Changes to the Common Application: The New Essay Prompt

Phoebe Keyes, Senior College Admission Advisor Mar 2021

The Common Application recently released its personal statement prompts for the 2021-2022 application cycle. Not much has changed: the most popular prompts remain the same—and you still have the option to pick your own topic—but we were pleased to see they retired one of the least popular (and most convoluted) prompts and replaced it with a new one: 

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?

For years, we’ve tried to debunk the rumor that the best, most successful, college essays center on overcoming some great obstacle, tragedy, or failure. And after such a difficult year, we’re sure colleges will welcome the opportunity to read essays infused with a little optimism, gratitude, and human kindness. 

When evaluating applications, admission committees often talk about the “good roommate factor.” While your essay, of course, gives them an idea of your writing ability, your voice, and your values, it also helps them figure out what kind of community member you will be. Will you be a positive presence in the dorms? A good friend? A loyal alum? This new prompt is an opportunity to demonstrate these less tangible personal qualities, and we’re excited to see what students come up with. 

When brainstorming potential topics, keep in mind: it would be easy to use a substantial portion of the allotted word count addressing the first half of the prompt. Focus instead on the second half: How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? The aftermath—how you reacted, how you changed—is far more important than the act of kindness itself. The people and events of your life are important, but it’s called a personal essay for a reason. It should delve into your feelings and explore how you think about the world and approach problems. It should be about you.  

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