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How to Write the Perfect College Essay for the Common Application–A Place or Environment

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

The new college essay prompts for the Common Application are much more narrow than they have been in the past. However, some of the questions are new takes on questions that have sometimes appeared on various essay supplements. Thus it’s hard to say that these new prompts are all that “new.”

We’ve been looking at each of the prompts, starting with the background story, followed by the failure, and ending with the beliefs and ideas prompt. Today we take a look at the “place or environment” prompt.

A  photo a Cornell university.
Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Here’s how it reads:

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

As we have with the other prompts, let’s take a look at the key words in this prompt.  We’ll examine the words in the order of their importance, rather than in the order in which they appear.

Place or environment

Unlike most of the other prompts that ask you about items fixed in time (an incident, an event, an occurrence), this prompt is anchored in space.  A place or environment has a particular geography.  It has a location. Generally this prompt will work best if you can identify a very specific location.  But sometimes a more general environment might do quite nicely. More than one student will likely take a metaphorical tack on this prompt, identifying an abstract space or place around which they will build an essay. But a place or environment is fixed in space.

Describe the Place or Environment

Again, this is a word that is quite different from the other prompts in which you are asked to tell a story. Here, we want a description of the place you have identified. Again, the more specific the place, the more detailed description you might be able to provide. But just as you want a story to be interesting and vivid, you also want to paint a picture of this place that helps your reader to see it in her mind’s eye.

Do or experience

Again, this prompt is not looking for a particular instance or event upon which you can construct a story or narrative. Instead, this prompt assumes that your relationship with this place is not fixed at one particular moment; rather, the prompt assumes that you return to this place again and again, and that you engage in particular activities or experience particular sensations or emotions.  So just as you need to describe the place, you also need to describe yourself moving about and interacting with that space.


This is the core of the prompt:  contentment.  And what is contentment? Aha!  This is the core of the core:  you have to define—for yourself—what contentment means for you. Fortunately, you don’t have to write a philosophical treatise on the qualities of happiness. But you do have to explain what you mean by contentment within the context of this place.  Why do you continue to return to this place? What benefits—material, spiritual, intellectual, social, and whatnot—do you derive from this particular place or environment. Don’t limit yourself to just one aspect of your contentment in this place:  break it down. As you brainstorm this prompt, see if you can come up with three solid aspects of your contentment in this place or environment.


This word is related to contentment. This place, if you have chosen it correctly, has some sort of intrinsic meaning to you. It may not have much meaning at all for other people. But for you, this place or environment is a source of satisfaction, of ease, or of spiritual tranquility. It will not be enough to say that the place is meaningful:  you need to come up with why it is meaningful. So going back to the idea of contentment, if you can come up with three reasons why this particular place has meaning to you, then you’ll be well on your way to writing a fantastic essay that addresses this prompt.

This prompt is quite different from the others, both in terms of what it is asking you to write about, but also in the structure of our essay.  You can tell a lot about a person by the spaces they inhabit.
So what place makes you content?

Tune in tomorrow when we review the final prompt:  the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Writing About Failure
Writing About A Belief or Idea
Writing About A Place or Environment
Writing About the Transition to Adulthood
Writing About Your Background Story


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