March 1, 2021

The Common Application Essay 4

Common App

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?

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #4

If there’s one phrase to focus on in this prompt, it’s: “in a surprising way.”

The easiest thing to do is imagine things others have done for you that may have made you happy or thankful. A gift. A helping hand. A shoulder to cry on. A laugh. There are lots of things people do regularly that can elicit feelings of gratitude in you, the recipient. But what does it mean for such a gesture to SURPRISE you?

Careful. There are two versions of this, and only one of them will count for this essay.

Version 1 – A gesture you weren’t expecting, but one you already regard as a nice/positive thing, that pleasantly surprises you.


  • You are stuck in a tricky interpersonal conflict and would kill to have someone work it through with you. You can’t ask your friends, or your favorite aunt, because it’s personal, they’re busy, you don’t want to burden them. But, they volunteer anyway. Wow! You’re so, so, so grateful. “Happy.” “Thankful.” And surprised that they would give their time and soul to you so generously.

Nope. Doesn’t count.

Version 2  – A gesture you weren’t expecting to be happy about, or grateful for, but… found yourself reacting that way. Your happiness and thankfulness was the thing that surprised you. (Bingo.)


  • Leave me alone, Mom. I do not want to talk to you. If you force this conversation I will resent you for it, and be even unhappier than I am now. Understood? (Mom sidesteps your warning, engages in a conversation with you anyway.) And you’re poised to be angry about it. However, a weight lifts. And you feel happier, despite your expectation for the opposite reaction.

Your reaction of happiness is the surprising element here, not the gesture. Now let’s examine why this would be interesting, and how to write about it. A change from something (A) to something else (B) can show many things: growth (obvious), but also increased self-awareness (that you were able to detect and talk about that change). Either way, your ability to identify this “surprise” goes to one of the most important traits any college applicant can have: MATURITY. That’s why the common app is offering this prompt.

First things first, you need to find a time when YOUR REACTION (of happiness/gratefulness) came as a surprise to you. You were expecting to feel the opposite, or at least something wildly different, but didn’t. Generate a list.

Now, what reaction were you EXPECTING to have originally, and why? Make a sincere case here. Meaning, go back in time to this “Previous You” and explain why you expected NOT to be happy/thankful for whatever was about to come your way. Sell it. Sincerely, thoughtfully. Really… sell it. After reading this paragraph(s), we should not only understand why you expected NOT to be happy about the upcoming gesture, but perhaps buy into your argument fully.

But then, a thing happens, that causes a surprising response. It must (by definition) be something that happened on an unconscious level, without your brain’s permission. After all, if your body listened to your mind, you wouldn’t have been thankful, remember? That’s the premise, here. So, unconsciously, emotionally, viscerally, you feel some kind of positive, happy, grateful emotion. And this confuses your brain. It’s tempting to dwell on the thing the “other person/people in this story” did or said. And yes, we will need the appropriate detail, but we don’t need all that much.

What we want to dwell on is that cognitive dissonance between your happy response, and your brain feeling CONFUSED by that reaction. Explain what you were feeling, and walk us through the CONFUSION. What did THAT feel like? What questions were you all of a sudden asking? What assumptions did this ruffle? What ELSE might you be wrong about if Action X, that was supposed to lead to a not happy or neutral response, instead leads to a POSITIVE one? You may not have been aware of it in the moment (or perhaps you were), but there was a dialogue happening that led you to CHANGE your mind. We wanna see that dialogue play out on the page, right here.

Now do some analysis on what this revelation propelled you to do, or not do, afterward. Did it lead simply to a change in the way you perceive certain input? Did it propel you to take any kind of action? What changed as a result of this “new you”? Give us some examples. This doesn’t need to be a big thing, folks. It doesn’t need to be that you went from “not wanting to solve world hunger, to having a revelatory new mission in life to solve world hunger.” The differentiator here is going to be your thoughtful analysis of what changed, and why that mattered to you.

You can consider this kind of structure to get your juices flowing on a first draft:

  • Situation/Setup. Explain what your expectations were, and why you were pretty confident that if any of the following kinds of things were to play out in XYZ way, you weren’t gonna be all to thrilled about it.
  • Then, someone did something, and your REACTION surprised you. Very quickly and efficiently, tell us about the thing, but don’t dwell. Dwell instead on your reaction, and why this was nothing like how you were expecting to react.
  • Now, give us that dialogue between your brain and this NEW REACTION it was trying to process. The “what else does this change, if this is how I reacted here” inner dialogue.
  • Now explain why any of this matters. What happens now, on account of this episode, that is fundamentally different from how it would have played out had this not happened? And why do we prefer this SECOND version? Where’s the value in it for you?

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

Join Admissionado and start your future today.