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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Experience that “Sparked a Period of Personal Growth”

Here’s one of the revised Common Application essay topics for 2017-2018: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

This essay topic replaces the older one that asked you to “discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

Most of my students avoided the previous version of this essay topic because it felt awkward and too simplistic to focus on a single event that signified their transition from childhood to adulthood. “Cheesy” was how one of my students described it.

I hope the new emphasis on discussing not just “an accomplishment, event, or realization” but also how it “sparked a period of personal growth” and led to “a new understanding of yourself or others” will inspire you to consider writing your Common Application essay on this topic.

It’s a really juicy topic.

So many times students feel like the most important things are past accomplishments. Obviously, your track record plays a significant role in the college admissions process.

However. . . .

Admissions officers are interested in students who have potential for even more growth and who are hungry for exploration.  

As Princeton’s Dean of Admission points out:

“About 70 percent of our students graduate in a major different from the one they indicated on their admission application. We think this is exactly the right approach. We expect that students will explore their intellectual interests, and we want them to follow their passions, wherever they may lead them.”

The best, most memorable college experiences are often ones in which your mind is blown and your perspectives broadened in ways you never could have imagined in high school.

But how can you demonstrate that you’re ready for the challenge? 

Well, writing about an experience that triggered a process of “personal growth”–especially one that changed your perspective on yourself and the world around you–is one excellent way of demonstrating it.


One of my students–who’s now studying engineering at Stanford–was originally planning to write her Common App essay on the time she felt like a failure because she couldn’t answer a judge’s question.

Click here to learn strategies for successfully applying to engineering programs. Click here to get tips on writing about “a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.”

We both agreed that the first draft she wrote felt too stiff and formulaic.

In fact, the juiciest parts of her experience–the ones that would probably matter most to college admissions committees–didn’t even make their way into her essay.

What were those really interesting aspects of her experience?

They were the parts related to the way her inability to answer the judge’s question about how her project “could change children’s lives”–propelled her into a process of rethinking the nature of her work.

She realized that she didn’t just want to spend her life pursuing her own intellectual interests; she wanted to find applications for her work that would benefit others.

As she worked through the details of this transformation in her goals, she also began to make a transition from always being the young person getting mentored to becoming a mentor for the next generation of budding scientists. She also worked on a significant project that involved setting up what became an award-winning mentoring program for children in her city.

Our conversations now focused on mapping out vivid anecdotes that helped admissions officers see her process of transformation. She developed super specific “before, during, and after” anecdotes that also shed light on her family background and culture.

She also decided to change her essay topic. She just tucked in a sentence in the penultimate paragraph about how this experience signified her transition from childhood to adulthood.

Ultimately, her essay addressed the new version of this Common Application essay prompt in that she described how a seemingly simple event at a science fair (a question from a judge) led to a “realization that sparked” a process of “personal growth,” which, in turn, led to a “new understanding” of herself in relation to others.


  • Many times the surface facts of your experience–your failure, your accomplishment, event, or other experience–are less intriguing than your process of realization and transformation. I know you want to dazzle the people reading your application essays, but mere “before and after” narratives are not as compelling as those that also feature the “during.” College is a time of massive intellectual and social growth. Admissions officers are looking for students who are open to this process of growth and have the underlying strategies for handling it. 
  • Experiment with adding authentic depth to your essay, perhaps by featuring multiple layers of change. My student, for example, focused on how the transformation associated with her goals (i.e., from focusing just on her intellectual interests to developing ways of using them to benefit others) also led to a change in the way she acted (i.e., she went from being just a mentee to being a mentor).  


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