people feel about this new prompt and how you should approach it in your application essay.

What people are saying about the new prompt

I was talking recently with an admission director at one of the Ivies who called this new multi-pronged prompt a trap. “It’ll be hard to answer the whole question authentically,” they thought. However, a senior admission representative at a prestigious public university told me she loved the prompt because it was so positive. “But I want to read about the student,” she went on, “not someone else or someone who did something for them.” Then a counselor who participated in one of my professional training programs described the new prompt as an invitation to write about Grandma. “It’s problematic,” they explained. “And because of how it’s worded, there are too many things students are supposed to do in one essay.”

What do we think? We’re still figuring that out. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter much what we think of any prompt. Why? Colleges don’t care which prompt you select on the Common App. But they do want you to pick a prompt that speaks to you—not one that speaks to me or to any other adult you know. Our job is to simply help students like you understand what a Common App essay prompt means and let you choose the one you like best and can write about without any judgement over your choice.

Related: What Is the Common Application?

Our take on Common App prompt #4

This prompt is more complex than some of the others. On the surface, it seems to be asking about a time you felt gratitude—but it’s not quite that simple. This prompt is both reflective and very specific. The key words here are reflect, surprising, gratitude, affected, and motivated. Prompt #4 invites you to reflect on someone else’s kindness, but the story you tell shouldn’t be primarily about the other person’s act—it should be about how this experience affected you and what you did as a result of that kindness.

The prompt doesn’t ask you to share just any act of kindness. Admission committee want to know about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. Maybe the other person surprised you with their kindness, or maybe you were surprised that you felt so grateful or happy, or maybe the surprise came through in some other way. If you can identify a specific story that focuses on you, showcases a characteristic or trait that demonstrates who you are, fits these criteria, and also explains how your gratitude affected or motivated you to do something, this prompt may be a good fit for you.  

Related: Choosing Your Story: How to Make Your Common App Essays Stand Out

What do you want admission committees to know about you? 

No matter the prompt, before you start brainstorming essay ideas, think about what you want the reader to learn about you. The question is not “What do admission officers want to hear?” or “What should I write?” Instead, answer this: “What do I want them to know about me that they couldn’t find out from the rest of my application?” They already know if you’re on the debate team or that you play soccer. They know if you got a B+ in algebra or scored well on the ACT. What they don’t know is whether you’re creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated, or cautious. They don’t know how your experiences have shaped you. Your essay offers an opportunity to consider what you want colleges to know and remember about you. 

Related: 5 Tips to Conquer the Common Application Essay 

The best prompt choice is the one you prefer!

It’s important to note that no essay prompt is better than another. And despite what you may hear or have heard, colleges that use the Common App (and there are a lot of them!) don’t prefer any particular prompt. At Wow Writing Workshop, we talk to admission officers all the time; they’re more interested in what you have to say than which essay prompt you choose. Keep in mind that at its core, the college essay is all about reflection. No matter the prompt, we approach every one the same way. We tell our students an effective essay will answer these two questions: what happened, and why does it matter? Why it matters to the student (the reflection) is more important than what actually happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced that student).

For more expert college essay advice, sign up for one of Wow’s free monthly workshops, and find more blogs and articles right here on CollegeXpress.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Tags:

About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays so they can stand out and tell their stories. Kim supervises a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with their unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short-answer essays, and supplements. From Farmington Hills, Michigan, Kim is also a board member of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling.

 
 

 

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Hannah Nelsen

Hannah Nelsen

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has helped me look at colleges that fit my interests by taking my profile and matching it to colleges that have the programs I'm looking for. It has the ability to connect me to colleges so I can be contacted by them and look at them more in-depth to find what's right for me. Additionally, the scholarship database is super beneficial for getting scholarships for college. Not only does it help lift the financial burden of college but it shows all the opportunities available. Overall, CollegeXpress has been very helpful to me.

Sonny Harris

Sonny Harris

College Student

For the entire year before college, I spent a lot of time deeply considering what major I wanted to go into and how to fund my higher education. After a lot of research, I came across CollegeXpress, which helped me ultimately find a ton of scholarships for which I could apply—and some of which I received! If it weren’t for CollegeXpress, I may not have found those scholarships as they didn't appear on any other scholarship search forum. Additionally, I learned more about the options I had been considering for my major through CollegeXpress’s resources. In the end, I chose to major in Computer Science, as it seemed best suited to me and the careers in the field seemed enjoyable, and I've never been more excited to move into my future! Ultimately, I want to thank CollegeXpress for offering their services. I received enough financial aid in scholarships to fund my entire freshman year of college and even got some money refunded which I used to purchase a new laptop, and I bought all of the books I needed for the semester!

Ida Akoto-Wiafe

Ida Akoto-Wiafe

High School Class of 2022

I wanted a school that wasn't too far away from home and could provide me with a full-ride scholarship. CollegeXpress helped me put into perspective the money I had to pay to attend those schools, which ultimately drove me to choose to attend a community college first to get used to being in college before transferring to the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, one of the colleges I was able to research further on CollegeXpress.

Kayla

Kayla

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me organize the schools I wanted to choose from in one place, which I could then easily compare and find the school that was right for me!

Elizabeth Stafford

Elizabeth Stafford

High School Class of 2021

As a UK student moving to California due to my dad's job in the military, when I first signed up for CollegeXpress a few months ago, the college process ahead seemed daunting and incredibly stressful. That all changed after I started to explore what this website had to offer. Not only was I helped by the vast array of resources available to me, but through being a CollegeXpress member, there have been so many more benefits. There have been emails with college tips—all of which I found incredibly helpful—as well as invitations to events and notifications of scholarships that'll make college possible for me. Overall, I'm very grateful to CollegeXpress for all of these things and more. Not only have they helped me grow my understanding of the college process, but they've also helped me to grow as a person, giving me new skills that I can take with me through life.

College Matches
X

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Southwestern University

Georgetown, TX

Grace College

Winona Lake, IN

Howard Payne University

Brownwood, TX