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Unmasking The New Common App 2021 Gratitude Prompt

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Earlier in August, on the morning of my wedding, I woke up a little earlier than I normally do, feeling the excitement of the day. I stayed in bed for a bit and did the thing I often try not to do first thing in the morning- grabbed my phone and looked at the news. The top headline read, "Code Red for Humanity." I chuckled and took a deep breath. Not funny at all, also not that surprising, unfortunately. Great way to start what's supposed to be one of the best days of my life, I thought. I decided to close the news instead of doomscrolling.

18 months ago, the world as we knew it changed drastically. Many of us started to realize just how much we took for granted... things like daily hugs, concerts, interactions with neighbors, going to restaurants, blowing out candles on a birthday cake… the list goes on, and everyone has their version of that list. To add insult to injury, the headlines are awash with news of natural disasters, hate crimes, terrorism… Again, I don't have to create an exhaustive list of terrible things, you know what they are, and you have your own story of what it means to be human in the world right now. It can feel heavy. As we carry these heavy things, we need our ways to make it feel better, to lighten our loads, to make some days more okay than others. Surprisingly, science has shown us that one way to generate positive emotions is by being grateful.

The new Common App Essay prompt

So, it is certainly no coincidence that, during this tumultuous time in our history, the Common App went through a very intentional process of creating a new essay prompt for the 2021-22 application cycle. Specifically, they designed a prompt that is backed by psychological science on gratitude and kindness, and how (Side note: the Common App is, “a not-for-profit membership organization committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process. Each year, more than one million students, one-third of whom are first-generation, apply to college through Common App’s online application. Founded in 1975, Common App serves more than 900 member colleges and universities worldwide.”(source)) The new prompt reads,

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?”

This is one of seven prompt choices, and they all require applicants to reflect on their lives and dig deep.

2021 Common Application Prompts for High School Seniors
The 7 Common App Prompts

Why Did They Create This New Prompt

The committee decided to retire the old "problem-solving" prompt with a prompt that is backed by science on the psychological benefits of showing gratitude. However, their decision is not just for the benefit of college applicants, the prompt is also designed for the reader as well. A little-known fact in gratitude research is that expressing gratitude is a positive feedback loop. Not only does the person that is writing the prompt feel better, the person who is receiving the gratitude (or in this case, reads it) feels more positive towards the reader.

So when the committee writes “the new choice will generate stories that students are inspired to write and colleges are excited to read.”, what they are saying is that this prompt gives students a golden opportunity for students to create a point of connection with college admissions officers so that they can advocate for your admission.

I applaud the Common App for creating this prompt, for recognizing that the act of practicing and sharing gratitude is something that teens should be encouraged to do; it could yield some meaningful reflection for students. I like that it goes beyond simply asking “What are you grateful for?” It is very specific about asking the way someone else sparked gratitude for you and continues to ask how that gratitude affected or motivated as motivated in your life.

The Backlash

Not everyone feels so optimistic about the new gratitude prompt. One essay coach thinks the prompt could “backfire for many students,” and she outlines her thoughts in this post on her website. And that's not the only one. While she loves the concept and intent, she thinks there are pitfalls and that it will be easy for students to stray from writing about themselves, which is the main point of the exercise. While I think this is a great point, for students that can write this different prompt well, writing an entire essay showing how you gained a new understanding of how being thankful motivated you to act in a meaningful way, will help you get far in the admissions process.

Tips on writing about how gratitude affected or motivated you...

Start by practicing gratitude, then write about it

Here are some exercises and questions to help students get started on responding to the new prompt:

  1. Set a timer for 5 minutes and make a list of what you’re grateful for- big and small, material and and non, whatever you want, just write.

  2. Think about the last 5 years of your life… what are some things you’ve accomplished that you feel proud of? How did you achieve them? There’s a good chance you had some help and support to get to where you are today… who were your helpers and supporters?

  3. What was the last random act of kindness you did? Do you remember how it made you feel, and do you know what inspired you to act? If you can’t remember, try to write down a few things that you have done for someone else that made them grateful? How did you know they were grateful?

  4. Try to describe what gratitude feels like to you. How do you know when you're grateful?

  5. Who inspires you (someone you know), and why?

  6. What "fills your bucket"?

  7. Think about a problem or challenge you've been through in your life, and write down what happened, how (if) you overcame it, and then write about how this experience affected you, good or bad.

Step back from these exercises and look at what's on your paper.

Do you notice any common themes in your answers, any common people? What came to light for you? Mark up the pages, take more notes and draw out the pieces that could make for a great essay.

The natural hook

Your hook is what draws your reader into your essay- so start by telling us about the "something" and the "someone" that made you happy or grateful. This doesn't have to be a drawn-out beginning, because you do want to avoid that aforementioned pitfall of talking too much about someone else in an essay that is supposed to be about you.

Once you've hooked us, it's time to talk about how your gratitude has motivated you, and I would urge, how it might continue to motivate you. Have you paid it forward? Have you expressed your gratitude to the person you described? What have you learned about yourself through the experiences you will discuss?

Don't overthink it

If it feels like you are trying too hard to write a genuine story, then this might not be the prompt for you. Ultimately, you do have a story to share, your voice and perspective are both very important pieces in this process. Don't force it, and also don't be afraid to ask for help!

A prompt that can speak to everyone

It seems that everyone's routines are starting to take shape again in a way that feels familiar. We are learning how to live in a pandemic, and as some of us are still masking our smiles in public places, no matter who we are, it is time to unmask our gratitude and share it with others. Pay it forward. Maybe more than ever before, our memories of what was could make us even more grateful for what is. There is still a lot of good that surrounds us (I'd like to think there always will be) - try to take notice of it when you see it or experience it, be grateful for it, and let that gratitude motivate you, too.

I have thought a lot about how our young students have been coping with the weight of the world; some have shown great resilience and strength, while others struggled with the breakdown of their social ecosystem and the absence of in-person learning and playing. In our work with students, we do our best to be their cheerleaders, to help them look toward the future with confidence and hope. Our college counseling process guides our students to tell their unique stories within their college applications, no matter what prompt they choose to respond to. Moving forward, I will encourage my students to strongly consider the new prompt when it comes time to write their Common App essays, to unmask their gratitude, and let it carry them through their own “code red” moments in their lives.

For more help with your college application, seek the advice of a college counselor.


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