Beware of the New Feel-Good Prompt for 2021-2022


I wish I could say I was grateful for the newest essay prompt added this year by the Common Application:

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?

The Common App folks seem to be trying to inject some upbeat energy to the application process by asking students to focus on something positive in their lives. I assume it’s a response to the exhaustion and stress from the endless months of Covid.

They make a big deal about trying to bring “some joy” into the application process with this new gratitude prompt (details in the blue link below). While I love the intent, I don’t think that’s going to work here. In fact, I think it could backfire for many students.

RELATED: 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts

Don’t get me wrong. I love the concept of gratitude. As a kid, my mom always made us list 10 things we were grateful for whenever we were feeling down or starting whining about our lives. It was a remarkably powerful exercise for shifting our perspective, and I love that it’s on trend today. I still make my gratitude lists.

However, as an essay prompt for a college admissions essay, I find it ineffective. To me, prompts should help students find experiences, moments and times in their lives where they can reveal how they think and feel, and then reflect on how they got that way and why it matters.

I’m wary of prompts that don’t encourage students to take a hard look at themselves and the obstacles or challenges they have faced. To me, these make the best essays, since the students can share interesting real-life stories where they had to change, grow and ultimately learn something about themselves.

Problems are Your Friend in Essays

If you choose to write an essay about someone you are grateful for, most likely because they helped you in some way handle a problem in your life, make sure to first share the story behind why you needed help—a problem you faced (an obstacle, challenge, mistake, setback, etc.). This will give your essay more substance and interest to draw in your reader. Then you can go onto reflecting about what you learned from this challenge, and how and why you are grateful for whoever it was that helped you handle or manage that problem.

To me, the biggest potential pitfall of this new prompt would be students who write their entire essay about a person they are grateful for, and make the entire essay about that person. That would be a terrible essay, no matter how wonderful the other person was.

Example of terrible essay: “My mom has always been there for me. Whenever I’ve been down or struggling, she would come in my room and let me vent my feelings. Even when I came home with a low grade in math, she would give me a hug and encourage me to keep doing my best. I’m so grateful for her and everything she has done for me. She has sacrificed so much for me and my family. ….”

While you may have a supermom, and are extremely grateful for her, she most likely would not make a great topic for your common app essay.

The Major Pitfall of This New Prompt

These essays need to be about YOU! Yes, you can talk about another helpful person, and why you were grateful for them, but the bulk of your essay must be about you, and the issue you faced, and what YOU did to deal with it, and then how you got an assist from someone else, and then how that made you feel–grateful. Showing gratitude is a wonderful way to show colleges that you have a mature view of life–that you are not overly self-involved, or entitled or full of yourself. It reveals humility.

This is all great. But you only need to express this sentiment in a sentence or two. Gratitude is not that complicated. It means you understand that you got some help, and are thankful for it. If you want to expand more on gratitude, you could reflect further on why you think being thankful is important, why it matters to you and your life and the world. (The key to meaningful reflection is to stay focused and personal, and not launch into cliches or generalizations. Those get dull quickly. That’s another reason I think this prompt is loaded. Beware!)

If this prompt triggers a great personal story for you and you want to give it a go, do it. Just beware of the possible pitfalls I mentioned above.

I would stay especially clear of writing about obvious people to be grateful for, like your parents, other family members, teachers or coaches. On some level, it’s their job to help you. Lol. I believe that’s why the prompt mentions “in a surprising way.” They want the person you are grateful for to be unexpected in some way.  Is there someone you would never have thought would have helped you? That might work.

In general, I would advise my students to avoid this essay prompt. It’s attractive because it’s so feel-good. Who wouldn’t want to write about a wonderful person in your life? (Sure, write about that wonderful person, but not for your college admissions essay.) The other prompts are a lot better.

And remember, you can write about any topic you want (see the last prompt, No. 7).

  1. 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.

So find your best stories, where you were challenged and had interesting experiences, and go with those. Explore the posts in this blog that can help you do this.

Even if your essay involves a hard time you had, or a problem you faced, it doesn’t mean your essay will be a downer. Once you share your experience in your essay, you simply need to shift into a reflective mode and share what you learned from that experience (problem). That is almost always very positive and inspiring.

Good luck!









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?