The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #1 reads as follows:
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.
Especially because of its open-ended nature, essay prompt #1 is one of the most popular prompts chosen by applicants. The broad nature of the prompt gives you great freedom to select your topic and structure your essay, but it also comes with some pitfalls. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #1:
1. Narrowly define the meaningful aspect of your background, identity, interest, or talent.
Don't confuse essay prompt #1 with essay prompt #7, which invites you to share an essay on any topic of your choice. Although essay prompt #1 is quite broad, it is focused on exploring a significant aspect of your background, identity, interest, or talent. Notice that the prompt uses the disjunctive word "or," prompting you to focus on one of these four aspects. Following instructions is important, so make sure that you directly and specifically respond to the prompt and pick one of these aspects of yourself to discuss.
This prompt is asking you to think about four important questions about yourself: (1) where do you come from? (background); (2) who are you? (identity); (3) what are you passionate about? (interest); and (4) what are you skilled at? (talent). You could write countless pages answering each of these questions about yourself, but remember that you are limited to 250-650 words. Thus, you need to think about which aspect of yourself is most meaningful and necessary to discuss. How do you know if the aspect you select is meaningful enough? The prompt provides you the litmus test: your application would be incomplete without it. In other words, the reader would not be able to get to know the "real you" sufficiently without learning about this side of you.
Of course, there may be some overlap among the four categories, but you need to decide which aspect of yourself is most meaningful and necessary to include in your application so that you represent yourself fully and adequately. And once you decide which aspect to focus on (background, identity, interest, or talent), you need to drill down within the category so that you can narrow the scope of your story. For example, let's say that music is an essential part of your identity. A mediocre essay would give a broad resume-like survey of your music experiences, listing all of the bands and orchestras that you have participated in, the instruments that you play, and the competitions that you have won. It would certainly give the impression to your reader that music is an important aspect of who you are, but it would not be particularly compelling. A stronger essay would find an anchor story that represents why and how music is meaningful to your identity. Through that story--one recent quintessential and significant music experience--you would both explicitly and implicitly communicate the musical core of your identity. Finding that anchor story is important, as it provides you the narrative structure to sprinkle in your past experiences and your future goals.
2. Share your story but also reflect and provide insight.
The prompt invites you to share your story, and as I commented above, you should find an anchor story to share about your background, identity, interest, or talent. However, don't turn your essay into just a short story. As I am sure you have heard before, a strong college admissions essay balances showing and telling. Too much of one, without the other, dilutes the quality of your essay. On the one hand, you are not just engaging in creative writing, developing plot, setting, and characters. On the other hand, you are not just writing a diary entry, pontificating about your life in a stream-of-consciousness style. You have to strike the balance between the two.
Storytelling is crucial, especially at the beginning of the essay, to grab your reader's attention and motivate him to continue reading. Everyone loves a good story, and if your essay can stimulate your reader's imagination, senses, and curiosity, you are already halfway there to a great essay. However, after you have told a great story and grabbed and sustained your reader's attention, you have to remember to circle back and explain the significance of your story (i.e., connect the dots for your reader). Who cares? Why does your story matter? What does this all mean? How does this relate to your past, present, and future self? You want to make sure that you save some space in your essay to reflect on your experiences and provide insights into who you are and what you value. If the point of your story is obvious, you don't need to beat your reader over his head, but dedicate some space in your essay (probably towards the end) to bring things full circle and connect all of the dots for your reader. Don't assume that your reader will just "get the point." If this story is important enough to share, then you want to make sure that the point of the story is clearly communicated to all of your readers.
3. Avoid clichés and stereotypes.
The danger with this prompt is that it causes students to fall into the trap of clichés and stereotypes. For example, a varsity athlete might be tempted to write about how football has been so meaningful because it taught him the value of teamwork and failure. A first-generation immigrant might be tempted to write about the immigrant experience and the pursuit and meaning of the American dream. A science fair star might be tempted to write about participating in premier corporate science fairs (Intel, Siemens, Google, etc.) and the value of STEM experiences in shaping who she is. All of these experiences are meaningful and important. The problem is that boatloads of students, across generations, have written about these types of experiences such that they have become cliché and stereotypical. To be fair, there really is no new topic under the sun--almost everything has been written about in one way or another. However, when approaching this prompt, it is extremely important to be cognizant about the story you share and whether it is simply perpetuating clichés and stereotypes.
So how do you avoid the trap of clichés and stereotypes? As I mentioned above, it's very important to narrowly define your topic and drill down. If you remain at a bird's-eye view and write in a very general fashion, your essay will flop. You have to personalize your experience and make it very specific and concrete. Clichés and stereotypes are about fitting a certain group mold--a generalized and common experience. The antidote to becoming a generalized commonality is to be specific and concrete and share a focused and narrow story about yourself that is truly unique to you. Take, for example, the topic of football, which is extremely difficult to pull off even when done well. If you just write about football, its general features, and the typical lessons drawn from it, then your essay will be incredibly boring and predictable. However, if you drill down specifically into your experiences, you may be able to find a surprising, interesting, or counterintuitive angle or perspective about the topic that may redeem the topic from the trash heap of clichés and stereotypes. Maybe you suffered an injury during football that disabled you for a significant time but allowed you to find another interest or passion that you would have never discovered otherwise. Maybe your football coach is also your chemistry teacher, and he uniquely was able to capture your attention both on the field and in the classroom and inspire you in new directions. Maybe a member of your football team suffered a personal tragedy that brought your team closer together and empowered you to serve your community in some specific and concrete fashion. The possibilities are endless--and the clichés and stereotypes begin to fade--when you get specific enough.
One last thought: remember that this prompt is asking you to share a story about an aspect of yourself that you feel is necessary to mention to complete your application. Your application would be incomplete without it. If other aspects of your application already make it obvious that you are a football star, an immigrant activist, or a science fair queen, is it really necessary for you to write an essay about something that is so prominently featured in your application already? Each piece of your application should be revealing a different and important feature of who you are, such that a more comprehensive and compelling story of who you are is told when all of the pieces come together. Try to avoid redundancies in your application, and seize every opportunity to reveal a different facet of your dynamic personality and character.