Let’s Talk About the New Common App Prompt?

What do you think about the new prompt on the Common App?

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?

We’ve been getting lots of inquiries about the new prompt – and having great conversations.

I was talking recently with an admissions director at one of the Ivies, who called the multi-pronged prompt a trap. “It will be hard to answer the whole question authentically.”

A senior admissions rep at a prestigious public university told me she loved the prompt because it was so positive. “But I want to read about the student, not someone else or someone who did something for them.”

And a counselor enrolled in our current College Essay Experience training program described this prompt as an invitation to write about Grandma. “It’s problematic. 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, I don’t think it matters much what we think of any prompt.

Colleges don’t care which prompt a student selects on the Common App. But they do want them to pick a prompt that speaks to them, not one that speaks to me, or to any other adult who loves them. Our job, and yours, is simply to help students understand what the prompts mean and let them choose the prompt that they like (without any judgement over their choice).

Here’s 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 so 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 should not be primarily about the other person’s act.  It should be about how this experience affected you. What did you do as a result?

And the prompt doesn’t ask you to share just any act of kindness. Readers 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 might be for you.  

I hope this gives you some insight. What are your thoughts about this prompt? We’d love to hear them!

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 students can stand out and tell their stories. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  We teach students – and we train professionals. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. She can be reached at Kim@wowwritingworkshop.com

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