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Writing Your Common Application Essay: How to Answer Prompt #5

There’s no time like the present to jump-start writing your college application essays. The Common Application essay prompts seek to provide admissions committees with deeper insights into the experiences of prospective students. The essay portion of your application is the perfect chance to stand out among the rest and confidently share what makes you, you.

In this installment of our series on Writing the New Common Application Essay, we’ll look at prompt #5 (if you’re not a fan of this prompt, check out our thoughts on prompt #1, prompt #2, prompt #3, prompt #4, prompt #6, and prompt #7):


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

It’s no secret that admissions committees want to know more about you and what you can bring to their community of scholars. Rather than just listing accomplishments, this prompt takes your activities list to a new level. Applicants can share how an experience has affected their lives and/or touched the people around them. You’re also tasked with revealing how a situation has ignited new possibilities and perspectives. The most memorable stories take us on an adventure. Here are some nuggets of wisdom for the journey ahead!

Success starts with learning.
Start with the obvious. Admissions committees want students who are inspired to learn all they can—this is at the heart of higher education. When you envision the college you want to attend, it’s important to remember that your essay should point them toward your love for knowledge. Along with the rigorous courses and stellar instructors, college offers you an opportunity to learn in other areas outside of the classroom. Think about your community involvement, academic interests and most creative ideas.

Make a quick list of some experiences that have taught you something about yourself or others. Many students have even found that they’ve learned most from their setbacks. We call this a growth mindset, where instead of dwelling on challenges, you come to new realizations for a brighter future. No matter the situation or realization you choose to focus on, be sure that your essay connects learning with overall success.

Lessons are for a lifetime.
When it comes to writing the most compelling college application essay, you’ll need to brainstorm how you’ll take what you’ve learned and apply these lessons in the future. Committees look for students who have matured since their first years of high school and understand that people change and grow up. If you’ve seen exponential, positive growth in your academic performance, attitudes and communication skills—say it. How can you use these new tools when you transition to the collegiate level and in your future career?

A review committee’s favorite essay told the story of an applicant’s quick study and mastery of sign language when he learned that his younger sister was going deaf. He described the hours of commitment, research and emotional strength it took to learn another language his sophomore year. This experience propelled his interest in speech and hearing sciences. Ultimately, he felt confident that he would be able to adapt in the most difficult circumstances in life. The committee was inspired. What have you learned that can empower others for years to come?

You’re your best advocate.
Who knows more about you than you? While the people closest to you can share their views, it’s up to you to tell the admissions committee what you value the most. When you settle on an accomplishment, event, or realization you want to explore, don’t forget to examine how this topic reflects who you are as a person. Be sure to write with your own voice and character. The writing process starts within, through self-evaluation and reflection. Don’t be afraid to set out on your own and create a vision board, take a personality/leadership skills test, or any other activity that might help you get to know yourself better. This can aid you to feel more confident when sharing your perspectives on how you have grown and uplifted others along the way.

There’s power in persistence.
Don’t sell yourself short by cutting corners when it comes to writing your common application essay. It takes time and effort to become an expert. Dig deep each day and work toward your goals. Prompt #5 is all about knowledge and personal growth. What better way to show the committee you have developed as a person with an engaging, high-quality essay leading your application?

As you continue writing, remember that revisions and rewrites are all part of the process. Rather than thinking of the editing phase as a laborious chore, keep in mind the story you want to tell. And, like a good detective, focus on cracking the code to a winning application essay!

Rather than focusing on the competition, the best writers compete with themselves. Make it a point to improve and out-write yourself each day. The power is all yours!