How to start thinking about the Common App’s newest prompt

The Common Application offers students seven different essay prompts from which they need to choose just one, and write an essay of 250-650 words. Six of the seven are the same as last year and the one new prompt is:

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?

This prompt is encouraging students to talk about gratitude and appreciation in a more grown-up way. Students who select this prompt should try to:

  • Examine when you’ve felt grateful to someone else
  • Delve deeper into understanding why you’ve felt appreciative – ask yourselves why you feel this way and how that sense of appreciation has motivated you to do something else or something new or different
  • Understand when you feel gratitude and how you express yourself when you’re feeling that way
  • Talk about the impacts of gratitude in your life: what has it brought into your life, how have you changed and/or grown due to recognizing your gratitude
  • Describe how your behavior towards others is different now than it once was
  • Think about the word and the feeling of “kindness”
  • Ask yourself how you’ve been more kind over the last year and how has that impacted you and others around you
  • Challenge yourself to answer questions including:


    • Why is it important to be appreciative?
    • Do I have a larger perspective on what’s really important for me in my life?
    • What are the impacts of kindness or a small scale and a larger scale as well?
    • Can I encourage both kindness and gratitude in others? If so, how?
    • What have learned about the importance of character?

This does NOT need to be Covid-related. It certainly can be and no doubt this prompt was inspired by what the country has gone through over the last year, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to talk about “what I learned about myself during the pandemic is…..”

This is pretty deep stuff for most students and as such, this prompt is not meant for everyone. If talking and writing about these character traits resonates with you, then I’d suggest seriously considering how you’d tell your story. College essays usually work better when they have a story or anecdote that centers the essay. A story allows the reader to inject more personalized critical thinking, more subtlety and it also is more compelling to read.

Certainly in the top of essays written by my students was one about walking her dog. First reaction is “really, walking her dog?” – but she made this daily routine with her dad into a heart-warming story of personal growth, intellectual curiosity, humor, change and almost a role-reversal with her father.  It was thought-provoking, it was heart-felt and she received personal notes on her letters of acceptance from three colleges about how much they enjoyed reading her essay.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;