How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #1

How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #1

The Common App 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.

Are you a first generation college student?

Is English your second language?

Ever faced any hardships in life that were defining moments for you? This is the type of anecdote idea that’ll arise when you’re doing college essay anecdote brainstorming exercise #3

Well then, this is the essay where you can SHINE, my friend!

Let’s break down how to answer The Common Application Essay prompt #1.

First thing’s first: Common Application essay prompts are all of the type, “tell us more about yourself.” This means that you need to dig deep and find that one memorable story with a memorable message that the admissions folks will remember.

The message is that one-liner statement that embodies who you are. It’s that one statement that you want the admissions officer to remember about you once he finishes reading your personal statement.

So, back to the essay prompt. This first Common App Essay prompt is nice because it gives you a few topic ideas for your essay; it wants you to focus on your background, identify, interests, or talent.

Sweet, let’s start there.

How to Answer the Common App Essay: What’s a college essay anecdote based on your background?

“Background” could be anything. This is some vague stuff.

Maybe your background is that you have parents that are super famous and were never in your life… or you were bullied… or you had a tough living situation growing up. Your background can be your culture or your upbringing.

Your background is literally anything that has shaped you. Story topics here are endless.


Here’s the thing.

Don’t write a sob story. If you’re writing about something sad, then, yes — your tone is going to be sad. But, you must end on a positive note. The conclusion is extremely important.

You must end with how your background has defined and molded you into a harder, better, faster, stronger version of you (what a good song).


Don’t end your essay with a trite message like an old Disney film. Go deep in your analysis of what you learned from this experience and how you’ve grown from it.

How to Answer the Common App Essay: What’s a topic based on your identity?

This is pretty related to the background.

Your identity could be the fact that you’re Chinese. Maybe you’re part of the LGBT community? Maybe you identify yourself as the mini-version of your super accomplished sibling and you’re trying to get out of that mold?

Or, maybe… you’re a hipster *gasp* (actually, for the most part, don’t write about being a hipster)

There are plenty of defining identities that have molded you. A lot of great stories can stem from these.

How to Answer the Common App Essay: What’s a topic based on your interest?

Ooooh. Admisisons officers (and human beings in general) absolutely love reading about interests and passions. These interest-driven essays can sometimes be inauthentic, though, because students can feel the need to write about an interest that they’re not THAT into, but they think it makes them sound intelligent.

For instance, I recently read an essay by a student who wrote about his passion for cancer biology.

I prodded him a bit about the topic: “Um, really? You reallllly think about cancer biology in your spare time and you just can’t get enough of it?!”

Eventually, he said he was genuinely interested in it, but we decided that his interest in cancer biology wasn’t a strong enough one-liner message he wanted the admissions committee to remember about him. Afterall, he had only read articles and books about cancer biology.

A passion for cancer biology could be a great topic as long as it truly defines you.

The bottom line is: You have one shot to “talk” to the admissions officer during the application process. How do you want to be remembered?

How to Answer the Common Application Essay: What’s a topic based on your talent?

Here’s my advice about writing about your talents for your college admissions essay: Don’t do it.

Well, if your talent is an interest or passion of yours, then write all you want about it. But, keep in mind that you need to sound likeable in your essay… and no one likes a braggart. So, if you decide to write about a talent, don’t write about how awesomely awesome you are at that talent.

3 Must-haves for a Perfect College Essay Anecdote

3 Must-haves for a Perfect College Essay Anecdote

When writing the college application essay, the biggest struggle for students is… How do you find the perfect anecdote for your Common App and college application essays?

Here’s the thing: Nowadays, as the college admissions process gets more competitive, the anecdote you pick is absolutely essential. It’s the only platform (apart from interviews) in the entire application process where you can speak directly to the admissions officer of your dream schoo.

The essay is the only opportunity where you can showcase your passions and unique voice that set you apart from the rest of the applicant pool.

So, you must take advantage of it!

Well, what makes a good anecdote? Actually, how do you even brainstorm a good anecdote? I’ll show you how.

3 Must-haves for the Perfect College Essay Anecdote

Your college essay must:

  • Showcase growth
  • Have a message & showcase your personality
  • Be laser-focused and specific

1. Your College Essay Anecdote Must Showcase Growth

College admissions officers want to understand how you’ve grown over the years and throughout your high school career. I mean, college can be tough — the lessons you’ve learned from various life experiences will help determine how well you’ll adjust and succeed to college culture and college academics. So, your anecdote must paint a picture of an experience that has TAUGHT you something.

Don’t be VAGUE about the learnings from an experience.

For instance, don’t say that a takeaway from a story is that… you’re hardworking and you’ve learned to overcome obstacles from an experience. I hear these general analyses all the time!

These examples are vague and oftentimes just plan silly. Most students applying to your dream schools are hardworking, resilient people. So, saying that you’re hardworking doesn’t distinguish you from the crowd.

The trick is to go one step deeper: Yes, you’re hardworking, but what specific experience(s) have led you to be resilient and hardworking? These experiences that taught you the value of (insert trait here) will make you stand out.

What pivotal moment in your life has made you realize that (insert trait here) is crucial? Think of the answers to this question and sit with it. You know if your answer is trite and generic. Force yourself to keep delving deeply and be insightful!

2. Your College Application Essay Needs to Showcase Your Personality

If you have a working draft of your essay, read it out loud.

Once you’re done, ask yourself this: Based on this essay anecdote, in three words, how would you describe the personality of this writer?

Then, ask yourself these two questions: Are these three personality traits unique to YOU? Are these traits that you’d consider to be your core values?

Make sure your answer is “Yes!” to the above two questions. Your essay must very clearly showcase your personality.

Once you’ve solidified the personality part of your essay, ask yourself the final (and possibly the most important) question of all: What is the message you want to convey in your essay anecdote? How do you want to be remembered? Is this clearly evident in the conclusion and analysis part of your essay?

The message and personality aspects of the essay are actually quite intertwined… as Maya Angelou said:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
–Maya Angelou

3. Your College Essay Anecdote Must Be Laser-focused

There are two main ways you can structure your essay: bird’s eye view vs. laser-focused view.

I highly suggest that you choose the laser-focused essay anecdote route.

Let’s use an example to talk about these two camps in greater detail. Let’s say that the main message of your essay is this: I want the admissions folks at XYZ University to know that I’m passionate about camping and this sparked my interest in environmental science.รข””

In the bird’s eye view route, you could use a few small anecdotes about camping that led you to be interested in environmental science and the outdoors. The problem is, in a limited, 650 word essay, you don’t have much of an opportunity to tell a juicy story using a few small anecdotes. The bird’s eye view writing style is actually almost like an AP English paper; you have a thesis (your message) and you’re trying to find 3 facts to support your thesis. This is boring and doesn’t give you an opportunity to showcase you and your personality.

On the other hand, a laser-focused and specific essay anecdote allows you to paint a picture of the story and showcase your voice and personality. In this route, you’d use one event — that pivotal moment — that led you to realize your love of camping and convinced you that environmental science was a true passion. This one moment is the climax of your essay anecdote… this is key.

So, now that you know what makes a good anecdote for a college essay, let’s talk about brainstorming methods for the perfect college essay anecdote to get your creative juices flowing.

5 Essential Common App Essay Writing Secrets

5 Essential Common App Essay Writing Secrets

Alright, ready to write your first Common App Essay draft?

First thing’s first: I want you to force yourself to sit down, uninterrupted, and write for at least 30 minutes. Then, take a break, then start back up for 30 minutes again. Do this until you run completely out of juice.

I know these time targets seem sort of arbitrary but there’s a method to this madness: These concentrated pockets of time spent writing is meant to discipline your mind to get used to writing a Common App Essay.

While you’re writing your first rough draft, keep in mind these 5 tips:

  • Highlight your personal brand message
  • Show how the story unfolds.
  • Write with an authentic voice
  • Write a hooky introduction
  • Finish strong with a positive, upbeat conclusion.

1. Highlight your Personal Brand Message in Your Common App Essay

Before you dive right into writing, do this: At the top of your document, write and highlight that one-liner personal brand message that will be the core of the story.

I don’t want you to forget these two very critical attributes that are make-or-break factors of a winning personal statement.

Keep these factors top of mind when you write your story.

2. Show how the story unfolds

When you tell a story, show your reader how the story unfolds.

Don’t tell your reader that a series of events simply happened and how it made you feel. Show the the reader the details of how the story unfolded.

You see, if you do a good job describing in detail how the story unfolded, then your reader will naturally feel how you were feeling in that moment.

In other words, you don’t need to explicitly tell the reader that you were excited. You should aim to paint such a vivid picture of the story that the reader will naturally feel excited for you.

In order to show how your story unfolds, be specific about the details of the situation.

Don’t say:
“I was excited when I led my basketball team to state championships.”

“The time was running out; I had no choice but to make the 3-pointer shot. I jumped, took the shot, and held my breath as the ball rolled slowly around the rim of the basketball net. I almost prayed for a slight breeze to push it into the net. Finally, the ball slowly rolled in — I made the shot! Everyone went wild.”

The second example is more fun to read, isn’t it? This is what you want.

Before you run off into the sunset, there’s a big but here.

Showing how a story unfolds is absolutely critical. But, don’t overdo it. If you overloading every sentence of your essay with adjectives in an effort to show, not tell, it gets hard to read and each unnecessary adjective takes up valuable word real estate.

The solution is to alternate between showing and telling.

3.Your College Essay Needs Your Authentic Voice

When you write, you might feel a need to be pedantic.

Fight this impulse. You don’t want to sound so stiff.

Harnessing an authentic voice is a little tricky. But, try this: Err on the side of using language that’s more casual than super formal. In other words, write how you would normally talk. This way, you’ll preserve your voice.

In later revisions, you can always change casual sounding parts of an essay. It’s harder to reinsert voice into an already dull sounding essay.

4. Write a Hooky Introduction

You need to jolt the admissions officer awake with a hooky introduction.

The introduction is the reader’s first impression of you. Seize it as an opportunity to make yourself stand out from the sea of other highly qualified applicants dying to get into to your dream school.

You see, there’s a chance that your admissions officer is drained from a day’s work by the time he gets to your essay. It’s absolutely critical that your writing shakes him awake, especially if he’s tired.

Make him want to read it.

To get your gears turning, here are five introduction ideas:

  • Begin with dialogue.
  • Start with a quote.
  • State a shocking, bold statement. Keep it appropriate, though!
  • Start right in the middle of a story.
  • Pose a question.

5. Finish Your Common App Essay With a Positive, Upbeat Conclusion.

The feeling you create at the end of your essay has a significant influence over how your reader remembers you.

So, you need to crush the conclusion if you want your reader to remember you on a memorable and positive note.

In your conclusion, make sure you bring your story full circle.

A good way to end your essay is by linking back to the original anecdote. Bring the reader up to date on how you’re handling the challenge or obstacle today. Or, you could simply make your main point in a fresh way.

It never hurts to add humor as a clever zinger, too. Experiment with this as long as it’s within the confines of the voice and tone of your writing.

For those of you writing your essays for The Common Application, here are the essay prompts!!