Common Application Prompt 4: “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?

If ever there were a prompt that breaks down into two neat parts, it’s Prompt 4. You are invited to:

  1. share a story; and
  2. share insight about that story.

You’ll actually find that most Common App prompts break down this way, but Prompt 4 has a special twist because it focuses on happiness (as opposed to challenges/obstacles).

The great thing about happiness (other than the obvious) is, when it comes to mining your memories for something to write about, you’ll find that your extreme emotions tend to rise to the surface most quickly. So if you’re trying to think about the worst day of your life, it probably doesn’t take you long to pinpoint it. Likewise if you’re trying to think of the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you, the memory will probably fly up out of your memory bank and, what’s more, you’ll find it intact and full of details.

Those details are going to make or break how much you make a connection with your reader in Prompt 4. As you share the story about this thing someone has done for you, I really want you to sink us into a specific scene by telling us about all that was happening to your senses at the time. What did you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste (if it applies)? Know that no detail is too small. In fact, the smaller the detail, often the more relatable for your reader.

As usual with personal statements, remember that the goal is to share something, well, personal, not necessarily something packed with a whole Dan Brown novel’s worth of drama. So if the something that someone did for you is small but meaningful to you, that’s OK. It’s the meaning that matters the most.

When I thought about this prompt for myself (and I love that they’re having you focus on gratitude — once you’re in college and managing its stresses, keeping a gratitude journal is one way to keep a tight perspective on things), I realized that I’ve actually already answered a version of Prompt 4 in one of my weekly columns. You can take a look at it here.

After I set up my story, you’ll see I then share my insight about that story. You’ll need to do the same by considering these questions: What did you learn about yourself? About that person? About life in general? And, most importantly, how were you changed? Answering these questions are essential because they let your reader into your mind and roam around in its depths.

If you look at my column, you’ll see that I started to share this insight with this paragraph: “I have thought and talked about this offering a lot over the past few weeks and it’s made me come to a few conclusions. First, fellow foodies are amazing. But second, I think I’m finally starting to understand rural living a bit better.”

The rest of the column is expanding more upon the insight I’ve gained. As for opening story vs. insight content, I would spend about half of your 650 words establishing your story and, yes, half sharing your insight. I know that might sound like a lot, but, again, this gives your reader access into your introspection and your mind, and, in the end, that’s the whole goal of a personal statement.

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