How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #1, 2019-2020

Welcome to the 2019-2020 college application season. It’s here and we’re doing a series on the seven Common App personal essay prompts because, a) it can be overwhelming, and b) it can be hard to decipher exactly what “they” want to hear. They, meaning the schools on your school list.

While we aren’t the Wizard of Common App Oz, we do have some experience writing hundreds of Common App essays with our students which ultimately help them get into the school(s) of their choice. We’ve gained a serious amount of information and insight over the years that we hope might help you navigate this first big decision of the application process: your essay topic.

“Essay” is actually a misnomer, in our opinion. Your essay should really be a story, with a discrete beginning, middle, and end. It shouldn’t be a list of your resume items or an essay on your last vacation. This story is the most important part of your application because it’s the only opportunity that you have in the application process to show your school(s) of choice who you are, how your brain works, and how you conduct your life. It’s an important opportunity to seize and it’s crucial to be intentional and mindful about choosing the right prompt for you. Let’s start with prompt #1, shall we?

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.

TLDR: we really dislike this prompt. Not to start off on a negative note, but we can’t help it. There are other prompts we like more. We say skip this prompt. We dislike that it’s listed as prompt #1. We feel this way for a few reasons:  

1)    It asks you to compartmentalize and qualify your worth

The language that the Common App chooses to use for this prompt could make you feel inadequate. Particularly the background and identity part: it’s asking you to qualify your identity with some unique aspect of yourself that may just not resonate. Ultimately, it’s important for you to know that no matter what your background, identity, interest, or talents are or are not, your background and your existence is meaningful. You don’t need to tell them something intimate or intense or unnecessarily vulnerable about yourself or your family just because they ask. If this makes you feel icky or anxious, move on to the next question and forget this prompt ever existed. Seriously.

2)    It conflates you with your resume

Your interests and talents are all over your application. They know this because you’ve mentioned it in the Activities section and, maybe, the Additional Information section. You don’t need to repeat and double-click into your extracurriculars or hobbies just because they ask and because you feel like that’s the important stuff that they care about. You are not your resume, so don’t feel tempted to write about something on your resume. This is your shot to go outside of your resume and actually tell a story about the person who you are. So don’t give in to peer pressure on this one and wax on about your “quirky” hobby that is ultimately superfluous and kind of overplayed because you feel like it needs to be. Just drop this prompt and walk away.

 3)    It causes a spike in our anxiety levels

Not just us? Great, you’re only human. We get it. These prompts should not add stress to your life—rather, they should open a door and give you a welcome opportunity to have some fun and insert some creativity into this layered process. Don’t get so caught up in the wording of these prompts that you lose sight of the goal with this essay—to share a great story with the person who is lucky enough to read your application.

So, as you can tell, it’s not our favorite prompt.

But, if after reading this whole rant you still want to use this prompt instead of prompt #7, please do. You should write a story that exemplifies your background, identity, interest, or talent. Don’t pontificate on the subject. Where we see most applicants fall short is that they rant incoherently about their background instead of telling a story. So make sure your story has a beginning, middle, and end. And please don’t talk about your extracurricular activities. Whatever you discuss in your common app essay, no matter the prompt number, should not be anywhere else in your application.

And @ Common App: we think this prompt would be better phrased as: “What’s your life like in the place you consider home?” or “Tell us about the last memorable dinner in your home.” Please take these and replace the verbiage of this question. We speak with students every day and get feedback from them. This prompt makes them anxious. There are lots of other worthy, interesting, and compelling prompts that allow for creativity, vulnerability, and honesty in a way that doesn’t feel icky.

Let us know if you have any questions at all. That’s why we’re here.