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How To Respond to the Common Application 2016 Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interests, and Talents

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If you’re applying to colleges during this applications season, chances are you’ll become pretty familiar with the Common Application over the next few months. The Common App serves as the main application database for dozens of top universities, and as such is used by thousands of students a year.


With the Common App comes the Common App essays. Officially released on August 1st of this year, the five Common App prompts offer students the opportunity to show admissions officers who they are on a deeper level. Students are to choose one of the five prompts, and their responses are sent to every Common App school they choose to apply to.


It goes without saying that your Common App essay is one of the most important components of your college application. After all, it is often the most substantial piece of writing in your application, and is highly valued by admissions officers during the admissions process as a way to gain insight into your personality and passions. A strong and compelling Common App essay will go a long way in helping improve your chances of admission to top universities.


Because of the essay’s importance, many students may be initially intimidated by the Common App prompts and not know where to start. However, there’s no need to worry. We at CollegeVine have analyzed all five Common App prompts and provided you with the tips and tricks you need to write a fantastic personal statement. In this blog post, we’ll be looking at Prompt #1 and give you the tools you need to write an amazing response.

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.


  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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!

Drafting Your Essay

While writing the first draft of your Common App essay, you should remember that first drafts are often called “rough” for a reason. They’re not meant to be incredible right off the bat; there’s ample time to edit, fine tune, and perfect later on in the process.


Don’t put too much pressure on yourself by trying to ensure that your writing is perfect from the get-go. Often times, a raw stream of consciousness can be a great starting point. Write whatever comes to mind without giving a whole lot of consideration to grammar, syntax, or diction.


Additionally, at this point you shouldn’t be too concerned about word count. You should definitely aim to stay comfortably close to the designated range. Remember, the maximum word count for a Common App essay is 650 words, and so a 4,000-word first draft may be pretty difficult to work with. However, that being said, at this stage your main focus should just be to get the words on the page.


Focus on demonstrating the importance of your topic choice. This essay should be a glimpse into your personality, and admissions officers should come away from it feeling as though they know you on a deeper level. Don’t be afraid to get personal and don’t be afraid to include details. Write this essay as though you are writing to a dear friend, a close confidante, a person you can trust and are comfortable with.


That being said, be sure to stay away from obviously taboo subjects. Anything involving personal drug or alcohol use on your part probably is not the best idea. Extremely controversial and/or divisive topics, such as politics, should be treated with great care. Although you should be open, remember that the individuals reading this essay will be determining whether or not you belong at their institution of higher learning. You don’t want to give them any reason to doubt that you do.


Above all, your essay needs to reveal information that doesn’t come up in other parts of your application. While connecting your personal statement back to the overall theme or narrative in your greater application can be helpful, the overall focus should be on you as a person, and not necessarily on you as a set of test scores, grades, and extracurriculars. This essay provides you with the opportunity to more fully flesh out your application, and you should take advantage of that opportunity.


Editing Your Essay

Once you’ve finished your first draft, you should set your essay aside for a couple of days to a week. It’s best to revisit your essay with fresh eyes, so you can easily identify what works and what doesn’t.


While making edits, there are a couple things you should keep an eye out for. For one, you should ensure that the voice or overall tone of your essay is reflective of how you speak, albeit in a slightly more formal style. Additionally, you should ensure that your essay has a clearly defined story arc that is relatively easy for the reader to follow. This story arc should heavily rely on and eventually culminate with how your topic choice is extremely relevant to you as a person.


Additionally, you should ensure that your language is as direct and easily understood as possible. Don’t be afraid to cut down your word count. If something can be said in fewer words, then it should be. Your writing will be that much more effective. Every word needs to count.


As you edit your essay, you should also ensure that what you’ve written is deeply personal. After all, this is your personal statement, and thus it must reveal a lot about you. One way to do this is by including anecdotes, as we’ve previously touched upon. Anecdotes help bring your essay to life, and can be extremely compelling in delivering your overall message.


Prompt #1 of the Common App is arguably the broadest of the five essay prompts, and as such you have many options when it comes to determining how to approach this essay. At the end of the day, your most important consideration should be ensuring that your essay conveys something deeply personal and pertinent to you that completes your application as a whole.


Want more help writing your Common App essay? Check out How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.