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How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #4

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



What is Prompt #4?


Applicants can write a Common App essay that responds to one of seven prompts. The essay should be no more than 650 words, and it should creatively tell admissions readers the story of who you are. Prompt #4 was recently changed, but it is still as important as ever. The prompt reads: 


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?


While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights about who you are to the admissions committee. By explaining what you’re grateful for, you can show admissions officers your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.


Choosing a Moment of Gratitude


The first step to responding to this prompt is going to be thinking about the something and the someone of your story. It’s imperative to talk about a unique, strange, or unexpected moment from your life, as the prompt asks for gratitude that came about in a surprising way. 


Rather than talking about just one moment, you can also tell a story about an action that somebody did so many times you started to take it for granted. Then, you can explain how you realized that you needed to be grateful for it.


Most of all, make sure that you are writing about a moment that you are certain no one else will talk about. To brainstorm, imagine that you told a stranger that you were grateful for what happened to you without any other context. If they would likely be surprised, then you have chosen a good topic. 


The common answers for this prompt are going to involve a family member, a teacher, or a sports coach who gives you an arduous task. By the end of the story, the narrator becomes grateful for the lessons they learned along the way through their hard work. Try to avoid writing this kind of essay, unless you feel that your take on it is going to be truly original.


Prompt #4 Writing Tips


Focus on Yourself


Begin your essay by telling a creative story about the something that your someone did for you that made you thankful. Paint a picture with your words here — establish who you were in the context of your story and make the character development thorough. Show the admissions committee that you have a clear understanding of yourself and the details of your world.


Remember that even though this question asks about something that somebody else did for you, your essay still has to be about you. Explain who the other people in your story are in relation to you, but don’t give too many details about their background or life story. They’re not applying to college — you are. 


Your story should then transition into your unexpected epiphany. For example, let’s say that six months after your friend Leonard gave you a pogo stick, you started to be grateful for the silly thing. Here you will want to explore why your gratitude came about before you begin to talk about how your gratitude affected or motivated you. Have a Socratic seminar with yourself in your head where you ask yourself questions, such as “why am I grateful for the pogo stick?” or “Why is this important?” Keep asking yourself these “why” questions until you arrive at a philosophical conclusion — an example of one could be that you eventually got used to the odd looks that people gave you as you were bouncing down the street, and so you gained self-confidence.


Avoid Clichés


Finally, think about how learning to be grateful for something you would not expect to bring you joy and thankfulness has had a positive impact on your life. Gaining more self-confidence, for example, could motivate you to do an infinite number of things that you weren’t able to do in the past. You can then make a conclusion by connecting this part of your story to the beginning of the essay. You ultimately want to show how the moment of gratitude stated in your introduction made you who you are today. This really brings the essay full circle.


Of course, you want to avoid idioms and overuse clichés. The way to do this is to write using vivid details. Remember to show rather than tell — you can see examples of this from these stellar essay examples. In other words, express the lessons you learn implicitly through the experiences in your essay rather than explicitly. Demonstrate your growth through the changes in your life, rather than simply stating that you gained confidence.


For instance, maybe the pogo stick gift led you to start a pogo dance team at your school. The team then went on to perform at large venues, raising money for causes that you care about. Before your pogo stick days, however, you had crippling stage fright and hated even giving speeches for your English class. Learning to pogo ultimately shaped you into the more confident and adventurous person you are today. These are the kinds of specific details that will make your essay more engaging and unique. Even if the resulting growth was more mundane, you can still make a lasting impression on your readers with descriptive language and deep insights.


How to Craft Your Prompt #4 Essay


Want to know if your prompt #4 essay stands out? Find out by using our Peer Essay Review tool, where another student will give you a free, secure, and anonymous review of your essay. You can also earn CollegeVine Karma by giving feedback on other users’ essays while sharpening your own writing skills!