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.
The above is the first college application essay prompt you will find on the Common Application for admission to college. It is one of five choices, but it is the one most often chosen by applicants.
Your first reaction to this prompt after reading it may be: “I have no story!” You should know right off—everyone has a story. What you might be feeling is that your story isn’t big enough or important enough. But, you don’t have to have traveled in China or own your own business by the age of 17 to have an important story. Any student growing up in an urban or rural part of American who is attending high school has a story. You just have to believe in your own story enough to write to this prompt.
• What this prompt does not want, however, is you to write about just anything. The wording is intentionally vague and leaves the door open for you to write about almost anything, but this prompt—well, any application essay prompt—wants you to write about YOU and what you are like and how you are distinctive in your own personality.
• They also do not want you to tell a story other applicants may write, and applicants do tend to gravitate to a few common topics like growing up in a rural environment, traveling to South America as a volunteer, or learning to sail or paint or…
• This essay prompt does not want you to repeat information that is already in your application. Your application already has done a great job showing what kind of student you are, what you have done the last four years of your life, and how teachers feel about you. When you write to this prompt you want to write about something that has not already been revealed about you—about the real you and what makes you tick.
• This prompt does not want you to describe a single event. The words are “story” and “background,” which call for more than a single event in your life.
So what does the prompt ask you to write about?
• Again, college admissions want you to reveal who you are in this essay. They want you to show yourself as an individual who is walking and talking and has a real personality behind the data in your application. They are looking for someone to complement the other students they have accepted, and they know full well that having a campus of clones does not make up either a strong or an interesting community for learning.
• The college wants to read that you are a positive person. They are not looking for narrow–minded or arrogant people, so they do not want to know your deep secrets or your misgivings.
Here is a table that gives you an idea of what the prompt could allow you to write about and how it might demonstrate to a college that you would be a good student as well as a good addition to their campus community.
They may ask you to reveal a strong interest to show what you are made of.
• Maybe you look constantly on the Internet for the best deals you can find which shows you are analytical, thorough, and a good researcher.
• Maybe you study ants intensely which could show you are a scientist, an observer, or a lover of nature.
• Perhaps you have such an interest in volunteering at your local hospital that you have done so every weekend for a year and one half. This would show you to be caring, compassionate, interested in people’s illnesses, and having a sense of purpose.
The prompt may be asking you to reveal a significant aspect of your background.
• You might have a sister who is developmentally disabled which could show you are able to deal with differences and that you are sensitive to people with differences.
• Perhaps someone in your family has a terminal disease which would show you can handle adversity and have dealt loss.
The prompt may ask you to talk about your experiences when you grew up.
• You might have moved many times which would show you can adapt to new environments and like meeting new people.
• Perhaps you have lived near the ocean and had the pleasure of walking the beach at least every week. This might show you as a relaxed person, one who is in touch with the soothing rhythms of life.
The whole point of writing to this essay is feeling confident enough to reveal the true you and to dare to tell about yourself because you see something unique about the way you look at and have experienced your life.