College Admissions Essays:
The Common App. Prompt #1
Out of the seven prompts you can chose from to write your application essay for The Common Application, I like the first one a lot. (UPDATE: As of 2017, you can now write about any topic you want. See new prompt #7.)
Prompt No. 1 is trying to “prompt” you to find and share a story that will reveal an important part of what makes you unique and special.
These are called personal essays, and they are what my entire blog is trying to help you learn to write!
In a nutshell, you write these types of essays in the first-person (I, me, you…point of view) and use a “write-like-you-talk” casual style.
Narrative-style (storytelling) essays are natural “grabbers” because you use mini-stories from real life, also called anecdotes, for your introduction to illustrate a larger point.
Related: How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
The structure can be as elaborate as you want, but in general, you “show” the reader your point with an anecdote at the beginning, and then “tell” or explain what it means in the second part. (Here’s a quickie guide to help you Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.)
(Those stiff, 5-paragraph essays from high school English class are history!)
Narrative, slice-of-life essays are ideal for almost any type of admissions essay. But some college application essay prompts are trickier than others to figure out how to answer the question by telling a story.
Others, however, are easier and actually ask for a story. Like Prompt No. 1. (and No. 2 and 4).
Here’s how to find and tell a story for Prompt #1:
Prompt 1 from Common App: “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.”
1. FIND A TOPIC: First, see if you have something interesting in your “background or identity” or with an “interest or talent” that could make a great topic:
A. Background: I believe that if your “background” is central to your identity, it could involve anything in your life that shaped you.
If you’re a student who faced an intense issue growing up, this is your chance to share that—since it most likely was defining for you (shaped who you are in some way).
By an “intense issue,” I mean anything from a parent who was abusive, or alcoholic, or not on the scene for whatever reason, to having a personal issue of your own (you’re deaf, or wheelchair bound, or bi-polar, or the oldest of 10 kids, or you’re battling a debilitating illness…).
Your “background” also can be defining if you come from a different culture, or have a family who practices an extreme religion or other unusual belief system, or a unique family situation (you’re adopted, or your parents are lesbians, or your mom is blind, or you survive on food stamps, or your dad hosts a famous talk show, etc…).
I think the point is that if you have a background that has been challenging on some level, it most likely affected who you are, and what you value and how you approach your life. If this is the case, it could make an excellent college application essay.
B. Identity: I would say if there’s something about you that defines you in a big way, this could be considered your identity. It really depends upon how you see yourself.
Here’s some that come to mind: You are any type of LGBTQ or any variation based on gender and sexual orientation. You are bi-racial. You were raised by your grandmother. You’re a triplet. You are the son of a celebrity.
I would say if you believe it’s shaped who you are on a fundamental basis, and you want to write about it, go for it!
C. Interest: I think this is self-explanatory. What is something you do that you are passionate about?
My advice is to pick something that is central to your life, and then find an interesting way to write about it. If you just spell out your “interest” in piano, talking about how you took lessons, gave recitals, love it so much, etc., that could be a dull, thumbs-down essay.
Instead, decide what specifically about the piano shaped you, and write about that. Or what personal quality or core value you developed from playing piano. Or was there something unexpected you learned from playing piano.
In general, I would be careful writing about an interest.
If you do go for it, find a way to write about that interest that reveals more about you than why you like to do it.
D. Talent: Same advice as with writing about an “interest.” Be careful!
A talent is really an interest that you are good at, right? Who wants to read about how you are really great at chess, or horseback riding or playing video games? Not me!
I would strongly advise you to not write about how good you are at something. The danger is that you come across as boastful or full of yourself, and that can be off-putting to college admissions folks. Remember, the goal is to be likable.
The best trick to writing about a talent is to think of “a time” it involved some type of problem (failure, challenge, obstacle, mistake, etc.). That can help you inject humility into your essay.
Of course, it’s possible to write a great essay about something you excel at, but give a lot of thought to what you have to say about it, and what your essay will say about you.
HOT TIP: One way to write about a tricky topic such as an interest or talent is to search for topics in the area of the everyday, or mundane.
Topics that are about impressive feats, like the time you climbed Mount Everest or saved someone’s life or won a gold medal, often backfire. Instead, the opposite–mundane or everyday topics or stories–work the best!
If you write about a talent, an essay about how you are the best at making tamales or tying fly fishing knots or cleaning cars would be much more palatable than how you play first-chair violin or won the state championship for cross country.
It is possible to write about impressive accomplishments, but you need to find the right angle or you risk coming across as all-important and not as likable.
2. FIND A STORY: Once you find a topic (and pick either something from your background, identity, interests or talents), try to find a compelling story or anecdote (a real-life moment) to start your essay that is an example of or illustrates the point you want to make about yourself.
To make sure it’s a compelling mini-story, make sure your anecdote involves a problem. (If you are writing about your background or identity, look for an example of how it was a problem on some level to use as your anecdote.)
This is also an approach that could bring some drama or a twist if you are writing about an interest or talent.) Not only does an anecdote work as a “grabber” for the reader, it sets you up to talk about how you dealt with the problematic moment and what you learned. (How to find a juicy problem HERE.)
3. CRAFT AN ANECDOTE: Tell your mini-story in the form of an anecdote. Just relate something that happened to you. Start at the peak of the action. This will be your introduction and take up the first paragraph or two.
Set the scene. Use descriptive language and concrete (specific) details. Include action verbs. Put us in that moment by describing what you saw, smelled, heard and felt. Include a snippet of dialogue, if it works.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
Condense your anecdote into a paragraph or two to use as your introduction. (How to write an anecdote HERE and HERE.)
4. TELL THE BACK STORY: Then give a little background (the “back story”) explaining what led up to that moment or event or problem, and then go on to describe how you felt about it, how you handled it, and what you learned in the process.
Make sure to find some way to express how what you learned linked to a defining quality—so that your essay has a sharp focus and doesn’t try to reveal too many different things about you.
5. WRAP IT UP: To write a conclusion, link back to that little moment you started with and bring the reader up to the present. Kind of like a status update.
Share how you plan to use your defining quality or the lesson you learned in your future goals and dreams, especially if it relates to your educational goals.
Example of a Personal, Narrative-style Essay
The New York Times just happened to share several well-written college application essays in a recent story to inspire college-bound students like yourself.
I’m going to copy my favorite one below, by a student named Lyle Li, which used the narrative style of writing.
I will indicate where the writer used an anecdote (in red) to “show” his point, and then where he went on to “tell” explain what it meant to him (in blue).
This essay is excellent. I believe he addressed his “background” in this piece. He shows us the challenges his family has faced, and we learned what the student values, and why. In the process, he comes across as a very authentic, determined and likable guy.
I believe the main reason this worked so well is that he chose a mundane topic for his story (his mom’s restaurant job), as opposed to some impressive accomplishment. Can you see the “problem” he shared in this essay?
Last thing: notice how personal this student was in this essay and how he opened up about his thoughts, fears and dreams. The more personal an essay, the more it connects with the reader.
See what you think:
By Lyle Li, from Brooklyn
Essay Written for New York University
(ANECDOTE FOR INTRODUCTION: “Showing”) While resting comfortably in my air-conditioned bedroom one hot summer night, I received a phone call from my mom. She asked me softly, “Lyle, can you come down and clean up the restaurant?”
Slightly annoyed, I put on my sandals and proceeded downstairs. Mixing the hot water with cleaning detergents, I was ready to clean up the restaurant floor. Usually the process was painstakingly slow: I had to first empty a bucket full of dirty water, only to fill it up again with boiling water. But that night I made quick work and finished in five minutes. My mom, unsatisfied, snatched the mop from me and began to demonstrate the “proper way” to clean the floor. She demanded a redo. I complied, but she showed no signs of approval. As much as I wanted to erupt that night, I had good reasons to stay calm.
(NOTICE HOW HE BACKGROUNDS HIS ANECDOTE HERE) Growing up in rural China, my mom concerned herself not with what she would wear to school every day, but rather how she could provide for her family. While many of her classmates immediately joined the work force upon completing high school, my mom had other aspirations. She wanted to be a doctor. But when her college rejections arrived, my mother, despite being one of the strongest individuals I know, broke down. My grandparents urged her to pursue another year of education. She refused. Instead, she took up a modestly paying job as a teacher in order to lessen the financial burden on the family. Today, more than twenty years have passed, yet the walls of my parents’ bedroom still do not bear a framed college degree with the name “Tang Xiao Geng” on it.
(EXPLAINING WHAT THE ANECDOTE MEANT: “Telling”) In contrast, when I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls. I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper middle class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn.
Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round. It’s funny how I never see my mom in makeup, expensive jeans, lavish dresses, or even just casual, everyday clothing that I often see other moms wearing. Yet, one must possess something extraordinary to be able to stand in front of a cash register for 19 years and do so with pride and determination.
On certain nights, I would come home sweaty, dressed in a gold button blazer and colored pants, unmistakable evidence of socializing. In contrast, my mom appears physically and emotionally worn-out from work. But, she still asks me about my day. Consumed by guilt, I find it hard to answer her.
Moments such as those challenge my criteria of what constitutes true success. My mother, despite never going to college, still managed to make a difference in my life. Tomorrow,she will put on her uniform with just as much dignity as a businesswoman would her power suit. What is her secret? She wholeheartedly believes that her son’s future is worth the investment. The outcome of my education will be vindication of that belief.
In hindsight, I’m astounded at the ease with which I can compose all my views of this amazing woman on a piece of paper, but lack the nerve to express my gratitude in conversations. Perhaps, actions will indeed speak louder than words. When I graduate on June 1st, I know she will buy a dress to honor the special occasion. When I toil through my college thesis, I know she will still be mopping the restaurant floor at 11:00 PM. When I finally hang up my diploma in my bedroom, I know she will be smiling.
(Mr. Li will be attending N.Y.U.)
Want to learn how to write an anecdote like the one Lyle Li crafted to start his compelling essay? Watch My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
What about the other four Common App prompts? Find help for other Common App prompts.
Check out my tutorial video on How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4: When Your Problem is a Good Thing. (I like the new Prompt 4 as much as Prompt 1.)
For more inspiring sample college application essays, check out my collection of narrative essays: Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked!
Ready to start writing your own narrative essay? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to help you find a unique topic and start writing your own slice-of-life essay.
If you want more help, considering investing $9.98 in my short and simple ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, which takes you step-by-step through the entire brainstorming and writing process.
Thank you so much for all of these posts, they are extremely helpful!I am thinking of doing the first prompt for the Common App and started my rough draft but I have a question. When it says background could that include my family background? I have a story about my great grandmother and how she was persecuted and how her story and her strength effects my identity today(my family background made me hardworking,dedicated,etc.). Is that ok or not really what the prompt is looking for? Thank you!!
The trick is to make sure that the essay is fundamentally about you and not your grandmother. If you can show examples of how she affected you, and tell her story briefly, but write mainly about what you learned and thought and felt, it could be great!
Thank you for all these informations very helpful
next time when i have essay homework I will come to [essay hell] and look at more information
Thank you so much! This was very helpful. I want to know if I should write about my identity i.e I’m an American Pakistani and I stay and have studied here in Pakistan where we still have electricity cuts everyday for hours there is no security of lives, you don’t know if you’ll come back alive once you leave home. etc..
Hi Annie, Yes, this would make an incredible essay, and I can’t imagine how that experience would not shape and define who you are in some large way. I would suggest starting with a “time” you were there, with no electricity and the fear of an attack, etc., and how it made you feel, and then go from there about how you dealt with that and how you think about it all. Good luck! JR
thank you so much! this honestly has made writing this essay 100% easier. I want to know if I should write about my identity, how I learned I spoke different from everyone else. Where should I go from there? I’m thinking about writing about how I accepted my differences.
I would suggest you start with an example or a “time” when you spoke differently, how that affected you, how you dealt with that, and what you learned (this is where you can elaborate on how you accepted your differences.) You are on the right track!! Good luck, JR
Thankyou soo much for this, really helpful!
Also, if I may ask:
I intend to start the essay with the first paragraph providing description of how I sit right now to write the essay and then relate it with my story and background.
while doing so, is it advisable to introduce a sentence of like how tired i am and my caffeine dose is the only thing keeping my awake.
and at the end of the essay, conclude with something like: the essay is finished, a cup of coffee well spent.
Do, or Don’t?.
Once Again, thanks alot!
can i write about my taekwondo..it shaped me as person..common app prompt #1. thank you.
Yes, just make sure to find something unusual or unique to say about it, and not just a general essay on why you like it. Find something specific that happened, and go from there. JR
Can I write about living in a foreign country? This will probably include multiple stories. Also, Do I have to explain why it is central to my identity?
Thank you so much for this, it was extremely helpful! I finished my essay and wrote it with ease, but the only problem that I have with it is the length. I find it impossible to write my story in only 650 words. So far it’s at 680 words. I don’t want to delete anything because I feel as though my story would be incomplete. My essay right now is perfect and I really don’t want to change it! 🙁 Do you have any advice on how to shorten the length without getting rid of the valuable information?
I’m sure your essay is wonderful. But almost all writing only gets better with cutting it down in length. Try taking out a sentence that you suspect is not necessary, then read the paragraph and see if it still makes sense and gets your point across. Sometimes you have to try come cuts, and you will be surprised that you didn’t need all your sentences. Of course, you can also go through and chop out individual words that you don’t need, too. Start with the bigger parts (paragraphs, sentences) and then shift to trimming words. Good luck! JR
Hello and thank you for all the tips.
I was considering working on prompt 1. To me growing up in the midst of domestic violence(specially between parents) has shaped me a lot. So do you think it would be right for prompt 1?
Hi Pete, That’s a definite yes. That can’t help have been defining for you. JR
I didn’t quite get you. “That can’t help have been defining for you” Sorry English is not my first language so I am not really good at it?
Hi, first, thank you for the very valuable insights regarding the structuring and fleshing out the essay for the 1st question of the common app. I would like to know if i should centre my essay around my academic failure i suffered in my early years and my dad’s pivotal role in bringing me back to school ? (i actually had been kicked out of school and bummed around for 1/2 year). Thank you
Hi! Thanks for sharing the tips and essays. I was thinking about writing how I, part of a minority group in Indonesia, was discriminated and experienced riots specifically targeted to people with my ethnicity. I would then like to develop it to how I would love to pursue my dream of becoming an entrepreneur and provide safety net for myself and my family. Then also contribute to my country’s disparaging income inequality. Would that sound like it would work? Thanks
I was considering using something a bit of wisdom I learned from a relative while sitting in the car as the topic for my essay for Prompt #1. My essay would go on to try to show how it helped me become a hard worker. Would this topic be too cliche?
Hello! Just wanted to thank you for all the valuable information. It is so helpful!
I was thinking of writing about about a medical issue that I have faced, which made me have to stop participating in a sport I love.
Hello! Just wanted to thank you for all the valuable information. It is so helpful!
I was thinking of writing about about a medical issue that I have faced, which made me have to stop participating in a sport I love. Do you think that would be an okay essay for prompt number one? Thanks in advanced!
Hi, Love all the tips! I was planning on doing essay promt #1 and was deciding to tell the unique story of how me and my two best friends met in person for the first time and how they have shaped me into who I am now. I don’t really know if it’s classified like the others but its not the average story of how I met my best friends but it’s extraordinary and unique. I was just wondering if that would qualify for the prompt but please give me some input and shoot me some ideas
I am Brazilian and applying as a transfer student. Last year, I received a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, which is part of the autism spectrum. I have lived with it my whole life and it is definitely responsible for much of who I am, even though I never knew I had it. It accounts for much of the struggle I’ve had growing up, trying to be “normal”. But I don’t want to come across as a victim. I was thinking about taking the “self-deprecating” rout, but I don’t know how to showcase defining qualities in that scenario. Any anecdotes I come up with always seem to end up being either about my overwhelming awkwardness or about how I outsmarted my peers, which makes me look like a loser and a cry-baby or a braggart. Do you have any tips on how to showcase both sides without ending up with a broad and dull essay? Or should I maybe change the subject all together? I feel really stuck here. Thank you very much.
Hey this is great advice. I was wondering if I should write about my Mexican background and how people automatically think that I’m either an immigrant or to “educated” to be Mexican. Would this make a good essay?
I feel that this is the common app prompt that i can best respond to. I have spent a lot of time trying to think of an interesting trait, background, talent, or interest that would be fun to write about. I have come to think that “people-watching” has actually contributed to positive aspects in my life, such as: being generous, working well and communicating with others, as well as noticing small details and being able to sympathize with others. My parents have often told me of times i was young, when i was so focused on a watching a person, the candy i was eating would fall right out of my mouth. I feel that this (interest?)has truly impacted me as a person. However, do you believe that would be a good thing to write about? Also i’m having a very difficult time coming up with a story for this. If you could help me, it would be extremely appreciated! Thank you in advance!
For the first prompt I’m going to talk about how I’m Dyslexic. I have several point I want to hit and the direction I wanted to go. I don’t plan on complaining about it but talking about how I composted, how it made me a better person, how I worked harder, and how it was a so hard for me when I was young. But I’m very unsure how to start my intro, how to grasp attention and make them want to read my essay on how I’m dyslexic.
Hi! This is a great, helpful website. I truly feel like I have a jumpstart. I was wondering if you could read over my essay and give me some criticism to spice things up and make it better.
Hi! This website really helped me get going on what i wanted to write about. Could my aspirations/dream career be something that would define me? Could it serve as my interest?
Hi! This website really helped me get going on what i wanted to write about. Could my aspirations/dream career be something that would define me? Could it serve as my interest? Thanks!
Yes, your main interest could be a great topic. Make sure to focus what you have to say about it, and look for real-life moments or experience to share so you can show the reader your interest. then go on to explain why it matters. Good luck!
If I’m a qudruplet, how would it fit into this essay prompt and how should I structure my essay to express this identity?
I think that being a quadruplet can’t help but have helped define your identity. Awesome topic!! I would brainstorm how being one of four has shaped who you are. Think of the ways you are like your siblings and then think of wayss you are different. The ways you are different could be what you write about. Think about WHY you are different from the others, and why that matters to you. Try to come up with a little moment from real-life that you could use in your essay that would help the reader get a sense of what it’s like to be you. If you want ideas on how to structure you essay, read my post called “How to write your College application essay in 3 steps.” Search it on my web site. It’s the single best post on a simple way to structure your essay and nail it!! Good luck! Janine
I really love your way of thinking. I can relate to it on so many levels. I just wrote my personal statement. Well, I hope I did. I would really love it if you would take a look at it and tell me what you think. What’s missing? What’s unnecessary? Is the bigger picture clear? It would be really great if you agree to help. Is there any way I can send it to you? Whatever you say though, thank you again. Your article inspired me. Else, I wouldn’t be writing my personal statement at 5am, having not slept yet. Thank you. 🙂
Hello, this really looks helpful thank you so much, but I am still debating whether or not I should talk about the hardships I went through during my sophomore and junior year (depression and the loss of friends,) and how it has shaped me as a person going through so much. I would include my emotions back then and how growing up and having the friends I have now has shaped me into the person I am now.
I think you could write a powerful essay about these hardships. The key is to focus on the essay on a defining quality or characteristic you either used or developed in yourself to handle them. That will make sure your essay is about YOU and has a tight focus. Good luck! Janine Robinson
Hi do u think I should write about my mother’s cancer and how it inspired me to be a dr and researchr?
Hello, i was wondering if in prompt number 1 the talent could include speaking different languages thanks to my background. How should i start my Introduction?
Would it be alright to write my personal essay about eating spicy food but tie it into my culture, and the activities that I find exciting?
Sure, you just need to make sure you can use that topic to reveal something meaningful about yourself, and what you care about. Good luck! Janine
Hi, not sure if this thread is still active, but I’m seeking advice! Throughout my entire life, I have lived near the Mexican border and been exposed to the hardships illegal immigrants face to gain safety access and open up opportunities for their children. Even though my parents migrated to the US over 20 years ago, they were never able to receive a green card and were always reapplying for a visa to live in the states. However, about 6 years ago, my parents’ visas were declined and like these illegal immigrants were faced with the decision of staying in a 1-hour drive closed parameter or returning to the dangerous and insecure life in Mexico. Fortunately, my parents decided to stay and after a 5-year wait now have residency. Despite the challenges that arose from our circumstances, my parents never let it restrain my sisters and me from seeking the world outside of our South Texas bubble. So for my sophomore year of high school, I decided to apply to a study abroad program in the Holy Land (Israel) and was granted a full ride scholarship. If I write about these experiences and how they shaped me, could that be enough to express my identity? Also, how can I add more depth without exceeding the word limit?
YES, you can write about these experiences, especially the hardships and challenges. The trick is giving them a focus to the essays reveals your personality and character. Keep reading my blog to learn how to do this. Make sure most of your essay is about what you learned from these experiences, and WHY what you learned mattered. Good luck! Janine Robinson
Thank you for all the valuable information and tips that you have gathered regarding common app topic 1.
I was wondering if talking about my family’s medical history (diabetes and thyroid for generations) would be a good idea. I’d like to write about this because these issues are what have influenced me to go into the medical field.
Hi Sal, I think this could be a good topic since this problem, and how you have dealt with it, has been defining for you on some level–especially if it has inspired your future field of study! The trick is to find real-life moments/incidents you can use to illustrate this challenge and make the essay come to life and be engaging and meaningful. Keep reading my blog and/or try my writing guides to learn more on how to do this. Good luck! Janine
Hi, thanks for the ton of advice. However, I have a question. I am an African student and my parents divorced due to domestic violence. I currently live with my mom and know nothing about my dad since their divorce which took place when I was 5.Ever since, I used to be afraid to open up about the situation and this made me shy until a time I failed on an interview. So I am not sure whether to focus my essay on how I changed after the interview or how living with a single-mom affected me. Or can I include both? Kindly help.
I am very very confused. Isn’t this best essay mostly writing his mom, instead of the student himself? Wouldn’t college admission officers say, “Well, you are writing your mom, not you”?
Sir, I want to write an essay on my background. I have an eye defect and have suffered some setbacks, I don’t know how to start?
I’m kinda confused