Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent

how to write 2015 common app background identity interest or talent essayIt’s that time of year again — college application season.

I love it.

Why? Students start to envision themselves as college freshmen. The next step of their lives is on the horizon. It’s almost here.

But first…

You’ve got a college admissions essay to write.

Don’t worry. Help is on the way.

In this series of posts, I’ll give you tips on how to write the 2015 Common Application essay.

I’ll tell you how to choose a college essay prompt, what colleges look for in college essay answers, and how to avoid college essay pitfalls. I’ll give you essay examples, too.

First — an overview.

  • The 2015 Common Application has five prompts.
  • You answer one of them. 250-650 words.
  • Click here to read my posts on Common Application Essay Prompt #2, Prompt #3, Prompt #4, and Prompt #5.
  • For a complete list of the 2015 Common Application questions, click here.
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check your list. Some schools require different essays.

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 — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You?

  • “Background, identity, interest.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Think about what’s shaped your life – who you are, how you think, your hobbies. 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 molded 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 understand you. You also haven’t told it anywhere else in your application.

Why Choose this Prompt?
1. This experience helped shape who you are.
2. If you didn’t tell this story, the school wouldn’t fully understand you.
3. Your topic doesn’t fit any of the other prompts.

Possible Pitfalls:

  • This isn’t “topic of your choice.” You can’t write about anything you’d like. You have to satisfy the keywords.
  • Always Say 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.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

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 from 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.

If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

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
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

For the entire list of 2015 Common App essay prompts click here.



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. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.