Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude

Tips and Strategies for the 2021-22 Common App

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One major change to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle is the addition of a new essay prompt. Option #4 now reads, "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?"

This new prompt replaces the earlier question about solving a problem: "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 that is 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." Keep in mind that colleges and universities still want to learn about students interested in solving significant problems, and you still have the "Topic of Your Choice" option if you feel your essay would fit well under the former option #4.

According to Common App, the new prompt serves a couple purposes. First, it replaces a prompt that wasn't very popular among college applicants. More importantly, it gives applicants the opportunity to write about something positive at a difficult time in world history. Rather than write about significant problems, challenges, and anxieties, the new prompt #4 invites you to share something heartfelt and uplifting.

The Importance of Gratitude and Kindness

During the college application process, it's easy and tempting to focus entirely on your personal accomplishments: good grades, challenging AP courses, leadership experiences, athletic ability, musical talent, and so on. Even community service can sometimes come across as focused on your self—hours spent to bolster your application credentials.

Gratitude, however, is a largely selfless feeling. It's about your appreciation for someone else. It's recognizing that your growth and success wouldn't be possible without others. When you express gratitude, you aren't saying "look at me!" Rather, you are appreciating those who have helped you become you.

The folks at Common App have expressed that the new prompt allows students to write about something positive. This is true, but the prompt serves a bigger purpose in the admissions selection process. Highly selective schools end up rejecting thousands of well-qualified applicants, and those decisions will often come down to questions of character rather than GPA and SAT scores.

Think of it this way: when a college is choosing between two students who are academically strong and impressive on the extracurricular front, they will choose the student who seems to be the most kind and generous. Admissions officers are building a campus community with their admissions decisions, and they want to create a community filled with students who appreciate others, build each other up, and recognize the contributions of peers, staff, and professors. They want to admit students who will be kind roommates, collaborative lab partners, and supportive team members.

Chris Peterson, an assistant director of admissions at MIT, wrote a blog post in which he identified three essential qualities for getting into one of the world's most selective schools: do well in school, pursue your passion, and be nice. He notes that this last quality "cannot be overstated." MIT is not a Common Application member, but the point applies perfectly to the value of prompt #4. A winning essay doesn't say "me, me, me!" It shows that you are not only an accomplished person, but also someone who knows how to say "thank you."

Breaking Down the Essay Prompt

Before crafting your essay on prompt #4, it's essential to understand everything that the prompt is asking you to do as well as what it is not asking. The prompt is just 28 words long:

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?

The prompt has several important elements to consider.


The very first word in the prompt is one of the most significant. "Reflect" means much more than "write about" or "describe." When you reflect on something, you look inward and reveal self-awareness. You employ critical thinking skills to explain why something is important. Reflection is an act of self-discovery as you examine what you have learned and why it was meaningful.

Here's a quick example:

Unreflective writing: Coach Strauss always taught the team the value of hard work. We practiced hours every day regardless of the weather. The coach's strategy paid off when we won the state championship. The effort we put in wasn't always enjoyable, but the team's success showed that the path to success requires sacrifices.

Reflective writing: I used to resent those miserable and seemingly endless soccer practices in the rain or even snow. Looking back, I now recognize the value of what Coach Strauss was teaching the team. To succeed, we need to work through small obstacles. We need to persevere even when motivation is hard to find. We need to recognize that we always have room for improvement, and we need to support each other as we work towards that goal. I can now see that her lessons were about much more than soccer, and thanks to her I am not just a better athlete, but a better student, peer, sister, and community member.

The first example describes the writer's soccer experience. Nothing in the passage looks inward to analyze the importance of Coach Strauss to the writer's personal awareness and development. The second passage succeeds on this front—it expresses gratitude for Coach Strauss and the way that her lessons helped the writer grow.

"Something" and "Someone"

A nice feature of the Common Application is that all of the essay prompts are designed to give you a lot of latitude in how you respond. The words "something" and "someone" in the new prompt #4 are deliberately vague. You can write about anyone and anything. Possible choices for the person you focus on include

  • A teacher who helped you realize your potential or see the world in a new way.
  • A coach who taught you valuable skills.
  • A family member whose support, love, or guidance helped you become the person you are today.
  • A peer who was always there for you in challenging times.
  • A student you mentored or tutored who ended up teaching you something valuable in the process.
  • A member of your church or community who had a meaningful and positive impact on your life.

The wording of the prompt implies that the "someone" is a living person, so you'll want to avoid writing about an author, God, a pet, or a historical figure (but feel free to use prompt #7 for these topics).

As you think about the "something" that the person did for you, make sure it is meaningful. It needs to be something that has changed you in a positive way.


When the prompt states that you should write about something that has made you "happy or thankful in a surprising way," don't get too hung up on that word "surprising." This doesn't mean that you need to be shocked or overwhelmed by whatever it is that a person did for you. Don't think of the term "surprising" as something that made you speechless and caused an adrenalin rush. It does not need to be something earth-shattering or even unusual. Rather, the "surprise" can simply be something that expanded your world view, made you think about something you hadn't considered before, or caused you to appreciate something new. Some of the best essays focus on something small or subtle that changed you in a meaningful way.


The essay's focus on "gratitude" and thankfulness means that you absolutely must show appreciation for someone other than yourself. One main purpose of this essay, in fact, is to show that you recognize the contributions that others have made to your personal journey. Be generous. Be kind. Show that you value the people who have made you into the person you are.

"Affected" and "Motivated"

Here's the tricky part. Essay #4 is all about recognizing someone else and showing gratitude for the way in which that person has enriched your life. That said, every college application essay needs to be about you. The admissions folks aren't really interested in learning about someone else. They are interested in learning about the student they are considering for admission.

This means you have a careful balancing act to perform with essay option #4. You need to write about the person who contributed to your life in a meaningful and surprising way, but you also need to be introspective and present why that person was so important to you. What did you learn from the person? How did you grow? How did that person change your world view, strengthen your convictions, help you overcome an obstacle, or give you a new sense of direction?

When you answer questions like these, you are writing about yourself. The true goal of this essay is to show that you are a grateful, kind, thoughtful, introspective, and generous person. The focus isn't so much on the person you are writing about, but your ability to cherish that person.

Avoid These Mistakes

You can write about anyone who was important to you, and your gratitude can be for something large or small as long as it affected you in a meaningful way. There are, however, several mistakes you want to avoid when responding to the prompt:

Don't display ego. Prompt #4 is about acknowledging the important contributions others have made to your life, so a boastful or egotistical tone will be entirely out of place. If at its heart your essay says "Coach Strauss helped make me into the award-winning national champion I am today," you've missed the mark.

Do more than describe. Make sure you "reflect" and explore how the person "affected" and "motivated" you. A winning essay needs to be thoughtful and introspective. If you spend the entire essay describing the person who has made you grateful, the admissions folks won't get to know you better and your essay won't have done its job.

Don't be clever with the "someone." Write about a real living human being who has enriched your life in a direct way. Don't write about yourself, God, Abe Lincoln, or Harry Potter. You also don't want to write about a sports idol or musician—while they may have influenced you, they didn't actually do something specifically "for you."

Attend to the Writing

Never forget that your Common Application serves not just to help the admissions folks get to know you, but also to show that you are a capable writer. No matter what your major is, a significant part of your college GPA is going to stem from writing. Successful college students can write clear, engaging, error-free prose. You'll want to pay careful attention to your essay's style, tone, and mechanics. At a highly selective university with more qualified applicants than can be admitted, the difference between an acceptance and rejection can come down to some glaring grammatical errors in the essay.

If you aren't confident in your writing ability, seek help. Have multiple people read your essay. Get feedback from parents and peers, Even more valuable will probably be feedback from your high school counselor and English teacher, for they have more experience with personal essays.

A Final Note for Common Application Option #4

This essay prompt can be approached is so many different ways, but at its heart, the essay needs to accomplish one thing: it needs to show that you are the type of person the college wants to join their campus community. Make sure you come across as someone who is kind, generous, and thoughtful. Show that you care about good writing by crafting an engaging essay that is free of any significant errors. Finally, don't be afraid to let your personality shine. Don't hold back (within reason) if you are a quirky or humorous person. The essay needs to sound like you.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude." ThoughtCo, Jun. 2, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, June 2). Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).