How to Tackle 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompt #5

Updated: Oct 4, 2018

The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #5 reads as follows:

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

According to the Common Application, this prompt was the most popular prompt last year. Given the popularity of the prompt, your essay really needs to stand out if you choose this prompt. If your essay is too predictable or your topic too bland, then your application will quickly find itself sinking to the bottom of the pile. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #5:

1. Pick a relatively recent accomplishment, event, or realization.

With a topic like this, you might be tempted to look back at your entire life, from early childhood to the present day, to brainstorm the greatest and most significant accomplishments, events, and realizations in your life that sparked personal growth and new understandings. I recommend that you focus on your recent past as you brainstorm a list of your accomplishments, events, and realizations. What do I mean by the recent past? Approximately the last 5 years or so of your life. This will not only help you narrow and prioritize your brainstorming, but it will also lead to more compelling essays because the accomplishments, events, and realizations will have occurred when you were more mature and able to comprehend the nuances and significance of these things.

Colleges don't really care too much what you were like as a young child. They care much more about who you are now. And recent accomplishments, events, and realizations in your life are usually going to be better reflections of your current identity, character, personality, and values. People change over time, and hopefully, you have matured significantly over the last several years, especially as you journeyed through middle school and high school. You are on the cusp of adulthood, and colleges are excited to see how you see yourself in the present day and what your hopes and dreams are as you enter college and beyond. This is not to say that you can't include some details of your more extended past, but the emphasis and focus should remain on the recent past and how you have recently experienced personal growth and recently gained new understandings of yourself or others.

How should you go about brainstorming these relatively recent accomplishments, events, and realizations in your life? I recommend that you try to think of a positive characteristic of yourself that you have cultivated over time. What characteristic about yourself are you most proud of? Why? How have you seen that characteristic change over time? Have you had to struggle to improve yourself regarding that characteristic? For example, maybe your characteristic is patience. Maybe in the recent past, you were a very impatient person and really struggled with this aspect of yourself. However, maybe you have experienced a dramatic transformation in your level of patience with yourself, your closest friends and family, and others in general. And you are very proud of how much more patient you are today than you were just a few years ago. Once you have identified a positive characteristic that you are very proud of having cultivated over time, then you can work backwards to find the accomplishments, events, and realizations that helped you experience growth and new understanding regarding that characteristic. Working backwards in this manner is often a more effective and efficient way of brainstorming than just coming up with random examples.

2. Balance the showing and the telling.

Even though the prompt says to "describe" an accomplishment, event, or realization, that is not exactly the best strategy for this essay. What you should ideally aim to do is to tell a story. Write narratively and bring to life for your reader an accomplishment, event, or realization in your life that led to personal growth and new understandings. Later, after you have told the story of the accomplishment, event, or realization, then you can describe the impact this had on you and describe the way in which it helped you grow personally and develop new understandings of yourself and of others. In this way, you should cultivate equilibrium in your essay between showing and telling.

Showing and telling are two concepts that are thrown around quite frequently in the context of college admissions essays, so I want to make this balancing idea more concrete, specific, and practical for you. Most people don't struggle too much with "telling"--just describing things in a straightforward expository fashion. Instead, what most people struggle with is "showing" their experiences instead of just telling their reader about those experiences. One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer regarding "showing" is that the showing really needs to be kept pithy--short and sweet. You are not writing a short story, and you don't have time to engage in long storytelling in your essay, especially when given only 250-650 words. Sprinkle your essay with pithy anecdotes that will bring your point and experience to life and capture the imagination of your reader.

The introduction of your essay is often a great place to insert an anecdote that will "show" your experience to your reader. This is because your job in the beginning of your essay is to capture your reader's attention as quickly as possible. And almost nothing is better than a captivating story that engages your reader. How do you build a great introductory story? Put yourself in the mindset of a movie director. Great movies don't necessarily start chronologically or with narration and description that lay everything out neatly. Great movies often throw you in the middle of an action-packed scene that is confusing and disorienting. In much the same way, you need to playfully disorient your reader by building a scene at the beginning. Engage your reader's senses: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? Build up the tension and the suspense of your narrative, even if what you are ultimately describing is quite mundane. Don't necessarily start at the beginning of your story. Maybe start from the middle or the end and circle back and establish context later. Use your creativity and strategically position stories in your essay to make your points both explicitly and implicitly. If you successfully engage your reader's imagination visually and vividly at the beginning, then everything else will be downhill for your essay.

3. Explicitly connect the dots for your reader.

Just telling an engaging story that stimulates your reader's senses and captures your reader's imagination is not enough. It is not enough just to "discuss" the accomplishment, event, or realization. You need to explicitly connect the dots for your reader and help him understand how this experience sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. How did you grow? To what extent? How quickly did you grow? What was the nature of your personal growth? What was the new understanding that you gained of yourself or others? How did you develop this new understanding? Thus, make sure that you save some space in your essay to be able to connect these dots for your reader and help them clearly understand the significance and upshot of your experience. If you just tell a great story without connecting the dots for your reader, then you have simply built a great short story and not a great personal statement.

Why do I emphasize explicitly connecting the dots for your reader? In your mind, everything makes sense. You have complete information about yourself, your life, your experiences, and your growth and understanding. We often make the mistake of assuming that others can see things the way we see ourselves and our world around us. People often see things differently based on their background, worldview, politics, religion, etc. Some readers just "get it" more easily and quickly than others. Thus, to appeal to the broadest audience possible, you want to make sure that the points of your essay are clear and explicit to everyone. That's not to say that you should "dumb it down" and make your essay boring. There are ways of explicitly connecting the dots for your reader but also doing it in a sophisticated and nuanced manner. Your writing quality does not have to suffer in order to accomplish this very important objective.

How is it possible to explicitly connect the dots but maintain strong writing and reader engagement? Provide specific and concrete examples that make it unmistakably clear to your reader how you changed, how you grew, how you gained new understandings. You should try to sprinkle your essay with pithy anecdotes of your life after you experienced this important accomplishment, event, or realization in your life. Try not to oversimplify your personal growth and new understandings. Growth and understanding are not always linear or progressive. Sometimes we grow and learn in a zigzag, taking two steps forward and one step back. Reveal the unique trajectory of your personal growth and new understandings, recognizing your weaknesses and areas that still need improvement, and your reader will appreciate your honesty and maturity.

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