Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place

Tips and Strategies for an Essay on a Meaningful Place or Environment

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Writing an essay about a place. Hero Images / Getty Images

Note that this essay option was dropped from the Common Application in the 2015-16 admissions cycle. This does not mean that applicants can not write about a meaningful place with the current Common Application. The "topic of your choice" option allows you to write about anything, and it's also possible that an essay on your background or identity could focus on a meaningful place or environment.

The fourth essay option for the 2013 and 2014 Common Application asked applicants to discuss a place or environment that is meaningful to them:

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Except for the rare student who isn't content anywhere, this question will be a viable option for a wide range of applicants. Nearly everyone can identify a location that brings contentedness. But this doesn't mean the prompt isn't challenging. Applicants who choose this option will need to make sure they are presenting their chosen location effectively. The tips below can help:

Choosing a "Place or Environment"

Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with "a place or environment where you are perfectly content." You have a lot of latitude here--you can write about any specific location on the globe ("a place"), or you can be less focused and discuss the type of surroundings ("environment") that brings you contentedness. The place can be small or large, inside or outside, commonplace or extraordinary. You could also bend the question to explore imagined places--locations accessible only through your imagination.

As you brainstorm this essay prompt, think broadly about the place or environment you are going to discuss. Your options include:

  • A building: Your house, church, school, tree fort, or grandma's home. A store, movie theater, café, restaurant, fitness club...
  • An interior space: your bedroom, the secret room under the stairs, your science classroom, the locker room, your aunt's kitchen, the shower, the driver's seat of your favorite car...
  • An exterior space: the woods, the ocean, the lake, a city street, a rooftop, a meadow in bloom, the dessert at night...
  • A travel destination: Machu Picchu, the San Diego Zoo, the top of Mount Washington, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a food market in Shanghai, a tent in the Bad Lands...
  • A performance or athletic venue: the stage of a concert hall, a tennis court, the football field, the shoulder of the road on a bike, the theater...
  • An imagined place: the world portrayed in a painting, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, Diagon Alley, the Star Ship Enterprise, Jane Austen's England, Downton Abbey...

The list could be much, much longer, and please don't let these limited suggestions steer you away from your own place of contentedness.

What Does "Perfectly Content" Mean?

Many students have interpreted this question to be asking about a place where they are at peace. Indeed, that is one way to read the question, and being in a peaceful state is one type of content state.

But the word "content" can mean much more than a state of peacefulness. It is also a state of satisfaction, and you don't need to be peaceful to be satisfied. An adrenaline junkie might be most content when skydiving, and a musician might be most content when performing a solo to a standing-room-only crowd. These high-pressure situations can be magical, meaningful and "content" moments, but they are not peaceful.

Be Careful When You "Describe"

Always keep in mind that the essay is a place for you to tell the admissions folks more about yourself, and for you to demonstrate that you are well prepared for college. The first task asked of you in prompt #4 -- "Describe a place or environment" -- is also the least challenging part of the question. Describing, unlike analyzing, is a pretty low-level form of thinking. This part of the essay has no self-analysis or introspection, so it is not saying much about you, your passions, or how well your mind works. Because of this, don't spend too many of your 650 words describing. Be clear, concise, and engaging as you describe the place you have chosen, but then move on. The description should not be the bulk of your essay.

The "What" and the "Why"

The end of the prompt is most important. The question is asking you why you feel and act the way you do in your special place. Why is this place or environment meaningful to you? Dig deep. A shallow response isn't going to impress anyone. The student who writes "I'm most content on the soccer field because I've always loved soccer" hasn't really answered the question. Why do you love soccer? Are you a competitive person? Do you like the teamwork? Does soccer help you escape from other parts of your life? Does it make you a better person? How has your time on the soccer field made you grow? What exactly makes the soccer field so full of meaning for you?

A Final Word About an Essay on a Meaningful Place

If you really explore the "why" of this question and go easy on the describing, your essay will be on track to succeed. It might help to rethink prompt #4 in these terms: "Tell us about a place that is meaningful to you so that we can get to know you better." The college is asking for an essay because it has holistic admissions, and the admissions officers really do want to get to know you as an individual. The essay is one of the only places on your application (aside from an interview) where you can put forth your personality, interests, and passions.

Whatever you focus on in your application essay—whether it be a place, a person, or an event—the essay needs to be about you at its core. To test out your essay, give it to an acquaintance or teacher who doesn't know you particularly well, and ask what that person learned about you from reading the essay. Ideally, the response will be exactly what you want the college to learn about you.

Last of all, no matter which essay prompt you choose, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is first and foremost about you, but it also needs to demonstrate a strong writing ability.

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Grove, Allen. "Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).