The Common Application essay prompts haven’t changed since 2013-2014, so it was hugely exciting when a brand new question debuted for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle.
Behold, Common App prompt #4:
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
This prompt stands out as the only one that explicitly refers to emotion. In fact, it encourages you to explore a specific set of emotions: happiness, thankfulness, relief, humility, compassion, empathy… (I could probably extrapolate a few more). To write a strong personal statement on any prompt, you must explore at least one emotion. Unlike the other prompts, Prompt #4 actually urges you in that direction. That might make it especially appealing for some students.
Personally, I kind of like this prompt. It’s fresh, optimistic. But I can’t help but worry about the 2 major traps that many students will innocently step into.
1. Remember the immense gratitude we all felt for the frontline responders and essential workers who kept our communities healthy, fed, and entertained during the darkest days of lockdown? Remember the flood of gratitude we felt when vaccines became available, when restaurants and shops and schools reopened?
You can probably list at least 5 things, without even thinking that hard, that you took for granted before Covid. In fact, when they introduced the gratitude prompt in 2021, the Common App team revealed that it was mainly inspired by the pandemic.
And that’s the first trap. We can all write “pandemic gratitude” essays, and they’re all going to sound very much the same. Heartfelt, but tedious, and indistinguishable.
Even a beautifully written essay about Covid will NOT help your application stand out. I’ve read dozens of Covid-themed essays already. Some were touching, and some were pretty good, and they all kind of blur together.
Besides that, we’re all tired of Covid. We all want to move beyond it. The pandemic has confined and defined us for far too long. Don’t let it define you as an applicant.
2. Prompt #4 demands the same introspective work as any other prompt. It’s about seeing the positive… but your essay can’t be 100% positivity and cheer. You can’t get away with a 6-paragraph ode describing the most selfless person you know. You still need to tell a focused story, and a story needs conflict. Without a meaningful negative, your positivity won’t ring true. And you still need to reflect, not just praise.
Oof! I feel like I got pretty cranky there. It might sound like I’m warning you against Prompt #4. But I promise you, I’m not!
As long as you avoid the aforementioned pitfalls, you can write a fantastic essay on an experience of gratitude. Just keep in mind that there’s more than one keyword in this prompt, besides gratitude – it’s surprising. The best essays on #4 won’t overlook this word, even if you have a subtle, nuanced interpretation.
When you write about Covid, it’s really hard to surprise readers at this point. Feeling grateful for handshakes and hugs and yes, even classrooms and going to school again? None of that is surprising. Feeling grateful for the tireless sacrifices of Mom or Dad, or the support of your basketball coach after a hard loss? Not surprising. Not likely to stand out.
So what would be surprising? That thing/person/experience that nobody else has experienced gratitude for in quite the way that you have. Maybe it’s geographical coordinates, or the sinks in public restrooms, or the magical properties of band-aids. Or when somebody gave you a second chance that you barely deserved.
And you know what? The awesomeness of your mom is not completely forbidden! But instead of gushing about how devoted she is, find a unique angle on it. Why not write about that time a complete stranger helped you realize how great your mom is? Or the time that leopard-print stuffed kangaroo helped you appreciate your mom for the first time? (Both are real student essays I read years ago and never forgot. They weren’t written for the Common App gratitude prompt, but they would answer it beautifully.)
So don’t dismiss the new gratitude prompt… but as always, be surprising. Give those AOs something unexpected, one-of-a-kind, and fearlessly personal.