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College Essay Background Story Example

The Common App 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.


Breaking It Down

In many ways, Prompt One is the quintessential personal statement prompt in that it asks students to reflect on who they are as individuals. This prompt is relatively broad, and encompasses many different topics such that students with varying experiences can respond to it. Let’s take a look at exactly what this prompt is addressing, so we can better understand how to respond to it.



“Background” can mean a lot of things depending on each individual’s interpretation of the term. For instance, one could discuss their cultural heritage, their socioeconomic status, their religious beliefs, or their race, ethnicity, or nationality. All of these different topics would fall under the domain of one’s background.


That being said, “background” can also be viewed more metaphorically. For instance, different experiences could qualify as one’s background. For instance, maybe a student encountered a specific set of circumstances in their past, and these circumstances were critical to their development as an individual. These circumstances could range anywhere from dealing with a debilitating illness, to growing up in a big family, to moving around a lot as kid. So long as these past experiences were formative in your life, they can be used to help answer this prompt.


In short, one way to think about background is to consider it as your personal history. It’s your past narrative leading up to the moment of you writing this essay and applying to colleges. It’s the events, circumstances, and other factors that have made you who you are today. Whether those factors are more concrete or abstract — as long as they qualify as personal history — they’re fair game for Prompt #1.



In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the terms “background” and “identity.” Many of the different topics we mentioned as applicable to the former also apply to the latter, with some nuances.


For instance, one’s race, ethnicity, or nationality is certainly one aspect of their identity, as is religion. To add to this more technical approach to identity, sexuality, gender identity, and socioeconomic identity also apply.


However, this list is certainly not comprehensive, and it never truly can be. One’s identity is entirely unique to them. Your identity is essentially what makes you who you are as an individual; it’s the different attributes, qualities, and characteristics that largely define you. What you personally view as part of your identity is entirely up to your discretion, because there is no one way to define the term. After all, by its very nature, identity is extremely personal.


As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that anything that fundamentally contributes to and defines who you are is part of your identity, and thus something that you can certainly focus on in your response to Prompt One.



In many ways, this term is relatively more self-explanatory. By including “interest” as part of the prompt, the Common App is giving you the opportunity to elaborate on your passions and motivations.


One way to approach this is by connecting the interest you describe in this essay to the larger theme of your overall application. For instance, if you’ve taken several AP science courses, are a leader on your school’s Science Olympiad team, and conduct research in a lab, you can elaborate on your interest in science. You could provide anecdotes that demonstrate how that interest started, details on what spurred it, and other information that adds another dimension to your application.


Another approach to the “interest” part of this prompt is to write about a quirky or unique interest college admissions officers may not otherwise know about. This can help to more fully flesh out your application. For instance, one could describe their interest in entomology (the study of insects).


The key is to ensure that this quirky interest helps to reveal something deeper about you. In our example, you could connect your passion for entomology to your fascination with nature and the environment, and also demonstrate why this passion is so integral to who you are as an individual.



This is your opportunity to elaborate on special skills, unusual abilities, and other unique aptitudes you bear. You can describe talents from across the spectrum, ranging from musical abilities to less common skills, like tightrope walking.


Additionally, you can also discuss talents that may not immediately seem obvious, like your ability to listen to others and be a shoulder to cry on. Like most terms used in this prompt, talent is a very broad term, and that’s purposeful — this prompt is meant to encompass a wide range of interpretations so that it’s accessible to many students.


Of course, no matter what talent you choose, it’s vital that you show admissions officers why this talent is so meaningful to who you are today. Indeed, whether you decide to focus on background, identity, interests, or talents, the most important thing about this essay is to demonstrate why any one factor is “so meaningful [that you] believe [your] application would be incomplete without it.”


Although many terms in this prompt are rather subject to interpretation, the term “incomplete” is not — your topic choice must be something that is absolutely integral to who you are as a person, or it will not be as effective.



Considering how open-ended this prompt is, you may initially be at a loss as to what to focus on. One way to help clear this form of writer’s block is to start generating relevant ideas and then deciding which concept works best for you. To do so, you can try out this brainstorming exercise.


  1. Think about how you would describe yourself to a person you’re relatively close to and have a good deal of trust in. What comes to mind first? What is most important to you? What details are most pertinent? What do you want to ensure they know about you? What is most central to who you are?
  2. Jot down the different responses that come to mind. You can use sentences, phrases, words — anything that works for you, personally. Focus on recording what’s coming to mind right as you’re thinking it, and don’t filter anything out just yet.
  3. Analyze the list you’ve created. What themes do you see? Does anything show up more than once? What are some of the recurring ideas? What feels most compelling to you? If you could only discuss one of the concepts you’ve listed, which would you choose? Why?
  4. Once you’ve identified what you feel is most central, think about how it relates back to the prompt. Does it fall under the category of either background, identity, interest, or talent in some way? How does it do so? Which category does it relate best to? Is their overlap? How so?
  5. Most importantly, is this concept absolutely integral to who you are as an individual? Does it help define you in some way? How does it do that? Is it meaningful? If applications did not know this specific thing about you, would they still be able to fully understand who you are as a person? If not, why?


Once you’ve run through this brainstorming exercise, you should at least have a better idea of what topic you’d like to focus on. With a topic in mind, it now becomes time to actually write the essay!

Do 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 2017Common Applicationhas seven prompts (up from five last year). 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 herefor the entire list of 2017 Common App essay prompts.

There are two new prompts this year. The Common Application wants to make sure every student finds a question that’s inspiring.

What do schools look for in a Common Application essay?

  • Your writing skills
  • Your ability to communicate your ideas
  • Your personality on the page. (What you care about, what makes you laugh, think, hope, dream, care, stay up at night. In other words, what’s meaningful to you and why.)
  • Often, a learning or growth experience

Common Application Essay Instructions

What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.

What should you know about these instructions? They’re open-ended on purpose. You can write about anything that’s important to you, that inspires you, that you care about—in other words, what helps makes you, you. Just make sure you know what your good qualities are, and what you want the schools to know about you.

Tip: If you’re not sure what your best qualities are, download mypositive qualities worksheet, which will help you figure them out. Then you’re on your way.

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:

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’s shaped your life: Is it who you are…where you’re 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.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • It has to mean something.  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.
  • Don’t sound like anyone else. Choose an original topic. Definitely avoid writing about sports or mission trips—they’ve been written about so much most of them sound stale. It’s better to think about what else makes you stand out. If you’ve got the best recipe for sticky buns or like to hunt for fossils, and you can link that to who you are, that’s going to be a more original topic.

Examples of 2 Successful Essay Topics:

“Road Trip”

My student, Jeff, was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom were a lot older (one was in the Marine Corps and one was a teacher). Jeff was proud that the example his brothers set had helped him become responsible and mature, and he wanted to write about it. So he chose the summer they invited him on their cross-country trip, and the night 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. Jeff recognized his 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, Jeff got out of the car and presented his solution. When they voiced their concerns, he calmly answered all of their questions. Eventually, his brothers agreed to continue to Denver using the longer route. When they got back in the car they asked Jeff to navigate.

By keeping a level head and finding the right way to communicate with his brothers, Jeff 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. Jeff 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”

Marina 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. Marina wrote about her love of ballet and how it exposed her to a hidden world of young dancers with eating disorders. Ballet led her to a new goal: helping dancers stay healthy.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  • All the keywords are addressed. Marina 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. Her perspective as a dancer showed her what she wanted to do with her future.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:

Alex 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’s no learning or growing experience.

Is Common App essay 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! 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.

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
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: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common App essay promptsclick here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpfulFacebook page.

Sharon Epstein is owner ofFirst Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. 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 onGoogle+, Pinterest and Twitter.
















Categories: College Essay - Planning, College Essay - Writing, College Essay Writing Don'ts, Common Application Essay Prompts, How to Choose a College Essay Topic | Tags: Common Application essay examples, Common Application essay instructions, how to choose a college essay topic, How to write 2017 Common Application essay prompt personal statement 1, Some students have a background identity interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it, What schools look for in Common App essay | Permalink.

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