written by
Julia Riew

The New 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompt

Admissions Tips Advisor Tips 4 min read
Photographer: Vasily Koloda | Source: Unsplash

In this article, College Advisor Julia discusses the new Common App essay prompt. For more guidance on your personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


If you are planning on applying to college, you likely know that most colleges require applicants to submit a personal essay in response to one of seven prompts provided by CommonApp.org.

On February 16th, 2021, CommonApp.org published the Common App Essay Prompts for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle with one notable change. Common App changes tend to be relatively limited from year to year; generally, students in each admissions cycle are provided with same 6 topics in addition to one topic of choice for their personal essay submission.

Read on to find out how the 2021-2022 Common App changes might affect your college applications and how you can best take advantage of the new prompt on your Common App essay.

The New Common App Essay Prompt

This year’s prompts are listed below, with the new prompt in bold:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Prompt #4 is the only prompt that has changed during the 2021-2022 admissions cycle.

The previous Common App essay prompt #4:

“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”

The new Common App essay prompt #4 for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle:

“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?”

Why is there a new Common App prompt?

Note the distinct change in tone to this prompt—while the previous prompt asked students to consider a dilemma or challenge, this year’s prompt foregrounds happiness and gratitude. After a long year of challenges including (but not limited to) the COVID-19 pandemic, this question prompts students to reflect positively on the people in their lives.

According to CommonApp.org, prompt #4 was “inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives.” The organization describes the new prompt as “an invitation to bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”

CommonApp.org also quotes Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard on the decision to add a new essay prompt, stating, “Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”

Why is the new Common App essay prompt important? How can this help me and my college application?

In your Common Application profile, you will fill out an activities/honors sheet, write and submit supplemental essays, manage your letter recommendations, and more. The CommonApp plays a huge role in your college admissions process, so it’s important to understand it inside and out. This includes any changes that are made to the essay prompts.

This new Common App essay prompt has never been seen before by Admissions Officers. If you choose to write on this topic, your essay can present a fresh outlook that they may not have previously encountered.

This new prompt also gives you the opportunity to showcase your gratitude, your interactions with others, and your growth. These traits will help Admissions Officers consider how you will contribute to their college communities.

So, should I write on this prompt? What should I write about?

If you’d like to discuss this how to approach this essay prompt (or any of the Common App essay prompts) with a college admissions expert, consider working with a personal advisor at CollegeAdvisor.com. A mentor can work with you one-on-one to ensure that your application stands out to the Admissions Officers and can answer any questions that you have regarding the Common App.

The Admissions Experts at CollegeAdvisor.com understand that the CommonApp website can be tricky to navigate, especially if you’re the first in your family or peer group to apply to college. Our team of over 100 advisors includes recent graduates and current college students from schools across the nation—including top Ivy League universities—so we know first-hand how the college process works as well as how any changes to this process can affect your application.


This article was written by Julia Riew, Harvard University ‘22. If you want to get help with your college applications from Julia or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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