How To Write the Common App Essay: Prompt 5, 2018-2019

Congrats! You’ve made it to number five! That’s right; we’ve been going through the list of Common App essay prompts and breaking each one down so you can make the best possible decision on which one to pick and how to tackle it once you do. We’re now at number five, which means we are in the final stretch.

If you’ve been following along, you know how we feel about these essay prompts. While the supplements are targeted, the essay can be literally anything you want it to be as long as it is 650 words or less. The prompts have a way of stifling that by making students feel like they have to play it safe. But playing it safe doesn’t get you into your dream school. To do that, you have to take strategic chances. The essay is where to take a chance.

But, we also know that when you are tackling the essay without hands-on help from anyone other than an overbearing parent, prompts 1-6 offer a roadmap that is both comforting and truly helpful—if you do it right. So let’s look at why you might pick prompt number five, what challenges it poses, what it offers, and how to write it.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

The first thing we need to tackle when it comes to this prompt is the issue of repetition. If you are working on your essay now (which you should be), you have yet to start your supplements or to fill out the activities section of the Common App. You may have a short list of things that you’d like to touch on in your application, but you haven't had to actually apply any of them yet.

Your college application is like the dining table on Thanksgiving, and this short list of things you want to include in your application is like all of the dishes spread out waiting for you to dig in. Now, a good spread is crucial because you need a variety of flavors and textures to make for optimal deliciousness. What you don’t need are two turkeys, or two mashed potatoes, or two of anything. You want one really good one, and that’s enough.

If this analogy isn't clear: just like you don’t need two turkeys, you don’t need to mention anything twice in your application. In fact, it goes beyond not needing to. You shouldn’t repeat anything. When you write about your academic decathlon team in a supplement, and then also mention it in your essay, you’re going to come off as either thoughtless or so one-note that you didn’t have anything else to talk about.

We know you aren’t one-note and we want to help you make sure schools don’t get that impression.

So how does all of this relate to the essay prompt? When people are asked to focus on an “accomplishment” or “event” that was formative, we tend to have a few that immediately pop to mind. They might be the perfect thing to write about, but if you have any suspicion at all that it will come up somewhere else in your application, please don’t write about it in your essay. Otherwise, you’ll have to start back at the drawing board which is not something anyone wants to do.

How do you avoid this trap? This will probably sound familiar, but go small. If you choose this prompt, you shouldn’t focus on an award or a championship. If you go with an event or realization, it doesn’t even need to be positive. In fact, where there is a struggle there is more growth then when things are smooth sailing.

Think about if there was a time you really had to work on something. Something small, maybe something tedious, that you had to chip away at piece by piece.

By looking small, you avoid one of the pitfalls of this prompt: it can run away with itself. A piece on the attainment of a trophy can make you seem full of yourself, or like you take yourself more seriously than any 17-year-old should. This piece shouldn’t be heavy or weighed down; it needs lightness, humor, and self-awareness.

More than anything, remember that someone is going to be reading this essay after having read 55 other essays that day. They are tired, they want to watch an episode of Queer Eye, and you’re the last one they have to do to meet their daily goal. They also don’t care about you. That’s harsh, we know, but why should they? They don’t know who you are. All they know is that you are one of the millions of high schoolers looking to go to college.

Your job is to make them care, to make them like you, and bonus points if you get a laugh or a smile.

If you want to present your best possible self to the exhausted application readers come winter, shoot us a note. We make sure our students stand out.