The Common App Prompt #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.
Breaking It Down
In many ways, Prompt One is the quintessential personal statement prompt in that it asks students to reflect on who they are as individuals. This prompt is relatively broad, and encompasses many different topics such that students with varying experiences can respond to it. Let’s take a look at exactly what this prompt is addressing, so we can better understand how to respond to it.
“Background” can mean a lot of things depending on each individual’s interpretation of the term. For instance, one could discuss their cultural heritage, their socioeconomic status, their religious beliefs, or their race, ethnicity, or nationality. All of these different topics would fall under the domain of one’s background.
That being said, “background” can also be viewed more metaphorically. For instance, different experiences could qualify as one’s background. For instance, maybe a student encountered a specific set of circumstances in their past, and these circumstances were critical to their development as an individual. These circumstances could range anywhere from dealing with a debilitating illness, to growing up in a big family, to moving around a lot as kid. So long as these past experiences were formative in your life, they can be used to help answer this prompt.
In short, one way to think about background is to consider it as your personal history. It’s your past narrative leading up to the moment of you writing this essay and applying to colleges. It’s the events, circumstances, and other factors that have made you who you are today. Whether those factors are more concrete or abstract — as long as they qualify as personal history — they’re fair game for Prompt #1.
In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the terms “background” and “identity.” Many of the different topics we mentioned as applicable to the former also apply to the latter, with some nuances.
For instance, one’s race, ethnicity, or nationality is certainly one aspect of their identity, as is religion. To add to this more technical approach to identity, sexuality, gender identity, and socioeconomic identity also apply.
However, this list is certainly not comprehensive, and it never truly can be. One’s identity is entirely unique to them. Your identity is essentially what makes you who you are as an individual; it’s the different attributes, qualities, and characteristics that largely define you. What you personally view as part of your identity is entirely up to your discretion, because there is no one way to define the term. After all, by its very nature, identity is extremely personal.
As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that anything that fundamentally contributes to and defines who you are is part of your identity, and thus something that you can certainly focus on in your response to Prompt One.
In many ways, this term is relatively more self-explanatory. By including “interest” as part of the prompt, the Common App is giving you the opportunity to elaborate on your passions and motivations.
One way to approach this is by connecting the interest you describe in this essay to the larger theme of your overall application. For instance, if you’ve taken several AP science courses, are a leader on your school’s Science Olympiad team, and conduct research in a lab, you can elaborate on your interest in science. You could provide anecdotes that demonstrate how that interest started, details on what spurred it, and other information that adds another dimension to your application.
Another approach to the “interest” part of this prompt is to write about a quirky or unique interest college admissions officers may not otherwise know about. This can help to more fully flesh out your application. For instance, one could describe their interest in entomology (the study of insects).
The key is to ensure that this quirky interest helps to reveal something deeper about you. In our example, you could connect your passion for entomology to your fascination with nature and the environment, and also demonstrate why this passion is so integral to who you are as an individual.
This is your opportunity to elaborate on special skills, unusual abilities, and other unique aptitudes you bear. You can describe talents from across the spectrum, ranging from musical abilities to less common skills, like tightrope walking.
Additionally, you can also discuss talents that may not immediately seem obvious, like your ability to listen to others and be a shoulder to cry on. Like most terms used in this prompt, talent is a very broad term, and that’s purposeful — this prompt is meant to encompass a wide range of interpretations so that it’s accessible to many students.
Of course, no matter what talent you choose, it’s vital that you show admissions officers why this talent is so meaningful to who you are today. Indeed, whether you decide to focus on background, identity, interests, or talents, the most important thing about this essay is to demonstrate why any one factor is “so meaningful [that you] believe [your] application would be incomplete without it.”
Although many terms in this prompt are rather subject to interpretation, the term “incomplete” is not — your topic choice must be something that is absolutely integral to who you are as a person, or it will not be as effective.
Considering how open-ended this prompt is, you may initially be at a loss as to what to focus on. One way to help clear this form of writer’s block is to start generating relevant ideas and then deciding which concept works best for you. To do so, you can try out this brainstorming exercise.
- Think about how you would describe yourself to a person you’re relatively close to and have a good deal of trust in. What comes to mind first? What is most important to you? What details are most pertinent? What do you want to ensure they know about you? What is most central to who you are?
- Jot down the different responses that come to mind. You can use sentences, phrases, words — anything that works for you, personally. Focus on recording what’s coming to mind right as you’re thinking it, and don’t filter anything out just yet.
- Analyze the list you’ve created. What themes do you see? Does anything show up more than once? What are some of the recurring ideas? What feels most compelling to you? If you could only discuss one of the concepts you’ve listed, which would you choose? Why?
- Once you’ve identified what you feel is most central, think about how it relates back to the prompt. Does it fall under the category of either background, identity, interest, or talent in some way? How does it do so? Which category does it relate best to? Is their overlap? How so?
- Most importantly, is this concept absolutely integral to who you are as an individual? Does it help define you in some way? How does it do that? Is it meaningful? If applications did not know this specific thing about you, would they still be able to fully understand who you are as a person? If not, why?
Once you’ve run through this brainstorming exercise, you should at least have a better idea of what topic you’d like to focus on. With a topic in mind, it now becomes time to actually write the essay!
Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.
Late on July 31st, the 2013-14 Common Application went live, enabling thousands of eager students to get a head start on completing their college applications. And while the newly touted design is supposed to provide a more intuitive user-friendly experience, many students are running into unexpected and understandably frustrating difficulties. Common Application officials assure us that they are hard at work trying to fix a host of glitches and errors, especially those revolving around college specific supplements. In the meantime, however, we’ve put together ten tips and suggestions to help you successfully navigate and make the most of the new Common Application.
Our first five tips are listed below; stay tuned for the remaining five later this week. Have a question about strategies around the new Common Application? Post it below, and one of our College Coach admissions experts will answer it!
1. Test scores: to post or not to post?
Earlier this fall, when the Common Application asked students to list all standardized test scores, we recommended that students leave the self-reporting testing section of the application blank. Now that the Common Application has adjusted their language, we feel it is in the best interest of students to complete this page. For students who answer, “Yes,” to the prompt, “Do you wish to self-report standardized test scores,” the Common Application now asks, “Indicate all tests you wish to report.” This means that students who have taken both the SAT and ACT have a clear conscious when reporting one test over the other. This change in the Common Application actually makes it easier for students to personalize the “Testing” page of their application. When applying to colleges that accept Score Choice, students can list their best score results. Then, when applying to schools that require all SAT and ACT scores be submitted (such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Stanford), students can edit the “Testing” page to include this information.
2. Résumé tips
Participated in…led…managed…contributed to. When completing the “Activities” portion of the application, it’s always best to use a variety of “action verbs” to describe your extra-curricular involvement. On the new Common Application, applicants no longer have the benefit of seeing all of their activities on the same page, making it difficult to know if your descriptions sound a bit monotonous. Our suggestion? Draft your activity details in a Word document, and then cut and paste them into the Common Application. This way you can ensure that you’re using a range of colorful verbs. Don’t forget that you have 50 characters to list your position/leadership and 150 characters to describe your details, honors, and accomplishments.
3. Formatting your essay
Gone are days of uploading your personal statement to the body of the Common Application. Now students are simply required to cut and paste their essay into a text box. There are two very important features you should know about this text box. The first is that it will not allow you to enter more than 650 words or fewer than 250 words. This word limit is new for the Common Application. So, too, is the block formatting of paragraphs. New paragraphs will no longer appear indented. Rather, they show up as isolated blocks of text, with one empty line between each paragraph. The new formatting won’t bother colleges, so there’s no need to fret that your once indented paragraphs are now showing up a little differently in the print preview.
If you are having difficulty formatting your essay, and are experiencing odd word counts or no paragraph breaks when viewing the print preview of your application, try cutting and pasting your essay from MS Word (or your word processor of choice) into Notepad (for Windows users) or TextEdit (for Mac users). Then cut and paste your essay again into the “Personal Essay” text box. Notepad and TextEdit will strip your essay of all formatting and make most formatting issues disappear.
Which leads us to:
4. Where is the print preview button?
Alas, it’s gone! I do hope they bring it back, but for now, there’s only one way to see a print preview of your application. And you have to jump through three hoops to get there. First, you need to complete every required field of the Common Application itself. This means you see six green check marks when you’re on the “Common App” tab. Second, any school-specific questions or essays need to be completed. When you’re looking at a school on the “My Colleges” tab, do you see a green check mark next to “Questions” as well as “Writing Supplement”? If not, go back and fill out those sections. Finally, you need to complete the FERPA Release Authorization and assign required recommenders (found on the “Assign Recommenders” link from either the “Dashboard” or “My Colleges” tab). Then, and only then, will you see the “Submit” button from the “Dashboard,” or the “Start Submission” button from the “My Colleges” page. Once you’re looking at the print preview – which, incidentally, looks exactly the way colleges will see it, minus the watermark – you can right click with your mouse to save the PDF to your computer.
5. College requirements grid
Are you looking for an easy way to see college application deadlines and testing requirements all in a simple glance? Enter the Application Requirements Grid! This year, you physically have to log out of your Common Application account in order to find it. From the Common Application homepage, mouse over “Member Colleges” at the top of the screen; then select “Application Requirements”.
UPDATE: It has recently come to our attention that the Common Application had incorrectly reported some of the statistics on their Applications Requirement grid. The University of Colorado–Boulder has an EA deadline of 11/15 (not 12/1), and Colgate’s ED2 deadline is actually 1/15 (not 3/1). As we use this information for AppView, which provides deadlines and essay prompts for the top 200 schools College Coach students apply to, we’ve immediately updated our data. While this chart is still a helpful organization tool, it’s definitely a good idea to double check school-specific information on each college’s website, or on the Common Application’s “My Colleges” tab.
For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts:
For all of our 2013-14 Common App tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series: