On 16 February 2021, the Common App revealed its new personal essay prompts for the 2021-22 application season. As the main application portal for over 800 universities in the US and beyond, the Common App personal essay is the centrepiece of most students’ college applications, as this single piece of writing is submitted to multiple (if not all!) schools.

Almost every year, students are given seven essay prompts to choose from, each designed to help them reflect on their personal strengths, challenges, and life experiences and most importantly, convey the qualities and characteristics that make them unique as an applicant.

What are the new essay prompts?

Most of the essay prompts remain unchanged, with the exception of the fourth, which previously read: “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.”

Instead of this prompt, the Common App has introduced a new question, which asks students:

“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?”

The full list of essay prompts can be accessed here.

The COVID-19 question, which was introduced in the 2020-21 application cycle will remain a fixture in this year’s application. This question appears as an optional essay prompt of 250 words under the Additional Information tab of the Writing section, asking students if and how COVID-19 has impacted their family and/or learning environment. For more details on how and whether to approach this question, you can refer to our previous blog here.

Why has this change come about now and what does it mean?

The Common App reviews its essay titles every other year, with the expertise of counsellors and admissions officers on its Outreach and Application Advisory Committees. The new essay question has been put together with the help of these members as well as the input of psychology and gratitude researchers.

Although the question does not explicitly mention the coronavirus pandemic, it is intended to encourage students to reflect on positive acts of kindness amidst a particularly challenging environment. While there is no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted, even devastated, lives around the world, it has also sparked a sense of community and kindness. As is true with any calamity, it has taught us to consciously foster the value of gratitude. In this spirit, the new essay prompt reinforces the importance of gratitude and kindness.

What is also clear from the new set of prompts is that your Common App essay should be as personal as possible. The essay prompt that has now been replaced, which asked students to reflect on a problem, either an “intellectual challenge or research query,” was perhaps the only question that was somewhat academic in nature. According to the Common App, students seldom chose this option. The new essay question, on the other hand, is a lot more personal in nature, as it requires you to delve into your interpersonal connections and think about the meaning of gratitude in your life.

How should I approach the new essay prompt?

What is unique about the new essay question is that it does not ask you to describe your own achievements, but to think about a situation where you have been at the receiving end of a meaningful gesture or action. The primary intention behind this is to see how you acknowledge and appreciate the role of and impact that others make in your life.

Answering this question definitely requires some deeper introspection into your relationships with peers, family, teachers and others in your community, and it is important to consider how their actions have impacted you. Did they give you a new outlook on life, or change your opinion in some way? Perhaps they inspired a new way of thinking, or led you to take action on an issue? Therefore, regardless of the person and event that you choose to write about, it is important that you highlight your personal growth and learning from the incident as that is what admissions officers want to see.

How do I decide which essay prompt to choose?

Our advice to students is usually to let your story choose the prompt, rather than the other way around. Take some time to reflect on your life experiences and the values that are important to you and think about the narrative that you can construct around it. More often than not, you will find that your story fits into one of the six prompts.

Also, the reason that the Common App has created and continued to keep its seventh essay prompt, “share an essay on any topic of your choice,” is because it recognizes this inherent diversity in people’s lives and personal stories. The fact that it is a personal narrative makes it unique by definition and suggests that it may not be easily categorizable. Therefore, while the prompts are certainly a good starting point to guide your thinking, what is most important is that you show character, passion and give schools a unique insight into who you are beyond your academics.

We understand that the college application process can be overwhelming and may seem especially uncertain this year. If you find yourself wondering how this is going to affect your admissions, get in touch.

We will continue to share more ideas on how to approach college essays and improve your application so be sure to watch this space for more updates!