The Common Application rarely changes any of its essay prompts, but this year is an exception! For the 2021 – 2022 application cycle, there is one new prompt to choose from:

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?

How might you begin to respond to this very personal question? The tricky part about this prompt is that it asks you to reflect on something someone else did for you. It would be easy to make this essay about someone or something other than yourself. Resist that temptation! Remember, the purpose of the Common App essay is to tell the reader something about you that they can’t get from another part of your application – not something about someone else or what s/he did for you.

That said, you will need to give some context for what sparked your gratitude, so it’s perfectly acceptable to write a few sentences about someone who has had particular meaning in your life. This could be a family member, a friend, a teacher or coach, or even a stranger. After all, the prompt says to focus on something that made you happy or thankful “in a surprising way,” so you might want to think a bit outside the box here. Whoever it is and whatever s/he did, make sure you give a full but brief picture of the person and the act, but focus the bulk of your essay on how that person, and her or his behavior, had an impact on you.

Although at first glance this may seem like a “warm fuzzies” kind of essay, the second sentence makes it clear that your response should be concrete. “How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?” In other words, what did you do in response to this gratitude? How did it change you as a person? How might that have an impact on who you are or what you do in the future – for example, as a college student? 

Tell your story in a way that makes it clear that you don’t just feel grateful; you have acted or changed as a result of that gratitude.

About the author
Sarah Pinson

Sarah received a BA from Davidson College and M.Div. from Vanderbilt University. Sarah has more than seven years of admissions and advising experience at several institutions, including Emory University, College of Charleston and Vanderbilt. Sarah also spent five years working in nonprofit program management and leads AcceptU’s partnerships with college access organizations. Sarah manages a caseload of clients as well as a team of AcceptU counselors. Sarah is an IECA Associate Member.

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