June 30, 2020

The Common Application Essay 1

Common App

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.

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #1

This is how they phrased the same prompt last year: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

This year, all they did was include a few extra colors to your palette as a painter. But really, underneath. As a student, you have a “special something” that – if not featured – would render your application incomplete. What is that something? Well, last year they steered you toward “background” and “identity”; this year, they’re adding a few terms like “interest” and “talent” to liberate your options. First, let’s get inside what each of these words/ideas means.


When you think of background, think about it in terms of “influencers.” External pressures that helped shape you in some way or another. It could be a person. A relative. Extended family. But it could also be… nature, circumstances, things. Could be the neighborhood you grew up in. It could be a country. It could be your socioeconomic status. It could be your peer group. Some set of external influences that (if replaced) would have molded you into a different person. Here’s the trick with this one.

There must be some aspect of your “background” story where the status quo is ruffled in some way.

If you grew up in a perfectly middle class, white American suburb, and you’re a more or less normal white kid, it’s not that interesting of a story. Unless… for example, you wanted OUT from day one, and it was a deeply emotional struggle. Or, perhaps you were a minority within that white suburb, and were made to feel like an outsider. Let’s say your influencers were a set of quirky grandparents. By itself? Not a good enough topic. Think about it. How many other students could ALSO lay claim to having unusual grandparents? (Lots.) So, what’s your angle? Where are the jagged edges of your story that make it sharp, dangerous, unpredictable? Maybe over the course of your childhood your grandparents broadened their view on race relations. Maybe your grandparents opposed 95% of the decisions your parents made, and that conflict in “elder” messaging was confusing for you. See what we mean by “ruffling”? This will be a theme throughout. Unless there’s something unusual, chances are it’s not college application-essay-worthy.

Why? Because admissions committees (adcoms) are not actually interested in your story! Yup, you read that correctly! What they care about is how potent your mind is. How sophisticated is your thought? Are you capable of grappling with contradictions? Is your level of thinking sharp and refined? Is your perspective considered and original? You can best demonstrate how impressive your mind is by showcasing how you deal with conflict.


There’s no single way to define identity. Which is to say, the way you put your own jigsaw puzzle pieces together to form your sense of self can be very personal, and unlike the way someone else does it. For some folks, religion plays a big part. For others, lack of religion plays an equally big part. For some folks, the style of dress, that may imply irreverence or counterculture leanings, is a big part. For others, taste in music or food is a big part of how they define themselves.

But once again, we’d like to douse you with some icy cold water.

Your identity isn’t all that interesting, no matter what it is, unless the circumstances of your identity formation are sizzling.

Or unless your aspirations, given your identity, are utterly surprising. Otherwise, congratulations, you dyed your hair black and wear black nail polish. Or, congratulations, you like Gregorian chant while all your friends like Drake. Or, congratulations, you’re an only child to immigrant parents who don’t speak English. Guess what, not a single example here is unique, numbers-wise. But, any of these could be amazing essays if couched properly.

Let’s just take one example. Let’s talk about the kid who loves Gregorian chant. If he showed up in class normally just like everyone else, and for basketball practice like everyone else, and band practice like everyone else, and earned A’s like his other ambitious friends, then… so what? This becomes the equivalent of “he wore a red shirt while his friend wore a blue shirt.” Big deal. Now, let’s say this kid was made to feel like an outsider because Gregorian chant is considered lame. Let’s say he never got a date for prom because he was known as the freak who liked monk music. And let’s say that in spite of wanting all those things like every other teen, he didn’t care, and continued to love what he loved. Now we’re getting somewhere. (Do you see why?) Now, we’re learning something about this kid that has implications for what he’s going to do in life. This could be a kid with killer convictions. Who has so much self-confidence that he loves what he loves, and doesn’t mind much what others think. That, my friends, is an identity worth reading about. What makes that identity worthwhile, in this example, are the circumstances around it that shaped it, not the identity itself. That’s the take home.


Similar theme here… more ice water for you. No one cares what you’re interested in! Let’s look at it a few ways. The percentage of adults who are pursuing (or have pursued) the exact thing they were interested in when they were high school seniors is unimaginably low. College is going to change you. And then it’s likely to happen several more times after that. Adcoms appreciate it. And, frankly, they’re counting on it! Because one of the premises of college is that the experience will broaden your exposure to other ideas, other fields… giving birth (potentially) to new interests. So, why then are they asking you to write your main college essay about your interests if we’re saying they’re not actually interested in them?

Simple. Your interests (if you write about them correctly) can say a lot about you. But we must warn you.

There is an excellent chance that the thing you’re excited about isn’t wholly unique. There is an excellent chance that dozens (hundreds) of others are not only interested in the same stuff, but are writing about it, too.

Which is why… you need an angle. There needs to be something cooooool about your interests. Or the circumstances that led to your interests. Or, the thing you plan to do with your interests. And what any of those things says about you. You need to find the uncommon in what is probably common.

Say you’re an environment freak. There must be some way in which your personal passion for clean air or clean energy is somehow different from “the other guy.” As an exercise, humble yourself for a second and come to terms with the reality that there are dozens of folks out there who share your interest. Now, figure out all the ways in which you are different from those guys. Is the action you’re taking different? Is the level of commitment different? Is the philosophical approach somehow different? There must be some kind of delta, otherwise, you run the risk of an adcom member saying “I’ve seen this before so many times (and have therefore not LEARNED anything about THIS applicant).”

So just be careful with this one. There may be better ways to demonstrate your uniqueness, unless your interests and the way you write about them are incredibly unusual and compelling. You’ll know you’ve achieved that when someone who knows you well reads your “interests” essay and says “wow, that actually surprised me!”


More cold water (aren’t we just the best?). Chances are, the adcom is going to see plenty of evidence of certain talents through your activities lists and accolades. We’re going to create an imaginary (bizarro) bell curve to illustrate a point. In the middle are your boilerplate set of talents: musician, athlete, artist, etc. Now, the far right of our imaginary bell curve represents exceptional, rare, “national,” professional-grade talents. Beyond all-state athlete, future pro-bowler. Beyond award-winning musician, Julliard- level, virtuoso. Let’s forget about those folks. Or, if you’re one of those, then by all means, you have earned the right to use this space to talk about talent, and we will read with rapt attention. But now let’s go to the far left. Remember, this is an imaginary bell curve. We’re gonna call these talents… ridiculous talents. Absurd, unusual, maybe even silly talents. Talents that might have the capacity to make us smile when reading about them. Talents that won’t mean much toward future careers, but might be a very neat window into who you are.

Imagine writing about your talent for wooing the opposite sex. How fun could that be? Or a talent for manipulating your parents into getting them to do exactly what you want. Or a talent for angering every single Starbucks cashier because you smile a certain way. See where we’re headed here? There’s room here for… some creativity. A non-literal take on this (if executed sharply) could be dynamite. Because it may tell us something about you as a person. Even the act of taking a creative approach here will say something. There’s something so decidedly dull about a student who talks about how proficient he is with violin or piano or baseball or cross-country running, etc. Especially if the talent isn’t all that unusual. It’s a very safe, and therefore, dull approach, and a signal that the author may also be dull.

So, figure out where you are on that bell curve. If you’re on either side (rare, exceptional talent, or silly/creative/unusual talent) then you may have the makings of a killer essay. If you’re in the middle (even if you are incredibly talented in your own right), our recommendation would be to think twice before spending your big essay opportunity on that.

Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

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