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Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Amidst the pandemic-related challenges, elevated levels of teen anxiety and depression, and ruthless racial attacks, the College Board has decided to provide a glimmer of hope and joy to our overwhelmed students. After nearly five years of making tiny, cosmetic changes to the standard common app essay prompts, they recently announced a new essay prompt: ‘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?’

This prompt replaces the old ‘Describe a problem that you have solved’ prompt and its objective is to encourage students to focus on the positivity and reflect on the goodness in their lives. The new prompt aims to draw out students who through their kindness, generosity and gratitude will be an asset to their college community. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”. While intelligence may be demonstrated through grades and test scores, this essay seeks to explore the character piece of the equation. Ultimately, colleges want to attract students who are not only strong academically, but those who will look out for each other and be successful and thrive collectively.

So high schoolers, how should you approach this essay? Take the time to reflect on how you show up in the world. For example, have you ever been a situation where:

  • A sibling picked up an extra chore on your behalf?

  • A friend dropped by unannounced to take you out for a walk when you were feeling low?

  • A teacher went out of their way to mentor you and give you the courage to pursue your dreams?

  • A neighbor baked fresh banana bread and dropped it off for you to enjoy?

  • A classmate spoke up to support you?

Remember, the buck doesn’t stop here. Colleges are also interested in learning about how the student continued to take this forward. How did they reciprocate the kindness? The gesture does not need to be big and flamboyant. But it needs to be genuine, heartfelt and important to the student. In a test-optional world where SAT subject tests have also been discontinued, a student’s character and his impact on those around him are going to be heavily weighed in the college admissions process.

A ‘Happiness’ conference I attended in Singapore six years ago recommended to acknowledge 3 things that we are grateful for over a period of 21 days. They argued that 3 consecutive weeks is how long it takes to build a habit. Essays aside, isn’t this a great life skill to teach our children? And if this blossoms into a beautiful college essay, so be it!

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