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Countdown to college: How to answer prompt No. 1 in the Common Application

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

There are seven essay choices on the Common Application. Students need to write one essay that is 250 to 650 words. Let’s take a look at prompt No. 1:

“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.”

This is often referred to as the “Old Faithful” of essay questions. It’s been around for years and offers all the flexibility an applicant could ask for from a prompt, with just enough direction to get those creative juices flowing. What about your history, culture, personality, hobbies or accomplishments might be worth highlighting for an admissions officer? It can be something as simple as walking your dog or as complicated as the struggle of figuring out how you fit in.

The most important thing to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to you and who you are and no one else.

As you approach the Common App essay, keep in mind that these prompts are carefully and deliberately developed. Nothing is there indiscriminately. Each prompt gives direct and subtle guidance. Check out the key words in prompt No. 1: “background,” “story,” “identity,” “incomplete without.” What are they asking? What are they looking for in your response?


“Identity” is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude in answering the question since you can write a story about your “background, identity, interest or talent.” Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development, such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your “interest” or “talent” could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today.

Whichever way you choose to approach the prompt, make sure you are inward-looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.

Overall, this prompt is what I call a “choose your own adventure” prompt. It has historically served as a fabulous catch-all for subjects that don’t fit within the confines of the other prompt options. A recent addition to the Common App’s prompt selection now offers even more freedom to applicants (more on that later), but students should still think of prompt No. 1 as a topic of immense choice, reeled in by a few helpful guidelines.

Prompt No. 1 asks students to tell their own stories. It gives you the chance to bring your application to life. After all, there’s much more to you than your GPA, activity list, test score and recommendations. This prompt is focused on diversity; the committee wants to know more about what makes you unique, your life’s passion, and even how you define yourself in your community and in society as a whole. Colleges are looking for you to share how your background has shaped who you are today. They want to be inspired by your hobbies, creativity and even your discovery of hidden talents. They want to know what’s meaningful to you, and how you might fit into their next class of scholars.

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