With the release of the 2016-17 Common Application essay prompts on August 1, 2016, has come a flurry of questions, especially on what and how to write the personal statement. Furthermore, the fifth prompt for the Common App, which focuses on the transition from childhood to adulthood, can seem hefty. People write long books about coming of age. How are you supposed to condense that into an essay under 650 words?

This guide will help you approach and tackle the fifth prompt, and will guide you in writing a thoughtful reflection of yourself as a person and a college applicant. Because the Common App essay is sent to most of the schools you apply to (and is, therefore, not school specific), this is your chance to paint a picture of yourself entirely free of school names and to add character to your transcript. Check out our guide below to developing and executing your personal statement strategy in response to the fifth Common Application prompt.

Breaking Down the Prompt

The fifth prompt for the Common App Essay of the 2016-17 admissions cycle:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

What does this mean? Basically, the prompt asks you to tell a coming of age story. In other words, you must reflect on a specific accomplishment or event within a group you belong to – your culture, community, or family – and show how you grew, both as a member of the group, but, more importantly, how this was a transition for you as an individual.

What is the Purpose of this Prompt?

In order to better approach your answer to this prompt, you should first consider why this question would be asked on a college application. For one, each college is a group, just like any culture, community, or family. There are rules and standards that each member agrees to that allow the group to function efficiently.

In considering your application, admissions officers are trying to imagine you in their community – how and where you would find a place in and contribute to their community, how their group would fit and welcome you, and how you would make their community better. In your response to this prompt, they want to see that you have an understanding of what makes a community and that you are aware of your place in it. This is your chance to show that you are aware of your role in both your own life and in others’.

Additionally, colleges ask this question because they want to see personal growth. While your transcript, honors, and list of extracurricular activities can show at face value that you have grown in academic and extracurricular pursuits, colleges want to see this embodied in all aspects of your life – even the ones that do not get awarded or recorded on paper. In this prompt, you can illustrate how you have grown as a person, not just as a student, during the formative period of high school.


Submit Your College Essay


Finally, colleges want to hear you tell a story about yourself. They want to know what’s important to you and how you define yourself in your own terms. They will read recommenders’ letters about you, but, ultimately, the person who will step onto their campus will be you. For that reason, they want to see how you carry yourself. They want to watch you be creative and thoughtful because this will reflect what you bring to their school. For thousands of years, stories have been very important to humankind and how humans perceive each other. This is your chance to tell a piece of your own story.

Because you are given an option of where to focus your essay – between community, culture, or family – you need to make a choice! Below you will find an examination of each option to help you choose the one that best suits you. When you have decided upon a community, culture, or family to write about, you will then be better able to identify a transition from childhood to adulthood to write about, along with deciding upon a message and streamlining your ideas.

Consider the Prompt: Communities

If you immediately have an idea of a community you belong to, write down your initial thoughts, and do not worry about having streamlined ideas just yet. If you do not have any ideas right away, or if you’re struggling to come up with more than a couple ideas, start considering your definition of a group or community. Begin with the question of what makes and what breaks a group. From there, examine which groups in your life you belong to. Move through different types of groups. Perhaps you are a part of your school choir or a sports team – clearly defined, organized groups.  Did you have a coming-of-age transition in one of these groups? Along with thinking about leadership roles you may have had in these groups, consider how day-to-day interactions might have changed to reflect a transition.

Then, consider other identifiers that tie you to groups – maybe you love romance novels or have curly hair. How do these identities lead to the creation of groups and communities? How can you transition from child to adult within them? Take, for example, height. If you are especially short, you might have spent your whole life wishing to be taller. But, maybe there was a moment when another short person – someone you knew or even a stranger – showed you how to embrace your height. How did that change you? How did that moment change how you felt about yourself and your place in the community? Be sure to reflect on this moment as transitory for you as an individual and for you as part of a community.

Consider the Prompt: Culture

Another group to consider your place in is your culture. When you begin to write about your culture, the best place to start is often with a free write to get ideas flowing without the structure of the college essay in mind. You may realize that something that seemed unfit for a college essay could actually be your best idea.

Begin by asking yourself what defines your culture. Is it the food you eat? The music you listen to? The clothing you wear? How does your culture smell? Sound? Feel? What are your traditions? When someone mentions your culture what is the first thing that comes to mind? The first image you see? The first feeling? Are you overwhelmed or underwhelmed by your culture? Start by exploring what your culture is. What may seem totally commonplace, natural, and understood by everyone to you may actually be more unique than you realize.

Additionally, look to older people in your culture and ask them both about their experiences with your culture in general, but also about their childhood to adulthood transitions within the culture. Like a journalist, observe! You are gathering information for your story.

It may also help you to read authors from within your culture who have discussed this coming-of-age transition. Often the best way to know what you do and do not want to write about is to read other authors on a subject and identify what resonates with you and what you disagree on. If you do not have a lot of time to read, even a few short stories might help. After all, your essay has a limit of 650 words and noticing how short story authors craft their words and plots to fit smaller spaces but still carry big meaning can only help you.

Additionally, other forms of art within your culture such as music, poetry, movies, and visual arts, may help you generate ideas. What do they identify with? What sticks out to them? What do they love about your culture? What about it do they struggle with? How does this compare to your relationship with your culture?

It also may help to read authors and observe artists from other cultures discuss the transition from childhood to adulthood as the differences and similarities they identify in transitioning within cultures will help you further consider what is important to include in your essay. Everybody must grow up some day – how does this process change within cultures? How does it stay the same? What will this mean for your essay?

Consider the Prompt: Families

The third type of group you can write about experiencing a childhood to adulthood transition within for the prompt is families. With families, you should start with the question of what makes a family. Specifically, what makes your family? Or, how do you define your family? Is it the people you live with, or all of your relatives and anyone who could be remotely tied to you? Does biology matter? Do you choose your family or does your family choose you? Is there any choice? Remember that, while we often see families as determined by blood ties, there are other types of families, too. What makes a family different from a community or culture? Could a family also be a community or culture?

As with writing about a culture, when writing about your family, it may help to read the work of other authors writing about coming of age experiences, especially under the lens of family. What marked their transition from childhood to adulthood in that context? Was it losing a member of the family? Or perhaps gaining a new one? Was it moving as a family? How did they recognize this transition?

It is also worth asking your own family members if they have observed any such transition for you. Or, if the transition was marked and announced (maybe your parents told you it was time for you to make your own money, or that you had to start taking care of your younger siblings), why did they decide upon that age? Had they planned it, or did they notice something in you that made them think you were ready? While you may not feel comfortable discussing your essay plans with them, asking them what they have noticed can provide important insight from someone who is close to you (whether just in proximity or also in feeling) and who has seen you change over more time than a teacher could.

When writing about your family, be aware of family dynamics and relationships that you know about and comprehend, but admissions officers might not understand. Imagine yourself from the perspective of an admissions officer reading hundreds of essays – they need more guidance than someone who knows you and your family. But, be careful not to spend the whole time explaining the dynamics of your family tree. If you need to explain a complicated relation, try writing it out several different times until you feel it is as clear and concise as possible, but still supports your essay. Strike a balance between illustrating your story and allowing room for reflection.

Next Step: The Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

In writing for the fifth prompt, it may also help you to consider the boundaries of childhood and adulthood. Because leaving for college marks, for many, the first real departure from home, parents, and the familiar, it is often tied up in understandings of childhood and adulthood, as we often associate children with their parents, while adults stand alone. How does the transition you have already experienced help you understand what college will mean for you? Show that you are thinking about how college will fit into your life – how it will be different from what you have known, but also how, because of the coming of age transition that you experienced, you are ready to handle this new, more independent experience.

Additionally, when you write your essay, make clear how you knew this transition occurred. While it may have been clear to you that a certain event or accomplishment marked a transition to adulthood in your community, culture, or family, it is not necessarily clear to the reader. Even if it is, it is important to expand and reflect upon what those seemingly-obvious events and signals stand for and why they are recognized as such. Show colleges that you reflect on your surroundings and your life – that you are ready for the next level of thinking.

Pick a Specific Moment or Accomplishment

When you have picked what type of group you are going to write about – culture, community, or family – and identified your coming-of-age transition, pick a specific moment or accomplishment to write about. It should be easily identified and distinct. That is, you should be able to summarize it in one or two sentences.

Starting with a single moment or accomplishment will allow you to move outwards, from specific moment to expanding on your culture, community, or family, to a reflection that answers the prompt. While you do not have to follow this order exactly, these are the three main components your essay will need (see the section “Streamlining Your Ideas” below) and starting with a small moment or detail will provide a lens to view the whole essay with.

How Does this Transition Prepare You for College?

Once you have a moment picked, answer how this transition prepares you for college. Because your ultimate goal is to get into college and because the admissions’ officers are ultimately trying to decide whether or not you will fit at their college, your essay should aim to illustrate how this transition prepared you for college, along with adulthood.

It is okay if your essay has elements that are sad. The reality is that transitions and change are often painful. Acknowledging this is reasonable and can show an honest approach to the prompt. But, be sure your essay is not overwhelmed by sadness, especially not self-pity. Make sure to end in an upbeat tone so that readers can see how you have learned and grown from this experience. Try to emphasize how this change, however bittersweet, equipped you to move forward onto the next big transition in your life: college.

Streamlining Your Ideas

When you have finished brainstorming, you should have a good idea of what you want your essay to be about. While it is up to you how you order and structure your essay, be sure you have intention behind all of the choices you make in your writing. For some, it may be helpful to write an outline, whether brief or detailed, beforehand to imagine the structure. For others, it may be easier to write the essay and then go back through to make sure the prompt is answered thoroughly and clearly.

No matter how your process flows, your essay should end up covering three things:

  1. A single moment or accomplishment that marked your transition or one of your transitions from child to adult, situated within your culture, community, or family.
  2. Your culture, community, or family and why and how that contributes to your identity as a child and adult.
  3. A reflection on the importance of this transition and a look toward your future in college.

If you structure your essay well and cover these three key elements, you should have answered the prompt thoroughly and clearly, one of the main objectives in writing a personal statement. From there, you can work to embellish with style, theme, and word choice. With hard work, you will have crafted a strong and well-written college essay!

Style, Theme, and Word Choice

Always be sure to define any words or traditions that your reader might not know, and never assume your reader knows what you are talking about. Stylistically, using words from another language adds a deeper level to your essay. It is interesting to the ear, breaking up the familiar flow of English, and shows special knowledge on your part. Be careful not to use too many foreign words – you do not want to appear to be showing off or distracting from your story, and you do not want to take up too much space defining terms. If there are many foreign words you would like to use, try to narrow down your list to a few distinct-sounding words that can be easily and clearly defined.

Additionally, be careful when toeing the line between reflective essay and creative writing. While you want to experiment with style and different storylines, you should keep in mind that you are writing to admissions officers and that your goal is to show how you are the best applicant for a college education.  Admissions officers are reading hundreds of essays each day, and do not have time to interpret the meaning of your essay if it is not immediately clear. When you are finished with your first draft, go back through and look to see that you have made some sort of point in favor of yourself. While it does not have to be stated explicitly, there should at least be an implicit thesis. Striking a balance between storytelling and reflection is critical.

Finally, use metaphors carefully. It is easy to get lost in a metaphor and use it as a crutch for your points. Before you use a metaphor, ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” and, “Will this provide clarity for my reader?” If you are planning to use an extended metaphor throughout the essay, consider, “Has this been done before?” If so, how can you do it better? How can you shine light on a seemingly-cliché subject and bring new life to it for the admissions officers. Through your writing choices, show that you are a unique candidate.

Dos and Don’ts

Do make sure that your essay is ultimately celebrating you. While your culture, community, or family are important parts of the story you’re telling, your essay should be designed to place your personality, experiences, and accomplishments in the context of that environment. It might help to go through with two different colored highlighters and highlight times you talked about yourself versus times you talked about others. Make sure the essay focuses on you, as you are the actual applicant they are considering.

Do not sell yourself short just because there is no official stamp or certificate to accompany your accomplishments in your transition to adulthood. Remember that traditional definitions of experience are not the only thing colleges are looking for. For example, while you might not be classically trained in music, you may play some piano and write songs with your friends, or you may be in charge of leading songs around the campfire at summer camp. Well-written essays on such topics can be just as effective as the story of the classically trained pianist.

Do relax: you don’t have to answer every question posed in this post. These questions are designed to help get you thinking about the message you want to send and how you are going to approach the prompt, but do not stress if you cannot answer them all in your essay. In fact, you probably cannot. Instead, focus on including only what is most important.

And, finally, do edit your essays. Editing is an essential part of the writing process and college essays can be tricky because they are unlike most of the writing typically taught in high school. For more help with mastering the style of the college essay, be sure to look into CollegeVine essay editing services, which offer the thorough and informative feedback needed to craft words into strong writing.

Still got questions? Want a second opinion on your essay? Fill out our free consultation form below and one of our admissions specialist will reach out to you with personalized assistance on your essay writing and admissions processes!


Submit Your Essay For Review


Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
Julia Mearsheimer