How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #5, 2019-2020

Continuing our series on the Common App 2019-2020 prompts, we’re reviewing prompt #5. Read on if this prompt intrigues you, annoys you, or you just want to know our thoughts on it. We’re very opinionated, if you can’t already tell. Particularly when it comes to essays. And the titles of them. And everything in-between.

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

This prompt is a tall order and you’ll know pretty immediately if it applies to you. But if you’re considering an event or an occurrence and if you should write about it, ask yourself this: was it truly that event that changed your perspective or was it a series of occurrences with a culminating event? Very rarely do things change in an instant* (see third bullet point). We were hard pressed to find some examples for a response to this prompt, so we can imagine how challenging it might be to respond to this prompt in an applicable, interesting, and nuanced way. If you are choosing to respond to this prompt then here is our advice: 

Work backwards.

Instead of re-telling the event from start to finish, which will inevitably dilute the intensity of the event or experience that you’re trying to convey, start with where you ended up. Who are you now? Make that clear and apparent and then work backwards. The event or realization can be small within the context of a larger situation and that can still be an appropriate way to answer this question. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so you can pinpoint one instance while still illustrating its context and consequences. In fact, you absolutely should because otherwise your story will just be floating on its own without any grounding force. So, start with what we know: who you are, what is going on now, and what you believe. Then go backwards and shed light on the event(s) or occurrences that got you here.

Don’t dilute reality. Don’t re-invent it, either.

Sometimes stories aren’t positive. Not every essay needs to have a humorous, positive, or quirky spin. We know that we speak a lot about providing the admissions reader with a moment of levity through your essay. That said, if you experienced something that wasn’t all that positive, that’s okay. Go there. Speak your truth. Explore the changes that occurred as a result of that instance. That said, the phrasing of this question suggests that a singular idea or event can radically change your life. And that’s not aligned with how growth usually happens. Growth happens over time, not as a result of an “a-ha” moment. But there are sometimes unpredictable events that impact you greatly, which brings us to our next point.

*The asterisk.

Okay, not to get too dark here, but when we were considering the possibilities for answers to this prompt, the thing that kept coming up in our conversations was trauma. Trauma is a reality for a lot of people, and we don’t want to diminish that. Nor do we want to tell you that you shouldn’t write about a distinct event that happened to you that shaped your life in an undeniable way. Trauma does that. What we want to remind you here is that you are not your trauma. And that you should absolutely tell your story if it’s important to you. But, you by no means have to write about your trauma if it’s a part of your life.  

If this doesn’t resonate with you at all and you’re feeling unsure, then skip this prompt. There are a number of other (better) prompts that give you an opportunity to share your personality by telling a story that isn’t quite as pointed or emotional. We know that that’s a lot to consider. And it got a little heavy for a second. Take a breathe.

We hate to say it (not really, we love to share our opinions), but add this to our list of prompts that we wish were worded differently. @ Common App: we’d love you to consider rephrasing this to: “Tell us about a day where something so big happened, positive or negative, that you woke up and went to sleep as a slightly different person.” Or, “Has something happened in your life in the past few years, positive or negative, that has given you a new understanding of yourself or others? Tell us that story.”

Let us know if you need help doing that. We are here to help you express yourself and your experiences in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident.