Common Application Essay Option 5 - Transition to Adulthood

Tips and Strategies for an Essay on a Meaningful Accomplishment or Event

Transition from Childhood to Adulthood
Transition from Childhood to Adulthood. Esthermm / Getty Images

Common Application Essays: Overview | Option #1 (Your Story) | Option #2 (Failure) | Option #3 (Challenge a Belief) | Option #4 (Solving a Problem) | Option #5 (Accomplishment or Event)

The fifth essay option on CA4, the new version of the Common Application launched in 2013, asks you to discuss an accomplishment or event that played a significant role in your transition from childhood to adulthood:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

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

What defines a "transition from childhood to adulthood"?:

I find this part of the essay prompt a bit problematic because it suggests that we all cross a clear line with childhood on one side and adulthood on the other. The idea that a single event can make us adults is, in my mind, simplistic at best.

Very few adults would point to a single moment of epiphany when, all of a sudden, they became adults. Maturity and adulthood come about over years, through hundreds of learning experiences.

Many adults would also argue that a 17- or 18-year-old applying to college is not yet an adult, or that a lot of maturing still occurs between being a "young adult" and an older adult.

Fair enough, but if we put ourselves in the position of a college admissions officer, I think we can see that the label "adult" is an important one. Are you done growing and maturing? Of course not. If you were, why bother going to college at all. However, by applying to college you are telling the admissions officers that you are ready for the next stage in your life. You are prepared to take responsibility for your own actions, live away from home, manage your own time, and make the proper decisions to succeed in your endeavors. You're suggesting that you will be respectful of others, you'll work to negotiate differences with roommates and classmates, and that you will be a contributing member of a campus community. In short, your essay for option five needs to reveal the type of personal growth that suggests you're ready for the next, more independent stage of your life.

If, like me, you have some problems with the wording of this essay prompt, try thinking about the question with slightly different language. The question becomes more realistic and manageable if posed in these terms: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marks a moment of significant personal growth within your culture, community, or family." You're not done growing (nor am I), but you certainly have had moments of significant growth.

What type of "accomplishment or event" 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 or event." The best choices, of course, will be significant moments in your life. You want to introduce the admissions folks to something you value highly. 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.

    How can "culture" fit into this essay prompt?:

    The Common Application used to have a question about diversity, and the mention of "culture" in prompt number five gives you an opportunity to talk about diversity in the new Common Application. How does your culture define the transition to adulthood? What developmental milestones does your culture emphasize? Because of the mention of "culture" in this prompt, you should feel free to connect the "accomplishment or event" to a context that is specific to your cultural heritage. A racial, religious or social group to which you belong can be worked into this essay option if you choose to approach the question through that lens.

    What about "community" and "family"?:

    The end of prompt number five -- "within your culture, community, or family" -- is simply a recognition that "adulthood" is a social construct. In other words, you don't become an adult in isolation. The definition of "child" and "adult" is set by a group to which you belong -- your family, community, or culture. You become an adult when the people who surround you recognize your actions and behavior as adult-like. Different groups will define adulthood differently. Your essay, then, will need to set the terms for how your specific social or cultural group defines adulthood.

    Do you become an adult when you hunt and gut your first caribou, or are you an adult when your parents no longer need to schlep you to soccer practice? You don't need to spend a lot of space explaining how your family or community defines "adult" (but you can if this context has significant importance to your essay), but your essay should at least briefly explain what it means to be an "adult" within your unique context.

    What does "formal or informal" mean?:

    The question is not asking whether or not you were dressed for the prom, so don't feel the need to talk about tuxedos or jeans. Rather, the prompt is suggesting that the "achievement or event" can be something specific such as a solo competition, an achievement award, a 50-mile trek, or football game, or it can be something that is more personal and self-defined such as an effort to get over a fear of heights or a goal of giving up Facebook for a month.

    Personal growth can stem from failure:

    Keep in mind that the "accomplishment or event" 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 becoming an adult 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. If the essay doesn't reveal some solid self-analysis, then you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

    A final note:

    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?

    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.