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.
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.
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).