Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

How to Write 2016 Common App Essay #1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent

Leave a comment

How to write 2016 Common App essay 11. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without itDo you know how to write your best Common Application essay? Do you know which Common App essay prompt is right for you? Or even how to choose?

Some schools read tens of thousands of essays a year. So it’s important for your college essay to stand out.

In this series of posts, I’ll give you tips on how your Common Application essay can stand out.

You’ll learn:

  • What schools look for in Common Application essay answers
  • How to choose an essay prompt
  • How to avoid college essay pitfalls

I’ll give you essay examples, too.

First — let’s start with Common Application Essay basics:

  • The 2016 Common Application has five prompts. You answer one of them.
  • The Common App essay must be between 250-650 words.
  • You can’t upload more than 650 words (or fewer than 250).
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check every college on your list for its essay requirements.
  • Click here for the entire list of 2016 Common App essay prompts.

Okay, ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay 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.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2015 common app essay

Background — Identity — Interest — Talent — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You? 

  • “Background, identity, interest, talent.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Think about what has shaped your life: Is it who you are?… Where you’ve come from?…What you love?…How you think?…A hobby you just learned? You can write about almost anything as long as it’s important to the person you’ve grown to be.
  • “Meaningful” means that this experience has shaped you in a fundamental way—It has influenced your choices, outlook, perspective and/or goals.
  • Your application would be “incomplete without it.” You need to tell this story in order for people to fully understand you. You also haven’t told it anywhere else in your application.

Choose this Prompt IF:

1. This experience helped shape you in a positive way.
2. If you didn’t tell this story, the admissions committee wouldn’t fully understand you.
3. Your topic doesn’t fit any of the other prompts.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • This isn’t a “topic of your choice.”  Sure, you may like to swim or travel, but unless it’s a meaningful experience that helped define you in some way, it doesn’t qualify. You have to satisfy the keywords.
  • Don’t omit what you learned. Even though the prompt doesn’t specify it, make sure to include what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown from your experience. This is essential for a complete answer.

Examples of Successful Essay Topics:

“Road Trip”

A high school student was the youngest of three brothers. His brothers were a lot older (one was in the Marine Corps and one was a teacher). He was very proud that the example they set for him had helped him become responsible and mature, and wanted to write about it. So he chose the summer they invited him on their cross-country trip—and the night, on their way into Denver, that they found themselves heading into a dangerous storm.

The two older brothers began arguing: One wanted to be safe and stop for the night and the other wanted to make it to their destination on time. The student saw the brothers were at an impasse, so he checked the forecast and radar maps and figured out they could avoid the storm by taking a less direct route to their destination. When they stopped for gas, he got out of the car and presented his solution to each of his brothers. When the brothers voiced their concerns, the student calmly answered all of their questions. Eventually, the brothers agreed to continue to Denver using the longer route. When they got back in the car, they asked him to navigate.

By keeping a level head and then finding the right way to communicate with each of his brothers, the student was able to facilitate a solution that satisfied everyone. He was proud that he helped lead them safely to their destination, and even more so that he lived up to the examples of responsibility and maturity that his brothers had taught him.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. This student couldn’t talk about his identity without writing about his family. The example his brothers set for him made him expect a lot of himself and become a responsible leader in many of his daily activities. It was central to who he was.
  • He learned from his experience. By being mature and thoughtful, he found that he could make a positive difference in a difficult situation.

“Ballet Dancer”

A young woman was such an accomplished ballet dancer that she studied with the prestigious Bolshoi ballet in New York. Everyone, including her family, assumed that she’d turn professional. Instead, she decided to become a nutritionist. The student wrote about her love of ballet and how it exposed her to a hidden world of young dancers with eating disorders. Ballet led this student to a new goal: helping dancers stay healthy.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. This student couldn’t tell her story without writing about dance. It was central to her identity and her application would be incomplete without it.
  • She learned from her experience. From her perspective as a dancer, she realized what she wanted to do with her future.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:

A student enjoyed driving his car. He liked to ride for hours listening to his favorite music and taking twists and turns he didn’t know, just see where he would end up. Sometimes he drove so far that he had to use his GPS to get home.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Fail?

  • The keywords are not addressed. This is a nice story, and probably would be interesting to read. But the student doesn’t indicate anywhere how or why it’s central to who he is or what his talents are.  If he didn’t write about this activity, no one would miss it.
  • There is no learning or growing experience.

Is Common App prompt 1 a good choice for an original, memorable topic? Absolutely.

Everyone has a background, identity, talent or interest. Brainstorm. See if you can come up with one, two, or three answers to this question. Have fun with it! Be silly, serious, original, provocative. Make connections and see where they take you. You might just arrive at a wonderful, meaningful, and memorable Common Application essay personal statement.

Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #2.

Also in this series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: A Time you Experienced Failure
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

For the entire list of 2016 Common App essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.






Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s