Prompt 5: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

The trick to answering  Common Application Prompt 4 effectively is to, once again, access and celebrate the mundane. Less is more here, because a smaller scope will mean a more unique and honest look at life.

That means you need to trash any plans of writing about the day you:

  • helped win the football game.
  • presented your Eagle Scout project.
  • aced your piano recital.
  • got your first car.
  • were recognized as an outstanding delegate at Model U.N.
  • advanced to state for your DECA project.
  • went on a mission trip.

These stories, though perhaps cherished by you, are, unfortunately, not that unusual in the life of teenagers, and that means they are a dime a dozen in the stack of personal statements admissions officers read.

But, if you want to write about the day that you learned how to swim, after a decade of being terrified of the water, that’s better. Or maybe one day at the grocery store, you witnessed a stranger pay for a woman’s groceries after her card was declined. If so, write about that.

Other possibilities for Prompt 5? The day you were at the beach and you saw a man using a metal detector and he told you what he had been searching for for the past seven years. The days you mowed your neighbor’s lawn after his wife died. The day you attended your friend’s naturalization ceremony. The day you baked your first cake and you realized how much had gone into the from-scratch cakes your mom always made for you, even though you begged for Betty Crocker icing.

While choosing your subject for Prompt 5, try to conduct an originality test. Is the story or anecdote you’re about to tell something that could have happened to anyone? Or were the circumstances so unusual and/or raw and/or visceral that they were objectively special? Watch this scene from the movie American Beauty to remind yourself that no subject is too small if it changed something in you.

The ultimate goal of Prompt 5 is to demonstrate what you learned about yourself from this experience. Maybe it accessed and broadened a more charitable side of yourself. Maybe you realized that you were braver than you thought. Maybe both things happened. (For a list of traits, click here.) Either way, you understood more of what you were made of in that moment. And you weren’t the same afterward because of that realization.

The beginning of your Prompt 5 essay needs to be about that event or realization or accomplishment. The remainder of your essay needs to be about what you learned and what parts of you changed.

As you can tell, Prompt 5 calls for a lot of introspection; to do it well, you have to access the smallest parts of what shaped you. It’s not an easy task, but I truly think this Common Application prompt makes for some of the most beautiful and moving essays.

Head back here to read tips for other Common Application prompts.