Common Application Essay Prompt #1 (2018-2020)

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”


“Please open your books,” said Mrs. Liao

Here I sit, in class, at 8 A. M. Every Saturday morning for the past twelve years, I’ve been at Chinese school. While most of my friends are still fast asleep, I am learning new characters, deciphering stories and listening to lectures on Chinese culture and history. Through those years, my penmanship has transformed from incomprehensible zigzag of lines to lucid characters drawn with ease and dexterity. My former two-word vocabulary (big and small) has expanded to a point where I can speak Chinese fluently.

Now as the teacher discusses the short story, a sentence printed in bold catches  my eye.

“One who is willing to accept challenges and hardships will eventually rise above the other.”

I read the sentence again. As I start to comprehend its meaning, memories of my recent trip to Hong Kong come into mind . . .

            We sat face to face. For a while, there was a prolonged silence between us, as if we were two strangers. After all, it had been five years since we last saw each other in person. We sat motionless, eyeing each other closely from head to toe. Her hands were covered with creases, and a cobweb of thin green veins protruded from beneath her pale skin. Her formerly slender, powerful fingers were gnarled and bent. Her hair was no longer dark brown and vibrant, but gray and lifeless. She was small and fragile. Everything about my grandmother was undeniably old and worn.

            Yet, there was something about her eyes that caught my attention. They seemed as if they had not aged a day since her younger years. A flame burned brightly. There was an eagerness to pour forth her joy and talk to me.

            Unable to hold back her emotions any longer, she broke the silence and asked about my flight. Though she spoke in Chinese; I understood her word for word. There was a familiarity and liveliness in her voice that sliced the tense atmosphere. Soon enough my grandmother and I were immersed in an engaging and open conversation.

            She bombarded me with questions such as: How did you manage to evade and score on those big defensemen (in lacrosse) carrying long metal poles? How did your piano solo go at the chamber music concert? How far along are you in your mathematics research project? And as I answered, she listened attentively at the edge of her seat with a smile that melted my heart. We chatted on and on for hours, making up for lost time.

            Enthralled with our ability to communicate freely without a language barrier, I suddenly realized that our entire conversation had been about me. So I asked her to tell me about the years she spent raising her family. It was the first time that any of her grandchildren had ever asked her a question about her past. Suddenly, everything came to an awkward standstill. Had I said something wrong? She reached across my lap, held my hand, and led me to a set of drawers. Slowly, she pulled out a dusty, tattered photo album, which had not been opened in many, many years. Now, she was about to reveal its contents.

            As we flipped through her treasure chest of memories, my grandmother told me short and delightful anecdotes. On one page, we came upon an old and musty picture taken at my father’s college graduation. Though the edges were worn and rounded, the image, yellow and fading, spoke a thousand words. Dressed in his graduation attire, my father stood side by side with my grandmother. Suddenly, I thought about the difficulties my father encountered and overcame.

            At the University of Texas he was on his own with only a backpack of old clothes and tuition money for one semester of college. To make ends meet, he took a full time job at a busy local restaurant. All through the night, he  handled endless boatloads of greasy dish ware. Armed with only a sponge and his bare hands, he scrubbed each plate spotless. Though his hands constantly ached, my father never quit. Because of his fighting spirit, he earned two degrees from a prestigious college and a place of honor next to my grandmother. With a fully extended arm, he embraced his mother affectionately. My grandmother beamed with pride.

            After a brief moment of silence, my grandmother spoke about the many years she spent selling “sake” (rice wine) in the neighborhood. Fully immersed in her words, I was able to form a vivid mental picture of how she carried heavy kettles of wine up and down countless flights of stairs, weaving her way through dark and narrow corridors. Day after day, she tackled the physically demanding job with a tireless spirit to support her children through high school.

. . . Awakened from my reverie by the resounding voice of Mrs. Liao, who is calling my name repeatedly, I suddenly realize the meaning of the phrase. Remembering my grandmother’s eyes, my father’s hands, and my place in the Saturday morning Chinese school class, the meaning becomes clear:

“One who is willing to accept challenges and hardships will eventually rise above the other.”

Marion’s Analysis of Flashback

Choice of Topic  

Visiting his grandmother in China after a five-year lapse is a perfect choice for an essay because their conversation brings the reader in contact with his extraordinary accomplishments, his ability to keep in touch with his ethnicity, and the strength of his family character –  all of which are evinced in his early morning instruction and subsequent visit.


The beginning of the essay “Please open your books,” a phrase that was written in Chinese in the original text, brings the reader into the forefront of the action. Such language sets him apart from the average student and introduces his experience and culture in a unique way.  The sentence that catches his attention, “One who is willing to accept challenges and hardships will eventually rise about the other,” was also written in Chinese and introduces the focus of the essay: overcoming challenges and hardship.


The vocabulary used is that of an intelligent eighteen-year-old individual who is speaking to anyone who will listen. However, what is compelling about his “voice” is not its intelligence but its emotional nature. In his rendering of the physical condition of his grandmother, the reader can feel his sympathy for her “old and worn” body and his contrasting joy when he observes the “flame” in her eyes. In like manner, one can sense his pride in the accomplishments of his father and the work of his grandmother, allowing the reader to appreciate his candor and sensitivity.

Specificity and Coherence

The body of the essay includes details, which follow each other logically and relate to the topic of hardship. Even before sharing the grandmother’s story, the author includes details that make her persona real. Her “creased” hands, “green veins” and “gnarled and bent fingers” not only provoke a lucid image of a hardworking, aging grandparent, but serve to underscore the perception of a grandson who appreciates the paradox of the aging process with the youthful “flame” in her eyes. In another paragraph, the reader can actually see the grandmother “carrying heavy kettles” and her son “scrubbing greasy plates spotless” with “a sponge and his bare hands” to eke out a living.  Thus, by deduction, the reader can assume that the family traits of hard work and determination are within the person who attends Chinese school at 8:00 A. M. on Saturdays. Such traits will definitely attract the attention of a college admissions counselor, for they are the mark of a successful student.

Style and Mechanics

The author demonstrates a clear command of various types of sentence structure and a broad range of conventions and mechanics. Most of the sentences are complex and written in a different format.


The last paragraph aids in unifying the essay by returning the reader to the first paragraph where the author’s reverie began. Moreover, bringing the three generations together in one sentence places the author in a position of power, for the reader can infer that by sharing his familial trait, he, too, will “rise above the other.”