Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth

Tips and Strategies for an Essay on an Event that Led to Personal Growth

Teenage girl with laptop computer
For essay option #5, make sure you focus on an accomplishment or event that is significant.

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For the 2019-20 admissions cycle, the fifth essay option on the Common Application focuses on "personal growth":

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

We all have all had experiences that bring about growth and maturity, so essay option five will be a viable choice for all applicants. The big challenges with this essay prompt will be identifying the correct "accomplishment, event, or realization" and then making sure the discussion of your growth has enough depth and self-analysis to show that you are a strong and thoughtful college applicant. The tips below can help guide you as you tackle essay option five:

What Defines a "Period of Personal Growth"?

The heart of this essay prompt is the idea of "personal growth." It's a remarkably broad concept, and as a result this essay prompt gives you the freedom to talk about almost anything meaningful that has ever happened to you. Your job with this essay prompt is to identify a moment that is meaningful and that provides the admissions folks with a window into your interests and personality.

As you work to define an appropriate "period of personal growth," reflect on the last several years of your life. You shouldn't go back more than a few years since the admissions folks are trying to learn about who you are now and how you process and grow from the experiences in your life. A story from your early childhood won't accomplish this goal as well as a more recent event. As you reflect, try to identify moments that made you rethink your assumptions and worldview. Identify an event that has made you a more mature person who is now better prepared for the responsibilities and independence of college. These are the moments that can lead to an effective essay.

What Type of "Accomplishment, Event, or Realization" Is Best?

As you brainstorm ideas for this essay prompt, think broadly as you try to come up with a good choice for the "accomplishment, event, or realization." The best choices, of course, will be significant moments in your life. You want to introduce the admissions folks to something you value highly. Also keep in mind that these three words—accomplishment, event, realization—are interconnected. Both accomplishments and realizations stem from something that happened in your life; in other words, without some kind of event, you're unlikely to accomplish something meaningful or have a realization that leads to personal growth. 

We can still break down the three terms as we explore options for the essay, but keep in mind that your options include, but are not limited to:

  • An accomplishment:
    • You reach a goal that you have set for yourself such as earning a certain GPA or performing a difficult piece of music.
    • You do something independently for the first time such as preparing a meal for the family, flying across the country, or house-sitting for a neighbor.
    • You overcome or learn to appreciate a disability or handicap.
    • Working alone or with a team, you win an award or recognition (a gold medal in a music competition, a strong showing in Odyssey of the Mind, a successful fundraising campaign, etc.)
    • You successfully launch your own business (a lawn-mowing service, babysitting business, web company, etc.)
    • You successfully navigate or extricate yourself from a dangerous or challenging situation (an abusive family, a problematic peer group, etc.)
    • You do something challenging like winter camping, white-water kayaking, or running a marathon.
    • You complete a meaningful service project such as creating a public garden or helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity.
  • An event:
    • You pass a milestone in your life such as the first day of high school or your first time driving by yourself.
    • You have an interaction with someone (whether that be a friend, family member or stranger) that opens your awareness in a profound way.
    • You perform at an event such as a concert or competition in which your hard work and perseverance finally pay off.
    • You experience a traumatic event such as an accident or sudden loss that makes you reevaluate your behavior or beliefs.
    • You experience a moment of failure (much like option #2) that causes you to grapple with and grow from the experience.
    • You are moved by a world event that makes you reflect upon what you most value and what your role in the world might be.
  • A realization (most likely connected to an accomplishment and/or event):
    • You realize that you can accomplish something you hadn't thought possible.
    • You realize your limitations.
    • You realize that failure is as valuable as success.
    • You realize that your understanding of people who are different than you had been limited or faulty.
    • You experience something that makes you realize that you need to redefine your priorities.
    • You realize that relying on the help of others isn't a failure.
    • You come to understand how much a parent or mentor has to teach you.

Personal Growth Can Stem From Failure

Keep in mind that the "accomplishment, event, or realization" doesn't have to be a triumphant moment in your life. An accomplishment can be learning to deal with setbacks or failure, and the event could be a losing game or an embarrassing solo in which you missed that high C. Part of maturing is learning to accept our own shortcomings, and recognizing that failure is both inevitable and an opportunity to learn.

Most Important of All: "Discuss"

When you "discuss" your event or accomplishment, make sure you push yourself to think analytically. Don't spend too much time merely describing and summarizing the event or accomplishment. A strong essay needs to show off your ability to explore the significance of the event you have chosen. You need to look inward and analyze how and why the event caused you to grow and mature. When the prompt mentions "a new understanding," it is telling you that this is an exercise in self-reflection. If the essay doesn't reveal some solid self-analysis, then you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

A Final Note for Common Application Option #5

Try to step back from your essay and ask yourself exactly what information it conveys to your reader. What will your reader learn about you? Does the essay succeed in revealing something that you care about deeply? Does it get at a central aspect of your personality? Remember, the application is asking for an essay because the college has holistic admissions—the school is evaluating you as a whole person, not as a bunch of test scores and grades. They essay, then, needs to paint a portrait of an applicant the school will want to invite to join the campus community. In your essay, do you come across as an intelligent, thoughtful person who will contribute to the community in a meaningful and positive way?

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. These 5 tips for a winning essay can also help guide you.

Finally, realize that many topics fit under multiple options on the Common Application. For example, option #3 asks about questioning or challenging a belief or idea. This can certainly connect with the idea of a "realization" in option #5. Also, option #2 on encountering obstacles could also overlap with some of the possibilities for option #5. Don't worry too much about which option is best if your topic fits in multiple places. Most important is that you write an effective and engaging essay. Be sure to check out this article for tips and samples for each of the Common Application essay options.

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Grove, Allen. "Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).