Let change be your guide.
Every college applicant has a story worth sharing. And the Common App’s 2021-22 essay prompts offer seven different options to share yours. But that variety of choices can also be paralyzing. Which prompt is right for you, and what’s the best approach to answer it? Every student is different, but these prompts all have one thing in common: they’re asking you to describe a change that took place. If you want to find the right story for the right topic, let that change be your guide.
Here’s how this theme of change shows up in each of the prompts:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Notice that the prompt says, “…their application would be incomplete without it.” Imagine that the Common App took away these essay prompts. All you get is the application itself. What part of your life, interests, family, etc. would now be missing from the application? What would you wish could be included, something that just feels like to not mention it would be to leave out an important portion of your personal story? Use this essay to create that change. That means sharing something that has not yet appeared anywhere in your application, or sharing new information about a topic that has already been mentioned.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
This topic invites you not just to share the challenge, setback, or failure itself, but also how you changed as a result of it. When this event or experience happened, how did you feel? What did you think about? And how most importantly, did your beliefs or actions change going forward? That’s learning in action, and real learning changes people. They think or act differently as a result of it. And that change is what this prompt invites you to share. Bonus tip: notice that the prompt asks about a time you “faced a challenge,” but doesn’t specify that you had to overcome it. Nobody succeeds at everything. And sometimes you learn even more when things don’t work out as you’d hoped.
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This prompt is asking for you to describe not one, but two changes: 1) What caused you to question or challenge this particular belief or idea? 2) What happened next? If you have answers to those questions, you probably have a good story to share. If not, don’t impose one—just pick a different topic. Otherwise, focus on the first change that made you take action, and the ensuing change that took place after you did.
4. 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?
I hope you have lots of people who do nice things for you that you’re grateful for. But to match well with this prompt, a person’s action needs to have made you “happy or thankful in a surprising way,” and “affected or motivated you.” Those are two rich changes that separate routine acts of kindness from those that have long-lasting effects. What surprised you about how happy or thankful you felt? And what was different on the other side? How did you act or think differently? Tell the before-and-after story, and you’ll focus on the changes that make these stories engaging.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Many applicants will use this topic as a vehicle to share their most impressive activity or accomplishment. But that’s not necessarily what this prompt is asking for. It’s asking you to explain the “personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” That’s the change to focus on. So start there. Have you experienced that specific kind of change? If so, who or what led to it? What was different about you after it took place? It’s possible you did something impressive that really mattered to you without necessarily experiencing these changes. That’s fine. Be proud of what you did—just don’t write about it in this prompt.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
There’s a difference between being interested in something and being so wholeheartedly engrossed in it that you lose track of time. What does that look like for you? What are you doing when that you get lost in it? How do your actions demonstrate your fascination with this subject that grabs and holds your attention so strongly? The subject itself is less important than the changes it inspires. Chemistry, poetry, babysitting, playing guitar, cooking, etc.—whatever it is that’s constantly pulling you towards it, focus on the change it creates in you to engage with it, and to continuously learn more.
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
This prompt is a perfectly viable choice, and no college will judge you negatively for choosing it. But if you do, choose it for the right reasons—because you have a story that matters to you, you want to share it with colleges, and this prompt allows you to do so in a way the others do not. That’s a different standard than, “I’ve already written another essay, so I’ll just use that one.” So here, you’re creating the change. You’ve considered the other six prompts, but you’ve got a different story to tell, one that means enough to you to earn inclusion here. You should you feel proud to share it and grateful for the flexibility to do so. If you’ve got a story that fits that bill, that change—and this prompt—is your best bet.
There is no one formulaic approach to writing a great college essay. But meaning comes in many forms, and change is a powerful one. For prompts 1-6, keep your focus on the change that occurred. And if those don’t get the job done for you, opt for prompt #7.
If the variety of options has you stuck, this renewed focus might be just the change you need.
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