How To Write the Common App Essay: Prompt 1, 2018-2019

The biggest (and most frequent) complement we get on this blog is that we’re not selling things—we’re asking and answering questions. Yes, we are a company that provides intensive college admissions support, but it’s impossible for us to work with everyone. The next best thing is to make sure that everyone has the right information.

In this spirit, we have to admit that we completely ignore the Common App essay prompts when we work with clients. Yes, we’re serious. Sometimes an essay could have fit into one or another of them, but we don’t know that until it’s finished. In other words, it’s by chance, not by design. Instead of obsessing over prompts, we focus on writing great essays. However, we do see the value the prompts provide to people who don’t have the support of a private admissions counselor or writing coach. They offer a starting point and direction for students who are mostly going through the process alone.

To this end, we are going to break down the 2018-2019 Common App essay prompts, giving you the guidance you need to pick the right one for you.  In this post, we’ll be looking at 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.

Attention, attention, ATTENTION: This prompt is NOT for most people. The language is alluring, offering the opportunity to talk about something that you feel makes you unique, but there are actually a lot of ways to royally mess this one up.

Major Mess-Up #1: Becoming Redundant

You love soccer. We love that you love soccer. Soccer is great! But your college essay isn’t the place to write about how your superhero-level goal-scoring skills are an integral piece of who you are. Why? Because the essay is a place to highlight something that won’t come out anywhere else, and if you’re that obsessed with soccer it’s nearly impossible that your passion won’t show up in a supplement or two. Same goes for any sport, instrument, or another hobby that isn’t truly unique (and no, martial arts are not unique unless you went to the Olympics or something and even then you shouldn’t write about it in your essay).

Major Mess-Up #2: Writing A Biography

Last year, we had a stellar student/athlete who is also a person of color and identifies as queer. NO, you don’t have to be all of these things to get into a great school. In fact, very very few people are all of those things. But, you can be all of them and possibly prevent yourself from getting into your dream college by screwing up your essay. How, you ask? By writing an autobiography.

Now, this student had a lot of tales to tell that all of us should listen to, but the problem with this prompt is that it can come off as an invitation to lay out your life story like a 5th-grade project.

Once we started working with her, we were able to shift her essay from being about her entire life to being about precise moments that were vividly illustrated through descriptive language and scene-setting. In the end, her story was more vibrant, her voice was stronger, her narrative was more precise, and she still got to write about her journey as a queer woman of color.

Major Mess-Up #3: Writing Someone Else’s Biography

So, you avoided writing your autobiography. Whew! You’re not in the clear yet though. Another thing that this prompt tends to inspire are origin stories. These are essays that aren’t about the applicant at all really, but about a relative (often a grandparent) who is brave/inspiring/loving/difficult/challenging/etc. These can be essays about profound connection, or about abuse, but the key is that by focusing on someone else, the applicant is distracting the reader from who they should be focused on.

The Verdict

We recommend skipping this prompt. It was designed for the exception to the rule and for people who have something intimate to say, often that elucidates an aspect of their application that may otherwise be a red flag. Most applicants do not need to explain away a bad semester or to address another significant issue in their application, so it’s a prompt best avoided.

If you definitely want to use this prompt, then pick a small story and put a magnifying glass to it. Zoom in. Closer. Keep it small, local, and intimate.

Want some help rejecting the college essay prompts? We’re pros at helping students write excellent Common App essays that ignore the obvious.