Here’s one of the Common Application essay topics (2020-2021): “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Why Are Colleges Interested in Essays on Personal Growth?
Your track record—your record of past accomplishments—plays a significant role in the college admissions process. Many students fixate on this part of how they’re going to be evaluated. They lose sight of the equally important fact that colleges are searching for students who have potential for even more growth and 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.”
Harvard explicitly notes that they are considering whether it seems you’ve “reached your maximum academic and personal potential,” how you’ve been “stretching yourself,” and if “you have reserve power to do more.”
Stanford wants evidence of your “intellectual vitality” and to “see the initiative with which you seek out opportunities and expand your perspective.”
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 you’re ready for the challenge?
Writing your college application essay about an experience that “sparked a period of personal growth”—especially one that transformed your “understanding of yourself or others”—is an excellent way of showing your potential—and passion—for exploration and change.
Stanford Student’s Common App Essay on an Experience that “Sparked a Period of Personal Growth”
One of my students who is currently 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 read “How to Successfully Apply to Engineering Programs.”)
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.
The most interesting aspects of her experience 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. Up until that moment, she’d only really focused on pursuing her own intellectual interests. This experience of feeling dumbfounded was painful, but it sparked a new journey that involved finding applications for her work that could benefit others.
As she worked through the details of this transformation in her goals, she also began transitioning from always being the young person getting mentored to becoming a mentor for the next generation of budding scientists. The experience with the judge informed her decision to set up what became an award-winning mentoring program for children in her city. Her Common App essay was becoming an essay about both intellectual and personal growth.
Our conversations 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 took readers on a journey that started with the seemingly simple question from a science fair judge that plunged her into a process of “personal growth” which ultimately resulted in a “new understanding” of herself and others.
This shift in focus allowed her to take readers deeper into her experience and share a richer range of insights than if she’d responded to the original prompt she was considering: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience.” Click here to read my article on the “challenge, setback, or failure” Common Application essay prompt.
Let’s connect her basic essay structure back to what Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford emphasize in their evaluation of applications. Now her essay showed how she keeps “questing” and stretching herself. She’s demonstrating how she has “reserve power to do more” because each significant experience she has sparks more personal growth, contemplation, and action. She is constantly deepening and expanding her perspectives to benefit not only herself but also others. So even though this essay started with what seemed like a moment of failure (not being able to answer the judge’s question), it was really about her own growth.
Application Essay Tips for the “Sparked a Period of Personal Growth” Prompt
- There are so many juicy possibilities for this essay topic. I’ve had students write about how getting lost in a foreign city, losing their passport, getting called out by an employer for lack of sufficient attention to details, hurting someone’s feelings by acting ungrateful, finally standing up to someone, and seeing something from the perspective of another person with a very different value system “sparked a period of personal growth.”
- Many students leap right over the “process” part of the essay. They want to jump from the “before” to the “after” because they feel the process—the “middle”—isn’t exciting or dramatic. I know you want to dazzle the people reading your application essays, but mere “before and after” narratives aren’t as compelling as those that 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. The “middle” is often where you can most effectively demonstrate your intellectual depth, habits of mind, and positive character traits.
- 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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