June 30, 2020

The Common Application Essay 5

Common App

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

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #5

This one is tricky because first drafts for this type of prompt end up being ridiculously predictable. [We read hundreds (thousands) of these each year from the world’s sharpest high-schoolers, it’s true.] Students (and – ahem – parents) who gravitate toward this essay tend to see those words “discuss an accomplishment” and Bang, starter pistol goes off, and it’s a race to “how quickly can we talk about that thing we achieved that we think is going to be our ticket to Harvard.” In fact, and as always, forgive the brazen tone here, but no college cares about any high-schooler’s accomplishments to-date. A lick. Whatsoever. Nada. Achievements say very little. It’s that second part of the prompt – the part most folks didn’t even read because they got so excited by “Discuss an accomplishment” – that separates the contenders from the commoners.


What’s so special about growth? Well, simply put, evidence of growth here, at this stage of a student’s life, is an incredible indicator for FUTURE growth. And that’s what college applications are all about, folks. It’s not a contest over who scored highest on yesterday’s SAT, or whose GPA was most impressive these past four years. It’s a contest over whose performances and experiences thus far SUGGEST TO US (the admissions committee) which among these applicants has the greatest chance of FUTURE SUCCESS. Once you understand that concept, it’s going to be a game-changer for how you approach your college applications.

Okay, back to the issue at hand. Growth. New understanding. The key issue here is. . . “delta.” As in: ∆. Change. Difference. From X to Y. Before I was this, After I was that. Before I saw it this way, afterward I saw it that way. Without that kind of an arc, the “accomplishment” is worthless. Worthless!

When in your life did something change for you? Here are some examples:

  • I used to believe this. Then XYZ happened. And that belief changed.
  • I used to think THIS about myself. Then XYZ happened. And my understanding of myself changed.
  • I used to think I was limited in X realm. Then I set out to accomplish Y, even though I knew there was a better-than-not chance I would fail. But I didn’t. And I learned Z about my limits. And more than that, I realized that I was thinking about my own limits all wrong.
  • I used to believe with every fiber in my body that PERSON X was XYZ (nasty, lovely, mean, brilliant, hateful, special, etc.). But then THIS happened. And that belief was shaken. I realized that PERSON X was in fact ABC.

These are meant to just get the juices flowing for the “pattern” of how you can turn inward to source some great potential stories. It’s all about “I used to think X, but now I think Y.” This essay is about the journey you went through to get from X to Y. The journey. We don’t really care where you end up. We don’t care about the “what” at all, in fact. We care about your ability to introspect and examine the elements at play. We care about how you’re grappling with those elements, and what you’re choosing to do with them. We care about that gear-churning. It’s going to tell us that “this is a future CEO.” Or, “this is a future innovator.” Etc.

The tricky part with an essay like this is remembering what it was like to “not know” what you know today. It’s hard. Real hard. Do you remember what it was like before you knew the alphabet? Impossible, right? Well, luckily it won’t be quite as hard. But you’ll have to train yourself to ALLOW yourself to “regress” a little, and return to a time when your views on something (or someone) were a little different. Sure, maybe your views today are better, and you’ve worked hard to wean yourself OFF of that old way of viewing things. But for this essay, you’ll need to bring that OLD SELF back. Such that we can really understand where things started, and how drastically they’ve changed.

If you’re at all able, try to write in first person and in present tense when describing that before picture. How the world looked to you before you changed. Writing in present tense will force you not to get ahead of yourself, because you’ll have a natural tendency to exert your modern-day knowledge onto your earlier self. Don’t, if you can help it. You can always finesse later drafts and adjust tenses and the writing style to bring out the most from the content, but initially, just focus on letting your pen fly. Embrace your Past You. Take us through the thing that changed it all. And show us how you struggled, coughed, sputtered, and uncomfortably went from Past You to Present You.

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

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