Should You Choose Prompt 5 for Your Common App Essay? Maybe…

PLEASE NOTE! This prompt has changed for 2017-18. This post is now obsolete, although you can still find helpful general information on how to think about prompts and write your essays. 

The revised prompt 5 is: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

I will be writing a new post on how to address this revised prompt in upcoming weeks…stay tuned.

College Application Essays

Watch Out for Boy Scouts and Bar Mitzvahs in Prompt 5!


I’ve been dragging my heels about writing on this last option of the new Common Application prompts.

It’s not the worst one (I’m saving Prompt 3 for last), but I think you could easily ensnare yourself on this essay option:

Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The biggest pitfall could be if you choose a common accomplishment or event that could address this prompt, but not necessarily result in an interesting essay.

For example, some classic “transitions” into adulthood are graduations, birthdays (your big 16 or your quinceanera) or advancements within other groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, your church or volunteer organizations.

These are wonderful achievements, but they don’t necessarily translate into compelling essay topics.

Would you want to read about someone’s Eagle Scout project or their Bat Mitzvah?

Giant yawn!

 To find an interesting mini-story (also called an anecdote) about “a time” that marked your transition into the adult world, I would start trolling your past for any type of problems you have faced in recent years.

If you confronted and dealt with a difficult problem, chances are you grew up a little bit when you wrestled with it. Read more about how problems come in many shapes and sizes.

Look for an incident, issue or experience where you faced a challenge, an obstacle or something that was difficult to deal with, and share how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

While expressing what you learned from that experience, just make sure to link the lessons you learned to the idea of growing up, of maturing, of becoming more like an adult.

What qualities did you develop?

For example, did you start being more responsible?




Examine yourself to see if you changed in anyway from before the problem to after–and develop the idea of personal growth.

That way it will be clear that you addressed the prompt.

If you don’t want to focus on past problems, see if you have any smaller examples that could illustrate the process of growing up–and then use that simple example to expand into the large life lessons.

For instance, maybe your grandmother always made tortillas, and then when she passed away, you set out to learn how to make them yourself.

You could start your essay by describing a moment you watched your grandmother make them, or describe the steps you took to figure out how to make them yourself, and then talk about the larger lesson of learning from others, valuing the past or growing more aware of what really matters.

(Actually, even this example does involve a “problem”: You didn’t know how to make tortillas!)

This example would fall under the idea in the prompt of relaying a life transition involving a “culture,” and if you are fortunate enough to have a rich cultural heritage, I would definitely explore stories within that world.


One last way to think about this prompt is to try to find any times you were surprised by an event, activity or experience where you suddenly had to express more “mature” qualities, or make more “adult-like” decisions–and what you learned from that.

If you can find a twist to your response–something that we wouldn’t necessarily think would be a transition into adulthood that turned out to be one–all the better!

So now that I have thought more about this prompt, I’m liking it more than when I first read it. As long as you can try to find smaller, more unique or unexpected examples of these life transitions, I bet you can write some terrific essays!

Also, here’s my recent post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application and how to respond to Prompt 1.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompts 1 and 2.). It costs <$10 and you can order using the button below.


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