Common Application Essay: How to Answer Prompt #1

By Lee Shulman Bierer, College Admissions Strategies – Founder


There are seven essay choices on the Common Application. Students only need to write one essay that is between 250-650 words. Let’s take a look 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.”

The Common App’s Prompt #1 is often referred to as the “Old Faithful” of essay questions. It’s been around for years and offers all the flexibility an applicant could ask for from a prompt, with just enough direction to get those creative juices flowing. What about your history, culture, personality, hobbies, or accomplishments might be worth highlighting for an admissions officer? It can be something as small as walking your dog or as large as the struggle of figuring out how you fit in. The most important thing to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to you and who you are and no one else.

As you approach the Common App essay keep in mind that these prompts are very carefully and deliberately developed. Nothing is there indiscriminately. Each prompt gives direct and subtle guidance. Check out the key words in Prompt # 1: “background,” “story,” “identity,” “incomplete without”. What are they asking? What are they looking for in your response?

“Identity” is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your “background, identity, interest, or talent.”  Your “background” can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that have had a profound impact on your identity. Your “interest” or “talent” could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. Whichever way you choose to approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.

Overall, this prompt is what I call a “choose-your-own-adventure” prompt. It has historically served as a  fabulous catch-all for subjects that don’t fit within the confines of the other prompt options. A recent addition  to the Common App’s prompt selection now offers even more freedom to applicants (more on that later), but  students should still think of Prompt #1 as a topic of immense choice, reeled in by a few helpful guidelines.


Prompt #1 asks students to tell their own stories. It gives you the chance to figuratively bring your application to life. After all, there’s much more to you than your GPA, activity list, test score, and a few recommendations. This prompt is focused on diversity; the committee wants to know more about what makes you unique, your life’s passion and even how you define yourself in your community and in society as a whole. We’re looking for you to share how your background has shaped who you are today. We want to be inspired by your hobbies, creativity and even discovery of hidden talents. Committees want to know what’s meaningful to you, and how these meanings might fit into their next class of scholars.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: