the common appNew Essay Prompts

The Common App announced a few months ago the new essay prompts for 2021-22. You can read all seven here.

The last time the Common App made a major change to its essay prompts was for the 2017-18 academic year when it added two brand new prompts – listing a group of seven total – and tweaking the language of others. Before that, it was in 2015-16, and if you’re curious, you can read about those changes in the article I wrote for education reporter Valerie Strauss’s column at the Washington Post.

Common App Prompt # 4

In that year, the Common App did away with Prompt #4, which read:

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?


Admissions officers were likely inundated with essays about the beach, the library, grandma’s kitchen and left with a dearth of any real analysis or insight that might help them better understand how an applicant’s brain ticks. In my view, it was a prompt that simply didn’t invite the kind of thinking or writing that encourages a college-ready impression. This was confirmed by the replacement prompt, which stuck around until this year:

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Now this prompt clearly encouraged a type of analytical thinking that was probably useful to a college admissions officer as they attempt to glean insight about an applicant from an application essay. However, starting this year, that prompt is no more.

Any guess as to why Prompt #4 has yet again been replaced? When you read this prompt, does any particular problem come to mind that you would like to solve? Anything that’s been a pervasive issue for you, your family, everyone you know, and literally everyone in the world? I’ll give you a second to think.

Leaving Prompt #4 as it was would obviously invite a bevy of essays about the Coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, admissions officers are not interested in reading more about what we’ve all been living through for the past 18 months. And students may feel the same way about writing about the pandemic. To that point, the Common App has offered a sort of escape valve for students who indeed do have something remarkable to say about how the pandemic has affected their lives: a dedicated space in the application to address any pandemic-related issues that have been a part of the student’s experience. It reads:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

 Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N

Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words.

So what has Prompt #4 turned into this time? Check it out:

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?

How apropos. As Sacha Thieme, Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Direction of Admissions at Indiana University, put it, “During these difficult times, it will be encouraging for students and those reviewing these essay responses to be reminded of the joy and hope that generosity and gratitude can foster.”


Pain can be the touchstone of growth. It’s said that as humans we learn through hardship and pain, and we’ve certainly learned a lot over the last year and a half. We’ve learned to be more understanding and flexible with one another and ourselves. We’ve learned patience and tolerance. We’ve learned the joy and satisfaction that comes with helping others in need, and we’ve learned to accept our own vulnerability and reach out to others when we need help. We see more clearly what we’ve taken for granted as well as what was never accessible to so many others around us. We’ve learned how to adapt and pivot in creative ways despite major inconvenience, obstacles, disappointments, or worse. Although our personal experiences differ, at least one theme remains true for everyone: more than ever we are there for each other. That is surely something to be grateful for.

Need Help With the Common App?

If you have questions about how to answer this or any of the prompts as you work on your college application, reach out to one of our essay specialists. They are experts in helping students identify and reveal a message that helps college admissions officers see what they can contribute to campus. Contact us here to learn more.