How to Answer

the New Common Application

Essay Prompts

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.

WARNING: Bliss Can Be Boring

 

This is the question asked in the fourth prompt for the new Common Application essay. My sense is that students are drawn to it more than the other four. I’m not sure why. It is my least favorite–but that could change. It’s being called the Zen essay.

Then why am I wary of this prompt? I believe writing about a blissful place can be very dull. You may love soaking in the bathtub, or walking in the woods, or doing yoga, or baking cookies or cooking Thai food. Who doesn’t love hanging out in the library? These activities can be blissful. But do I want to read about you enjoying them? Very doubtful.

My best advice on prompt No. 4 is to avoid it–unless you are inspired by it, of course! I believe the first two prompts, #1 and #2, will help you write more engaging essays that help you stand out among the crowd. Here’s my post on how to respond to them.

 

How to Write About a Place and Make It Interesting

 

If you still love the idea of No. 4, you need to write beyond just describing a wonderful place and why you love it so much. I would consider describing this place of contentment when something happened there. Think about “a time” when you were not perfectly content–upset, worried, restless, anxious, depressed, scared–and where you went to balance your emotions or well-being. Then explore and examine why and how you sought out and found a different environment to help you recover, and what about that place helped you feel better. By describing “a time” in your essay, you will inject some energy into your description of a blissful place. Your essay will be interesting to read! You could start with an anecdote about that “time,” and then go into your analysis about the place and its effect on you. 

Another way to avoid a cliche answer is to see if you can use the “unexpected” to give your answer some zing, a twist or an edge. Here some suggestions on how to find that:

A. Think of a place or environment where no one would expect you to be content. Then you have something to say about yourself–why are you content in a place where others would not enjoy. That essay would reveal something unique about who you are. Examples: The middle of a thunderstorm, on a long airplane trip, singing karaoke, in the middle of a test, in the hospital, on the ledge of a cliff, in the dentist’s office, etc. (I have started this Tumblr blog to inspire you visually.)

B. Find a place where you didn’t used to be content, but now are content.That way, we can see how you made something happen, how you used your core qualities (determination, creativity, passion, etc.) to make a place you were uncomfortable into a lovely place. Most likely, you needed to change something about yourself to achieve this–your thinking or attitude. This could be an interesting read.

C. If you do go for a straight-on piece about a blissful place, I would urge you to focus it–and think of something mundane (everyday). Instead of writing about how you find bliss in the kitchen, narrow it down to one single activity in the kitchen, say it’s baking cakes. Then narrow it some more, to a specific kind of cake, like red velvet cake. The more specific, the more interesting. What will make the essay is not where you find bliss, but how you find bliss out of it–and why.

 

 

Also, if you try one of these approaches, I would start your essay by using your descriptive writing skills to create a visual vignette (snapshot) of that “place.” (Show Don’t  Tell.) Put the reader in that place or environment using concrete and sensory details. What does it look like? Do you hear anything? Smell anything? How does it feel there? (It’s very similar to describing a setting in a work of fiction.) Then you can go on to give more background (Who, what, when, where and how) and explain the place or environment, and why you like it when most people don’t, and what this means to you.

 

If you go for A. and describe a place where most people are not content, you can deliver the twist or zinger in the second paragraph by saying how you find it blissful. If you go for B., you could describe the place (literal or figurative) where you were always very discontent or unhappy, and then go on to how and why you changed it. If you try C., again, describe yourself in the middle of the steps of making this cake, then go onto to talk about why the kitchen is a blissful place for you.

I think if you follow an idea such as A, B or C above, which puts a thematic “frame” around the essay to make it interesting, you could end up with a great little essay. If you can’t find an interesting angle, and can only think of predictable blissful places, then skip it! I always believe stories (Learn how to craft an anecdote.) are your best bet for college admissions essays, and number 1-3 all have prompts that try to elicit these from you.

If you plan to write to one of the first three prompts for the Common App, check out my Jumpstart Guide to help you write a narrative style essay about a story or experience.

Here are the new prompts for the Common App (click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):
  1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

 

I have collected all of my advice on how to answer the new Common Application prompts, as well as the two University of California prompts, and other common prompts (Such as “Why This School?”) in my new ebook guide, called Essay Hell’s Prompts Primer. You can download it from this Web site or find it on Amazon Kindle. It costs $4.98.

 

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If you want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with most of the Common App prompts (especially 1,2, and 5). It costs $9.98 and you can order using the button below. (If you tell your parents this would help with your college essay, I’m pretty sure they would spring for it!)

Escape Essay Hell
Add to Cart

45 Responses to Where Are You Perfectly Content?

  1. Hi Janine,

    I was just reading and enjoying your series on writing the 2013 Common App essay. I agree with you – bliss can be boring! But I’m also wondering if you’re having the same experience that I am – that this topic is proving to be popular, and in a good way. For instance, one student is writing about a family retreat in the wilds of Maine, so the essay is really about the meaning of family. Another is writing about her room, which is so familiar to her that it actually provides no distraction at all – and that’s where she’s able to concentrate on her artwork. Of course, it’s all about finding the meaning, but this is turning out to be a category with interesting responses! Take care, and enjoy your students! Sharon

  2. Max says:

    Hi,
    Do you think it is ok if I mention how I sometimes use the place of contentment as a means of temporarily escaping from a hectic life? The world outside my place will probably take up space in my essay. Do you think the readers might take the fact that I sort of use this place to temporarily get away from things badly? Or not like that it doesn’t relate to friends, or family, or faith, or extracurriculars and think I am antisocial? Or will it be fine?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Max, I think it’s totally normal and expected that we all sometimes need a place to get away from it all. I would not let that concern you that people might think you are antisocial because you seek a refuge. However, make sure to read this post since I warn about how a place where you find peace and bliss could be boring to read about. Look for something unexpected about your place of contentment in order to write an engaging essay. Good luck! JR

  3. Isis says:

    Hi Janine–I have been planning out an essay on this topic about my sister and how whenever I’m with her, I feel “perfectly content.” Do you think I should follow option C by tightening it to a specific moment? Is writing about my sister too predictable?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Isis,

      I think it could work, but yes, I think you should give your essay some vitality and interest by starting with an example/moment of why you are content with her. It can’t just be about how well you get along, have the same interests, etc. That is all really a nice thing, but it could just be too dull to read about. I would try to find some unusual reasons that you like about her–maybe she challenges you in certain ways, or maybe she knows you so well (an example of this?) that she helps you learn some of the more difficult things in life. Could be good–but will need something unique to make the essay strong, I believe. Good luck! JR

  4. Lynden says:

    Hi,

    For me, I’m writing about an entire city that I once lived in when I was younger and how the childhood memories have really influenced who I am. I didn’t want to really tie it into something really specific because I wanted to emphasize how being immersed in the culture is what makes me “perfectly content” in it. Do you have any advice for this? Thank you!

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Lynden, If you are talking about something as large as a city, the best way to describe it and help us understand the culture there is to provide sensory details–what it looked like, what you heard, smelled, etc. Also, you can include how it made you feel. I would also consider giving this essay focus and life by sharing something that happened in that city that relates to its unique culture. Good luck! JR

  5. Caitlin says:

    Hi,
    I have been planning to answer this prompt with an essay about how chemistry labs changed from the most stressful part of my week to my only refuge from stress by the end of junior year. Is this too impersonal/predictable?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Caitlin,
      No, I think it could be a great essay. My advice would be to start by showing us (set the scene, use details, tell us how you felt…) why it was stressful at first (this will be “the problem”), and then go onto to show how it changed (into a refuge for you), why it changed (your attitude, your point of view, other factors?), and what you learned from that. One other piece of advice for you and anyone working on these new Common App prompts. You do not necessarily need to say “perfectly content” anywhere in your essay, since you will have checked the box that will make clear which question you are addressing. I actually think “perfectly content” is a very awkward expression and not one most people would ever use in everyday conversation. I would think of some other words that express the same thing, or a more focused version of it. You used refuge, which is great. Other ways to express perfectly content: contented, satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, cheerfulness; ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, tranquility. Hope this helps. JR

  6. Hope says:

    Hi,
    I found your article very helpful! I am writing my essay on how I am perfectly content when I am at concerts/music festivals. I am using the 2013 Beale St. Music festival as my anecdote. I’m thinking of also bringing in with that anecdote how Beale St was where I realized that that’s where I am content. I am going to take it deeper than just me liking concerts for the great live music. Do you think this idea as a whole would grab the attention of those who will read my essay?

  7. Sherry Zhang says:

    Hi,

    I’m writing my essay on this topic, and my idea is about a journal my best friend and I write to each other in. It’s more of an abstract idea. My best friend and I met freshman year and became best friends after she wrote me a note about a problem she was having. We started a journal/book that we would pass back and forth, and write things to each other. Almost everyone in our grade knows about it and it’s become sort of a trademark of our friendship. Its a place that makes me feel perfectly content because I can write whatever I want and I know I’ll get a reply from my friend. Would writing about ‘The Book’ be a good topic?

    • j9robinson says:

      Terrific topic! Share your story about “The Book”–maybe how it helped you handle certain problems, and how it started, and what you learned in the process–you should have an excellent essay! I LOVE this idea! Maybe start with the first time you received note in the journal, or first time it was passed between you (assumedly sparked by some type of problem), and then give back story of “the book,” and then go from there. Would love to read this when you are done! JR

  8. Nicole says:

    Hello!
    Out of the fours prompts, my first impulse was to go with this one. The place of content that I will be describing is not a physical place. In fact, it is a zone that I get into when I am writing. However, I am worried about how to approach this essay from the standpoint of “my writing zone” where I block the world out and I get to focus on characters and alternate universes that I have created. How would you suggest that I approach this essay and is this topic substantial and interesting enough to make a strong essay?
    Your advice would be appreciated tremendously!

    PS. I am debating on talking about how I discovered my passion to write when I was in elementary school by winning a writing contest. Hopes this helps!

    • j9robinson says:

      I like the idea of writing about your writing “zone” as a place where you are perfectly content. The challenge is to make it interesting to read. I would explore what sends you into the zone, why do you want/need to go there (some type of problem?)–describe that, then go on to talk about how you discovered how writing helps you handle it, what you learned, etc. The “problem” will give your essay more energy and interest. JR

  9. Natalie says:

    Hi! I was hoping to write my personal statement on this prompt with two different places (basically centered around my upbringing with divorced parents) and using compare/contrast strategies to lead into personal qualities. Do you think using a very dark, personal anecdote would be effective as a hook or do I run too much of a risk of it looking like I’m simply using it as a means to an end? Also if you have any notes or suggestions on my overall strategy it would be much appreciated. :)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Natalie,
      I think that as long as you stick with the truth, and convey your story in a direct, thoughtful manner, you should be fine. Dark is okay, as long as the reason you share it is to then show how you wrestled with it, tried to handle or resolve related issue, and how this process affected you, changed you or taught you things about yourself and the world. After you write the dark anecdote, you might want to share it with someone whose opinion you trust to make sense the tone is right. Good luck! JR

  10. Mikayla says:

    Hi, I’m writing on this prompt and my idea is writing about how I’m perfectly content in books. I’ve always been a reader since I was little but I never got this feeling of bliss till my younger sister died and things in my life started falling apart. So I was thinking about writing about how I came to feel like this when I read books (like when my sister died and how I turned to reading) and why I feel content when I read books. (any kind of books really)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Mikayla,

      I think you have a very powerful topic and I think you should write about it. Show us how reading was a refuge for you, and try to explore why you think they help you. So sorry about your sister. That must be so hard for you. If you find it too hard to write about, pick a different topic. But if you can write about it, it might help you work through your feelings and grief. Best of luck! JR

  11. Mika says:

    Hi,
    Although many seem to consider this essay prompt boring I immediately interpreted the place of contentment as somewhere less typical.As a superhero comic fan I find myself being transported into the pages and into a world where I am free to be myself. My idea is to use the Marvel Universe and more specifically Professor Xaviers Mansion as my place of contentment. What do you think? Thanks!!

  12. Anna says:

    Hi! So I was planning on writing my essay about two places where I play/share music for an audience. The first one is at my school on the morning announcements, where I play popular mainstream music for the school, and the second one is at the nearby college where I DJ and I play two hours of pretty reclusive music live for two hours a week.

    Would it be ok to talk about the setting and how happy I am at these two places sharing my music even though mainstream and underground music contradict each other?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Anna,

      Yes, I like the idea of contrasting the two places you feel content, and explore one makes you content and the other not so much–and it would be really handy if the one that makes you feel content is the one we would least expect…Good luck! JR

  13. Karla says:

    hey,
    so honestly, the first thing I thought of when I read this prompt was being on the beach with my family in the summer. I just fear that it is way too cliche…how do i make it stand out?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Karla,

      Would you want to read an essay about how someone loves being on the beach with their family in summer? Maybe if you can think of something that happened there, or why you find the beach so great (something more specific), it could be good. HINT: Think of a time something went wrong at the beach. But otherwise, sounds pretty dullsville to me. Keep thinking! JR

  14. Angie says:

    Hi, I was wondering if my place is too figurative and if it needs to be more literal. I was thinking of using this prompt to write about how I am most content when I am helping other people by giving them advice. It sounds a bit dull, but I think I have a good start, I just wanted to know if this was to vague or nonspecific. What do you think?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Angie,

      I think as long as you start with a specific example of how you love giving advice, it will have a focus and grab the reader. Then you can expand upon that idea later. I like your idea! JR

  15. jessy says:

    Hi!
    I went to a boarding school in China from third grade to 8th grade before I came to the U.S. for high school. It was a comforting environment for me because of the friendships I had and all the strict rules that protect me from bad influences outside of the school. Also, I want to mention about my volunteering experience. This summer, I went back to the school and joined the American volunteers group to teach grammar school students English and American culture. Since there’s a long time span and a lot of information, do you have any suggestions on what information I should mention and how I should approach it?
    Writing an interesting ps could be hard for me due to my limited English proficiency. What other tips can you give me to write a good hook? Thank you so much! Your suggestions will be highly appreciated!

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Jessy,

      Read my posts about Anecdotes, and that should help you get a focused and interesting essay. I believe anecdotes make the best “hooks” in these essays. JR

  16. Emily says:

    Hi! I’m planning an essay about how I am content when I am at the end of a cross country race, sprinting to the finish line. Is this a good essay idea or should I talk about a specific place or time?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Emily,

      You have the right idea, and you could write about this, but my advice would be to find something else since I’ve seen it done before (several times) and it just not interesting from a reader’s point of view. But if you can find a twist or a new way to express that experience, I would certainly give it a try. It’s not so much what you write about as what you have to say about it. That said, some topics are definitely more inspiring than others. JR

  17. Alex says:

    Could this prompt lend itself to talking about how contentment is more of a process than a location? I wanted to speak about the value of experience in enjoying what I love rather than enjoying things in a passive way. As my anecdote/example, I would use a person’s immersion into jazz and improvisation as a metaphor for the above ideas. (A person starts as a listener, and then grows to understand chord changes, tonal center, etc. until they pick up an instrument and make music that is their own)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Alex,

      I like it! I like that you interpret “contentment,” and broaden your definition strictly away from a place, and instead a process. Cool! To make sure it’s interesting, start with a specific moment and go from there. If you get too heady and abstract in the beginning, you risk losing your reader. Good luck! JR

  18. Mallika says:

    Hi, I am thinking of writing about being perfectly content when I am driving because every time I drive I see something different and also how driving gives me freedom and power. And then linking that to the career path I want to embark on. Do you think this is a unique idea or should I think of something else?

    Thanks!

  19. Kate says:

    I know someone already asked this question, but do you think if I wrote about being at the beach with my family in a way that described the friendships I built there, the passions I formed, and the memories built around the beach, would that be okay? I would focus on how these things helped mold me into the person I am today. I know its cliché but I really can’t think of much else. Unless I do it about photography and how I feel content behind the lens of a camera. What one do you think would work better?

  20. Amy says:

    Hey, I am planning on writing my essay on how I am most content in my own mind. It’s kind of a different stance on the prompt, but I think I can make it work. I’m going to talk about introversion I think and how recharging at the end of the day is a necessity. Do you think this could work?

  21. Abby says:

    Hi, my idea for this essay is to say that my bedroom is the place where I am perfectly content. I’m going to first describe it and then explain that its meaningful to me because I don’t always feel at home with my family, but when I enter my room I always feel at home. I don’t want it to sound boring so any advice on how to make it original and really good?

  22. Ryan says:

    I am trying to address this topic from when I am snowboarding but I’m not specifically sure where to go with it. I see it as an escape from stress and have many good memories with friends. Where should I go with this?
    Thanks

  23. Amila says:

    Hello! :) I am stuck with my essay topics. I am debating whether to write about the art room at my school, because i have a passion for anything art-related, or the library, because i am an avid reader, and reading is one of my biggest hobbies.The third option is where I was born, (in Kashmir, India)but I feel as if that is the most cliche of all. But I can provide anecdotes from my trip to Kashmir last summer, and maybe it will show diversity? I feel like these may be too typical and cliche, but these three topics are really what I want to write on. Please help, I have been stuck for a while now. Any additional advice/comment would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank you so much!

  24. Duong says:

    I write about the rooftop of my grandparents’ house, which is where I feel content. But I focus on what I do there: watching clouds like I did when I was a child. In my essay I point out that although I’m no longer a child and the adult life is exhausting (in which we often forget the child inside us), only to reach a conclusion that lying on that rooftop looking at the sky reminds me that at times we should forget the grownup we are and try to embrace the inner child, or childhood memories, try to feel and see things like a child: carefree, playful, etc. because it makes life a bit more balanced and enjoyable.

    Does that sound like boring and predictable? Should I change my idea?

  25. Angela says:

    Hello!
    I’m thinking about writing about being content in an airport since I sincerely enjoy the atmosphere and the excitement of going on a journey. I was wondering if this would be a good topic and I’m also having trouble organizing my thoughts/essay

  26. Elsa says:

    OMG BLISS IS NOT BORING.
    Even Holden Caulfield said in The Catcher in the Rye: “I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice.”
    This quote is one of the most popular quotes among social media today! I love reading about places and activities and people that make others happy. It’s comforting. But anyways, thank you for the advice. It was definitely helpful. But I still do not agree with you on the warning that you begin with.

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Elsa,

      My main warning is not that bliss is boring in itself, but that it can be boring to read about–especially if nothing happens. Of course, it depends on the writer’s ability to make it interesting. I want to flag those long, overly descriptive pieces on why someone feels “perfectly content” reading in their bedroom or walking through the forest. Again, it’s possible to find an angle to make these topics interesting, but generally they risk being dull to read. If you wrote about being “perfectly content” for your essay, I would LOVE to read it! JR

  27. Aditi mohan says:

    cool essay writing tips

  28. Anushka says:

    Hey Janine!
    I have two places in mind related to this topic where i feel perfectly content and I am a bit confused about which one to choose. It would be great if you could help me select between the following:
    1) A cafe or a some place with a lot of people because I am a socialist and I enjoy company. Not only this, I also enjoy observing various cultures, things etc
    2) I love to be a pat of the gaming world because I believe I am a lot more powerful and have an adventurous task to deal with.
    Is the first topic to obvious? Please advise!

  29. Jaime says:

    Hi!
    I am writing about how i am content when i am around music, such as at a concert or making music. I give specific examples such as my experiences when i was in a jazz band. Do you think this would be a good topic to talk about?
    Thank you very much!

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