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What You Need to Know about the New Common App Essay

Summer is college essay season. Having to write a personal essay can sometimes feel like the most daunting part of the admissions process. And, this year, there’s a new Common App essay that has everyone talking: What’s the new essay question about? Is it a good essay for me to choose? Here’s what you need to know. 

Background: What’s the Common App and Why Does the New Essay Matter?

The Common Application (aka “Common App”) is accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities, so chances are at least one school on your list on the Common App. The reason it’s called the Common App is because all member schools agree to a “common” or shared set of questions, including the essay. 

Students can choose from among several essay questions (known as “prompts”) and most of them remain the same from year to year. But, in February, the Common App decided to replace one of the old essay options it with a new prompt about gratitude and kindness

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?

Since the Common App rolled out this new prompt a few months ago, my team and I have spoken about it with many families, admissions officers, and others in the field.

What’s the New Essay Question Really Asking? 

The team at the Common App says this new prompt is inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness; they believe there are benefits to writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives. 

“Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives,” Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard explained. “And we can do it explicitly.”

Everyone seems to have a slightly different opinion on what this essay is really asking of students. An admissions director at one of the Ivies told me the multi-pronged prompt was a trap. “It will be hard to answer the whole question authentically.”

A senior admissions rep at a prestigious public university told me she loved the prompt because it was so positive. But she also had some reservations and wanted to make sure students focused on themselves in any answer to this prompt. “I want to read about the student, not someone else or someone who did something for them.” As one counselor said, this prompt may be misread as an invitation to write about Grandma. 

I don’t necessarily agree that this new essay is “a trap”, or an “invitation to write about Grandma.” I think this new essay is just like any other in that it follows a key rule: you have to understand the question before you dive right in and write. 

The new prompt is more complex than some of the others. The key words are reflect, surprising, gratitude, affected, and motivated. While the question asks you to reflect on something someone else did that made you happy or thankful, your essay should not be primarily about the other person’s act. It should be about how this experience affected you. What did you do as a result?

And the prompt doesn’t ask you to share just any act of kindness. It’s asking for something that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. Maybe the other person surprised you with their kindness, or maybe you were surprised that you felt so grateful or happy. Or maybe the surprise came through in some other way.

How Do I Know if This Essay is Right for Me? 

Does the new question resonate with you? Can you answer the complete question with a meaningful story that is reflective, authentic, and focuses on you (not the person who influenced you)? If you can answer yes to these questions the new essay might indeed be a good fit for you. 

Colleges really don’t care which prompt a student selects on the Common App. I’ve been in this business for a long time. And I’ve never met an admissions person who favored one prompt over another. 

Colleges want you to pick a prompt that speaks to you, not one that speaks to the adults in your life. The job of parents and other caring adults in your life is simply to help you understand what the prompts mean and let you choose the prompt that you like. For adults it can be hard to do this, but we have to remember the best essays are the ones that come authentically from you, the student.

If you can identify a specific story that focuses on you, showcases a characteristic or trait that demonstrates who you are, and also explains how your gratitude affected or motivated you to do something, this prompt might be for you.

 If this is not the prompt for you, don’t force it! The Common App offers six other prompts to choose from, including “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.”

Next Steps: Getting Started on The Essay That’s Right for You

Whichever essay you choose, the first step is to think about what you want the reader to learn about you. The question is not “What do admission officers want to hear?” or “What ‘should’ I write?” Instead, it’s: “What do I want them to know about me that they couldn’t find out from the rest of my application?”

Answer this before you start brainstorming specific essay ideas and you’ll be well on your way to an authentic essay that adds depth to your application. 

Colleges already know if you’re on the debate team or that you play soccer. They know if you got a B+ in algebra or scored well on the ACT. What they don’t know is whether you’re creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated, or cautious. They don’t know how your experience have shaped you. Your essay offers an opportunity to consider what you want colleges to know and remember about you

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. With my students, I approach every essay, no matter the prompt, the same way. An effective essay answers two questions:

1) What happened?

2) Why does it matter? 

And why it matters to you (the reflection) is more important than what actually happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced that student).

Want more advice on college essays? Join Kim Lifton and Applerouth’s Ginger Fay for an interactive webinar: What Parents Can Do to Help with College Essays on Tuesday, May 18 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. 

Kim Lifton is President and Co-Founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays so students can stand out and tell their stories. She can be reached at

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or