Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Common App Adds a Happiness Question, and Drops the Wrong One

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Common Application is doing record breaking work this year, and it isn’t using COVID as an excuse to rest on its laurels. CA announced its essay prompts for next year, and decided to make just a slight modification this time around, much to the relief of essay writing coaches everywhere. The one new 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?”

Common App says the prompt was added as a result of the input from school counselors and admission officers, “along with input from psychology and gratitude researchers.” It’s clear Common App has the current COVID culture in mind as part of their selection, as the announcement adds “An essay prompt can’t erase the loss and anxiety of the last 12 months, but it can validate the importance of gratitude and kindness. We hope students see the new prompt for what it is intended to be: an invitation to bring some joy into their application experience.”

It's certainly noble that the producers of the most used college application want to make sure applying to college is no less of a burden than it needs to be, but using joy as a rationale for adding this prompt is a little mystifying. This prompt is one of seven options students can choose from; if the goal is to make sure the process adds some joy to filling out a form, wouldn’t it be better to make this the only prompt? Will admissions committees assume a student has predominantly Eeyore-esque qualities if they select another prompt, one whose central theme may not be joy—particularly the highly used and often-tortured prompt where students are asked to relate a time they failed at something?

This logic especially falls into question when considering the prompt Common App got rid of to make room for this new entry, where students are asked to “Describe a problem you’d like to solve.” Common App says this prompt is not used very much, but this now-defunct prompt has the same potential for excitement and joy as the prompt replacing it. I know this, because I’ve worked with many engineering and science majors whose applications went to another level when they wrote about the projects they’d like to take on, and how they’d proposed to take it on. Talk about a prompt that is a guided tour of how big a thinker a student is.

Instead, any effort to try and infuse the college application process with more joy and gratitude would go a long way if it included giving the boot to the “failure” prompt. Each year, several counselors post to professional discussion lists about students who spend hours in counseling offices, asking their counselor if a particular failure is “big” enough to write about, as if the prompt were not a narrative but a competition. This same prompt also leads more students to write about athletics (a topic many admissions officers find difficult to be fresh with) or the dreaded essay that talks about the challenge of writing the essay itself, another topic that is tepidly received and rarely successful.

No one wants the college application process to produce anxiety, and the experience of writing about a time of gratitude or excitement will certainly go a long way to meet that goal. So would getting rid of a prompt where too many students feel compelled to out-Sturm-und-Drang their peers. That’s something to consider for next year.


  1. I love the new question, but I agree that they dropped the wrong one. I do believe there needs to be options, though. My concern about the new question being the ONLY question as you suggested is that, for some students, this could trigger even more anxiety. Students from traumatic backgrounds may have a great deal of difficulty writing about a time of joy or happiness in their life. Is it important to focus on these things? Yes, of course. But at age 17 or 18, if you've spent much of your life trying to just survive, focusing on joy and happiness is a Herculean task that may only happen after years of therapy.

  2. The essay process needs to be changed if universities and NACAC really want the "equity" they say they do. I am evangelizing for the proposal I sent to NACAC:
    Every student should be given a choice of just 1-2 prompts, differing by time zone and write the prompt at the same time in a school-proctored environment, with no private venues permitted. The unscored essays will then be sent directly to the universities the student names and can send additional as needed.

  3. As always, Patrick, I love your column! Keep up the good fight. I, too, love this new prompt, but agree that the wrong prompt was deleted, and also agree that there should be few choices for students.