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New Common App Prompt and How to Answer It


For rising seniors applying to colleges this fall, there will be a slight change to the Common Application: one of the eight essay prompts is being replaced.


This is what the OLD prompt used to be: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.


And here is the NEW prompt, effective this fall: 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?


According to Common App, the old prompt was “seldom used,” and this new prompt is inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, mainly by the benefits of writing about positive influences in our lives.


Keep in mind that the additional optional essay prompt about COVID-19 remains.


Common App President and CEO stated the following: “Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”

In addition, Common App hopes that this revised prompt will lead to more essays that “colleges are excited to read.”


Did you catch that last part? EXCITED to read. How do we make sure we craft a response that is interesting for our readers? There are a few factors.

  1. Make sure that you aren’t just listing actions or events, simply answering the prompt dryly. Remember – no formal academic writing components like thesis statements or topic sentences, which leads us to the second point…

  2. Tell a story. Everyone calls these college essays, but these are really more like stories mixed with the style of answering interview questions. Your goal is to give enough context about yourself so that your audience or reader can come to a conclusion about you. This is summarized in the adage “show don’t tell.”

  3. Because you are telling a story, don’t forget story-telling elements, including literary devices you studied throughout high school. Reward your reader with cohesion and themes. Add a splash of imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. Don’t go overboard, though.

  4. Now, the prompt itself. This approach should work for any prompt, by the way. Look at the key words and paraphrase. The prompt is basically asking you to talk about a time someone made a positive impact on your life and to reflect on how that action or event influenced you. Think outside the literal box. What about role models whom you’ve never met in person? What about an author whose book inspired you? Once you understand what kind of story a prompt is fishing for, feel free to interpret the prompt itself a bit more liberally. As long as you end up telling an INTERESTING story, mission accomplished!

Final reminders: just as I’ve been telling all my rising seniors, don’t worry about crafting your story to fit the prompt. What I mean by this is, yes, these prompts exist to PROMPT you to think about relative experiences and memories. However, once you have a story in mind, tell that story the best you can tell it, focusing on the important aspects. Perhaps you realize that the story doesn’t actually fit that prompt, in the end. Perhaps it fits another prompt. That’s great! In other words, don’t try to shoehorn your story to fit a prompt just because that prompt inspired you in the first place. Match your final stories to the prompts available instead.

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