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How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompt #4

In this article, college admissions counselor Jason Katz will share his insights on the Common App Essay prompt #4, which was updated in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. 

Quick Read

    • The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 900 universities, includes the Ivy Leagues, the NESCAC, and the Claremont Colleges. It helps streamline the essential college application during the college admissions process for first-year and transfer students. 
    • While most of the seven Common App essay prompts remain unchanged in the past few years, this year one of the prompts is eliminated in favor of a new prompt.
    • Prompt #4 is about gratitude.


A Note on Gratitude from Harvard Health

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

The New Common App Essay Prompt (aka Prompt #4)


The Common App essay prompts were recently updated and there is one big change—one of the past prompts has been eliminated in favor of a new prompt.  There are still seven prompts that college applicants can choose from, however, the prompt about solving a problem, which is not used very often according to the Common App, is no longer available and has been replaced with the following prompt about gratitude:


Common App 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?”


So, how do you write an essay responding to this new prompt?  There are a couple of steps you can follow.


 1. The Common App is not trying to trick you with this prompt (or any of its prompts for that matter). So, take some time to think about a time when someone did something for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way.  It doesn’t have to be a major life-changing event.  It could be something as simple as you were feeling anxious before an oral presentation at school and one of your classmates went out of their way to comfort you, told you to take a deep breath, and that you’re going to do an awesome job on the presentation.  This short interaction with your classmate lessened your anxiety and you did in fact go on to do a great job on your presentation.


 2. Now this is the most important part—REFLECTION. What did you learn about yourself as a result of this interaction with your classmate and how has this gratitude affected or motivated you?  Perhaps you were feeling a bit pessimistic about people in general, and teenagers in particular, but this interaction with your classmate helped to renew your faith in humanity.  And perhaps the gratitude you felt as a result of your classmate’s actions towards you has motivated you to seek out others at your school who might be struggling and go out of your way to help them.


This is an overly simplistic example, but I think you get the point.  As with all the Common App essays, the colleges you are applying to simply want to get to know you better, see that you are a good writer and that you have the ability to be introspective and reflect on your life.  As an added bonus, like the quote from Harvard Health at the beginning of this post states, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”  So, by writing an essay responding to the newest Common App prompt, not only will you be getting one of your college application essays done, but you may even become happier as a result of writing about your gratitude.


If you have any questions about the newest Common App essay prompt (or any of the Common App essay prompts), reach out to your Insight counselor or schedule your 1-hour college planning session today.


All of the Common App Essay Prompts

The word limit on the essay is 650.


Prompt #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.


Prompt #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?


Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?


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?


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


Prompt #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?


Prompt #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.



Written by Jason Katz

This article was written by Insight Counselor Jason Katz.

Jason has helped hundreds of students gain admission to their best-fit universities. In addition, he wrote more than 170 college admissions/college life columns for the Palo Alto Daily News and the San Jose Mercury News. Read his full bio here.

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