College essays over the past year have reflected the turbulence of these Covid-19 times. In response to Covid-19 and in preparation for 2021-2022 applications, the Common Application, the largest college application platform for prospective undergraduates, has replaced one of its prompts with the following: “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?”
Common Application President & CEO Jenny Rickard shares in a press release about the new prompt, “Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”
Given the Common App’s emphasis on this new prompt and its investment in related research, I highly recommend that students consider answering this question when choosing a topic for their personal statement. Here are some tips for how to respond:
First, when brainstorming, choose a few stories or specific events that made you grateful this past year. You will want to choose one of these events to focus on in your final essay. The event you choose should involve a time you faced a challenge, were resourceful about finding a solution, and learned from the outcome. When you discuss this event, remember that admissions offices want to see a positive outcome you have been able to achieve in a difficult situation. Be careful not to overemphasize the negative aspects of the event. This prompt is designed to give voice to that positivity that you’ve been able to experience or generate even in these challenging times.
Another point that this prompt asks you to reflect on is something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. Happiness is subjective and subjectively experienced. If I were going to edit this prompt, I would take out the word “happy,” and I would just use the word “thankful.” “Gratitude” and “thankfulness” are synonyms.
Don’t focus too much on the word “happy” in this prompt because the word may divert you from finding the best story. You have experienced a lot of challenges in the past year. You may not have always been happy about changing your plans. But you have likely also experienced gratitude in unexpected ways. Maybe your story is similar to that of one of my students who was inspired to not only start but expand his journalism efforts globally to provide an inclusive platform for students to share their thoughts and feelings about current events. Or maybe you’re like another one of my students who fought the tragic California wildfires this past summer. While your life has been transformed by Covid-19, and you have likely experienced adversity, it is very possible that you have found purpose and meaning in these challenging times.
If you want to answer this prompt but you’re having trouble finding or expressing your gratitude, Here are a few exercises that may help you along the way:
Exercise 1 – Write a Gratitude Letter (Adapted from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley).
Call to mind someone who did something for you professionally for which you are exceptionally grateful. It may be most helpful to select a person or act that you haven’t thought about for awhile—something that isn’t always on your mind. Now, write an email to one of these people, guided by the following steps.
- Write approximately 300 words to this person (e.g. “Dear ______”). In your first draft, don’t worry about spelling and grammar.
- Articulate what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
- Finish the letter by describing what you are doing in your life as a result of your interaction with this person and note how frequently you think of the person.
- Check spelling and grammar before sending.
- Optional: Before you write your draft, ask the person for a coffee or lunch meeting to catch up (over Zoom).
Exercise 2 – Keep a Gratitude Journal
In preparation for your essay, write down one thing that happened each day that you’re grateful for. For example, “this morning, when I woke up, my puppy greeted me with a big hug, and I felt loved.” You only need to spend one to five minutes a day on this. If you don’t think you’ll have time to write every day, make sure to note your gratitude on the days that are especially tough.
Exercise 3 – Pause and Take a Relaxing Sigh
When you find yourself particularly overwhelmed, step away from your desk (or just close your eyes for 30 seconds). Take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out through your mouth. Repeat a short mantra to yourself as you’re breathing in and out, like, “I wish good health, peace, and happiness for myself.” You can use any phrase that moves you.
Self-care is of paramount importance during Covid-19. Research has shown that expressing gratitude helps us heal and gives us strength when we need it most. It can help you get into college too.