Common App #4 Is New and Gratitude Never Gets Old
With the addition of the new Common App Prompt #4, students are encouraged to find something positive in their lives they can reflect on– and this is a good thing.
The prompt 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?”
The Common App website even links to Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab where you can learn more about why science is giving a big thumbs up to gratitude and kindness practices. But just because it’s certified as good for you, doesn’t mean it necessarily leads to good writing. This is where a little guidance and some examples can go a long way.
[Stick with me until the end of this post for a Ross Gay poem to help you find new SURPRISING angles on gratitude. His delight is contagious and free, worth the price of your attention.]
Tips and Tricks for Common App Prompt #4
There are a couple of things to keep in mind if you choose to respond to Common App prompt #4:
- SENTIMENTALITY–NAH: Don’t go full sentimental or saccharine as your dominant note when you’re writing about something that makes you grateful or happy. Sentimentality is fairly predictable. It also usually glosses over aspects of the fuller reality of a person or situation. Try to allow for complexity, contrast, or conflict that better approximates real life. For example, I had the sweetest grandmother, and I loved when I got sick while visiting her house: she fed me Campbell chicken noodle soup from the can (with allllll the sodium) and unlimited saltines (with allllll the sodium), and her thin hands were infinitely comforting. But she was also a nervous wreck, literally, and would often abruptly leave company to go lie down. As a child, that was confusing: had I caused it? (No. But to the child, the world emanates from them). I could go off all day about the sentimental pleasures of her convalescent recipes, but I would not really be capturing her if I didn’t include some of the difficulties.
- LESSON WITHOUT LEAPING: Earn your lesson (Here: how it affected or motivated you–and why). Often, students tell a very good story in their essay, and one that merits the silver lining they eventually found. However, sometimes writers jump to their conclusions. Wheeeee! THUNK. Slow the process down a little for us so we don’t get whiplash! The reader needs to be able to follow the steps of your thinking that got you–and us– to your lesson. Your reflection should show that it took some time or perspective shifts to arrive at your “so what?” For example, my grandma’s care-taking and leave-taking in combination taught me that I can be grateful not just for her sweetness, but the mental health challenges she figured out how to cope with. I am pretty fluent in mental health, but my grandma didn’t have a therapist, an affirming friend group or, to my knowledge, a diagnosis. From her I learned that even without those things, you figure out what you can to take care of a disregulated nervous system (and she had 7 kids…don’t get me started).
- BE HOLISTICALLY POSITIVE: Common App Prompt #4 is not the ONLY place to focus on the positive. You want to include positive notes in any essay and throughout your written portion of the application, no matter which prompt you choose. Despite really difficult life circumstances, most students–or the ones who stand out– manage to find something life-affirming that helps them move forward. Consider this solid advice for your strategy. For example, I can address my grandmother’s legacy in a way that is complaining or pitying, but why? I am not sure anyone wants to fill their college community with writers whose default is complaining or pitying. So in the editing phase, you want to get sensitive to the impression you’re making. Aim to be someone your reader would want to be in the room with, while not shying away from your truth.
What Can I Be Grateful FOR in Common App Prompt #4? Gratitude beyond platitudes!
Not sure all the things one could be grateful for? Here’s an example: the EM CEE of gratitude, Ross Gay, with a litany, “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”. If you’re considering responding to Common App prompt #4 (or just want to read some great poetry), check it out. He’s a great guide to help us dig beyond the obvious sources of gratitude in your own life.
Consider doing one of the following writing exercises after reading “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” (after you get over the fantastic title). Write for your chosen amount of time, until the timer goes off. Don’t stop the whole time. Reflect on what you’ve written after to see if it contained any insights into your gratitude or sources of happiness:
- Take two lines from Gay’s poem, and freewrite for 5 minutes with those as your opening lines. You can respond in poetry or prose. Allow your language to be loose, associative and specific.
- Choose any five lines of his poem. Delete all the nouns. Replace them with nouns relevant to your own story or life (and make any other minor revisions for ‘sense’). Then, freewrite with your replacement poem as your opening lines. You can respond in poetry or prose. Allow your language to be loose, associative and specific.
Look how Gay’s writing moves so seamlessly between so much: