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Great College Essay Advice for the Common App – The Personal Growth Prompt

man looking at papers of applicant

All the essay prompts for the Common Application ask you to provide evidence of your personal growth, in some ways.  This prompt, however, makes this request more explicit.  Here you are asked to look at your circumstances, point of view, and personal understanding, and then provide evidence on how these things might have changed due to some accomplishment, event, or realization.  Then you go on to reflect on these changes

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

Personal Growth and Understanding

As we grow older, we find that in some situations we feel—or are treated—as children, while in other situations we feel more like adults. Sometimes this transition is subtle. As in how other adults begin to treat you with greater seriousness. Like in restaurants, at the post office, and in other public places. Sometimes, however, this transition can seem more abrupt, as in the day you get your driver’s license or register to vote for the first time. Religion often marks this transition (first communions, bar mitzvahs), as do particular cultures (quinceañeras, debutante balls).

This prompt asks you to more closely examine your own transition from childhood to adulthood. Granted, for all of us, this transition is slow and gradual (and frankly, sometimes even we are not sure we have completely transitioned to adulthood!). But no matter our age, religion, or culture, this transition is marked by some memorable stories. Stories that you are being asked to share with your readers.

Accomplishments or Events

The transition to adulthood is marked by both accomplishments and events. An accomplishment is something that you achieved through hard work. An event, on the other hand, is a happening in which you may have been more passive. But nonetheless marks a very important milestone in your life. Some of these accomplishments and events are formal (e.g., learning Hebrew and reciting the Torah before your congregation in a ceremony before your friends and family).

Some of these accomplishments and events are informal (e.g., you finally look old enough that when you enter a restaurant with your parents, the hostess no longer gives you the kiddie menu). College admissions folks do not care so much about the exact nature of these accomplishments or events. Rather they care about how you tell an interesting story about your transition to adulthood.

Real Life Events

Unlike an accomplishment or event, a realization can have no outward manifestation that others can see or experience. You may, instead, experience some sort of internal “Aha!” moment. Your understanding changes. You see yourself—or others—in a completely new light. Perhaps you shared this realization with others, or perhaps it is one that is intensely private. But the change or transition is real, because it leads to a new and different understanding of yourself and the world around you.


At first glance, this prompt doesn’t seem to have a story at the heart of it. However, the focus is on a transition, which implies a description of “before” and “after” this event, accomplishment, or realization. So you should retell the story briefly to help your reader understand the transition. As with the other prompts, you should then go on to put this event, accomplishment, or realization into a larger context. You need to interpret this story for your reader through analysis and synthesis. By focusing your “discussion” of what happened after this event, accomplishment, or realization, you can give your reader a sense of your increasing maturity and your priorities, values, and personality.
Need some help with your college application essay?  Whether you’re aiming for the Ivy League or just want to look your best when applying to the school of your dreams, our expert advisors can help you brainstorm, structure, and edit a fantastic application essay.  Give us a call.
Mark Montgomery
Educational consultant and admissions expert



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