by Emily Toffelmire, former admissions officer at University of Southern California
The Common Application announced on Feb. 16 that it is retiring one essay prompt while introducing a new one. (For those who need a refresher, watch our video “What Is the Common Application?”). The change will take effect for the 2021-22 admissions cycle, and the overall number of essay questions remains the same: students will choose from one of seven options. Gone will be the prompt that asked, “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.”
According to the Common App (and to anecdotal evidence we’ve seen at Bright Horizons College Coach), the problem prompt was never especially popular, perhaps because it felt like a daunting topic to most students. In its place is a very appropriate for our times essay question: “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 the Common App, “The new prompt is inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives. This mindset resonates with Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard. ‘Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives,’ she explains.”
If you choose to write to this prompt, be sure to read it closely. First, note this phrasing: “happy or thankful in a surprising way.” I have to admit this gave me pause; what does it mean to be happy or thankful in a “surprising” way? I polled my colleagues and some interesting ideas emerged. One, the Common App may be trying to steer students away from typical, “expected” stories of someone doing something for them: a teacher offering extra help, a coach sharing motivational words, or a parent looking out for them. Two, the Common App may want the student to talk about a time they thought, “Wow, I didn’t know I needed someone to encourage/force me to take this risk,” or, “That’s not feedback I thought I wanted at first, but I learned. . .” We can’t read the mind of the Common App essay prompt creators, of course, but these are two insights to think about if you decide to take on this particular question.
Another vital piece of phrasing in the prompt is: “How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?” Common App essay questions are always layered like this, asking you first to describe or recount a situation, background, or interest, and then asking you to explain how or why this thing you’ve just described matters to you and/or how it affected you. It’s this second layer of the essay questions that is often the most important yet the most overlooked by students; it should be the emotional heart of the essay that reveals to the reader a lot about the writer and what makes them tick. As you write, be sure you’re dedicating a good amount of space to this part of the prompt. Yes, someone did something for you, but how did it make you feel, how did it affect you, and what did it cause you to do? How you reacted to someone’s gesture is as important, if not more so, than the gesture itself.