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How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #1

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



What is Prompt #1?


The Common App system allows applicants to choose one of seven different prompts for their personal statement. The essay you write should be under 650 words, and it should creatively tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person. This article will guide you through crafting a response to the first Common App prompt, which is the following: 


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.


You’ll notice that there’s no direct question here. It’s asking you to share your story, and that story should relate to your unique background, identity, interest, or talent that you find meaningful. 


This prompt allows you to craft a narrative that displays personal growth in your chosen area. Sharing your story in an essay that displays your personality or a unique interest can be attention grabbing, particularly if you have an unconventional passion like blogging about Chinese basketball or unicycling. 


How to Highlight Your Background


As an example of a topic, let’s say that a student wrote about how their mother was a henna tattoo artist. They could explain how they learned their own style of henna tattoo design by embracing what their mother taught them and then tweaking it to make it their own. Here we can see the theme of self-exploration. Indeed, any passion that isn’t on your resume or activities list can really give some insight into who you are and what makes you tick. Instead of trying to impress readers by making up unusual or shocking things, think about how you spend your free time. Ask yourself why you spend it that way and how your upbringing, your identity, and your life experiences have shaped who you are. 


Background is the central theme behind any response to prompt #1. The background that you have can include long-term interactions with art or music, sciences, sports, writing, and many other learned skills. It also includes your social environments and how they’ve influenced you. In addition, you can highlight intersections between multiple parts of your background or multiple backgrounds in general, and you can show how each one is essential to you.


Prompt #1 Essay Examples and Tips 


Include an Anecdote


Let’s look at an essay example that shows how to talk about your background. In this essay, the author tells the story of how growing up in a poor Vietnamese immigrant family inspired her to seize big opportunities, even if they were a little risky or challenging. She focused her story on the emotional demands of opening and running a family grocery store:


An opportunity knocked on my parents’ door. A grocery store in the town of Dennis Mississippi was up for rent. My parents took the chance, risking all of their savings. And on the first day, the business brought in exactly $20. My mother and my father wept after they closed the shop, seeing the business as a failure. My mom commenced packing that night. Returning to Vietnam seemed inevitable. The next business day, however, sales increased tenfold.


More and more customers came each successive day. And my mom’s tears turned into more tears, but they were tears of joy. My mother unpacked a bag each night. 15 years later, my parents now own Blue Ravine Grocery. My parents work, work, work to keep the shelves stocked, and the customers kept coming. The grocery store holds a special place in my heart. It’s the catalyst for my success.


So when the opportunity to attend the Mississippi school for mathematics and science presented itself, I took it and ran as my parents did by leaving Vietnam and by buying the store. Although the opportunities that my parents and I pursued are quite different, our journey is the same. We walk a road paved with uncertainty and doubt with the prospect of success fortified by our hearts and our hands. 


This excerpt does several things well. Perhaps most importantly, it opens with an anecdote and it closes with reflection. That’s what your essay should do in the aggregate. 


One thing to bring your attention to here is that the essay opens on a story about the author’s parents. You want to make sure that if you’re going to use this kind of narrative that you make the essay about you as much as possible. You have to show how you are going to be interacting with each character and how it paves the way for your background.


Focus on Your Identity


Moving on from background, you can also talk about your racial identity, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply your place within a specific community for this essay. Even communities as unique as players of World of Warcraft can make for great essay topics.


In addition, you have to make sure that you explain context well if you’re talking about any sort of more insular community, whether that’s one related to where you grew up or a small culture you are a part of. Otherwise, it can be difficult for a reader who’s not part of that community to understand the messages and the lessons that you’re trying to impart. 


Alternatively, focusing on a dominant personality trait can also make for a compelling theme. For example, if you are extremely outgoing, you could explain how your adventurousness has allowed you to learn from a diverse group of friends and the random situations you find yourself in.


One important thing to note is that the topic of identity can easily lack originality. If you cover a common experience, like feeling divided between cultures, your essay might not stand out. That’s simply because the admissions officers reading these essays have seen some version of these essays many times, so striking a unique chord is going to be more difficult.


If such experiences were super integral to who you are and you must write about them, you should. You shouldn’t feel that you can’t, but you should be sure to show your unique introspection and reflection. Ask yourself why your topic is unique to you. Here is an essay example that talks about identity in a creative and insightful way: 


Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.


My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.


Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.


After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I desperately wanted to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.


During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.


It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging. 


Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.


You can see how the writer takes the common topic of immigrating to the United States and makes a unique story out of it. It’s not just about struggling to find a place to fit in — it’s about how they ultimately did fit in by helping other people who were even more estranged from mainstream American culture than they were. 


Talk About an Interest


Lastly, an interest is another topic you can write about for this prompt. Interests are basically synonymous with activities in this case, but slightly broader. You can say that interests encompass activities in the same way that squares are rectangles, but rectangles aren’t squares. 


Participation in an interest is often less organized than in an activity. For instance, you might run cross country as an activity, but cook or paint as an interest. Writing about an interest is a way to highlight passions that may not come across in the rest of your application. For example, if you’re a wrestler, writing about your interest in standup comedy would be a refreshing addition to your application, and you should also feel free to use this topic to show what an important activity on your application really means to you.


Keep in mind, however, that a lot of schools will ask you to describe one of your activities in their supplemental essays. Thinking strategically, you don’t want to write twice about the same thing in two different essays. 


How to Perfect Your Prompt #1 Essay


Want to know if your response to Common App prompt #1 is strong enough for your top-choice schools? Try out our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free, anonymous, and secure review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills and earn CollegeVine Karma by reviewing other users’ essays!