Common App 1: Background and Identity
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.
The valedictorian at my school can play the trombone. She's a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and she invented a new way to keep bread fresh. She's pretty amazing, but I don't think she's that unusual. In the stack of essays being considered for admission, I would guess she's the rule more than the exception.
I haven't invented anything. I can only play the kazoo, and the only belt I own came free with the suit. What I have to offer isn't as obvious as most applicants, but what I represent is important. My generation is one raised by pop culture, and while denigrating it, scions of elder generations ignore one simple fact: today's pop culture manufactures tomorrow's legends.
How can an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture contribute to a better way of life? Partly because this is the language of the future. I already speak it fluently, and any other ideas will be layered on top. The other reason is that although things like popular movies, books, and video games get dismissed, they actually have a lot to say.
While teachers might struggle to bring the story of Oedipus to modern students, I got what was going on quickly…because I watch Game of Thrones. The plotlines of incest and revenge, as well as defying the gods, are explored in great detail on the show. So when it came time to understand, I was able to map the characters onto one another, facilitating both my understanding and that of my friends, whom I could help with the reading.
Additionally, when I learned about the Wars of the Roses, it didn't take long for me to understand the importance of the Yorks and the Lancasters. I already had a window into both art and history from a television show, and my knowledge of it helped me understand both incarnations better.
It's not just facts and art that pop culture helps illuminate; most of my moral leaders have been fictional. Katniss Everdeen and Tony Stark both taught me about the importance of perseverance. Spider-Man's motto is "with great power comes great responsibility." The Terminator movies pressed the importance of preparing for the future while pointing out that the future is not set. While the teachers of these lessons might be unorthodox, they are the cornerstones of many religions and philosophies.
These stories are often rooted, consciously or not, in religion and folklore. When Captain America chooses not to fight his friend, instead literally turning the other cheek in the face of violence, not only do I understand the significance, but I am also able to point to a concrete place in space and time where this was the correct response.
Many people will agree that books, movies, and even television can contain lessons, but they still say to throw video games away. They call them a waste of time at best. This falls apart under a similar examination of the form.
The Assassin's Creed series, for example, taught me a bit about history. While I understand the Assassins and the Templar are not really secret societies fighting a millennia-old war, the people they run into are real. During the Revolution section in American History, I was the only one who knew minor players like Charles Lee and understood his significance. I also know names like Rodrigo Borgia, Robespierre, and Duleep Singh thanks to these games.
We all embrace what we love, and I have done that with the culture that has raised me. While I appreciate it on the surface level, as entertainment, I understand there is more to it. It has caused me to learn more than I would have in school. When I fight a new enemy in a historical game, I look him up.
Many of your applicants will run away from their time appreciating the mass art of their generation. Not me. I am fluent in the language of my time. I am uniquely suited to understanding and applying these concepts to higher learning. What you're getting with me is someone who will be able to bridge the gap between past and present, and apply their education to the future.
Why This Essay Works
This essay acknowledges the applicant's weaknesses from the beginning. By adopting a funny, self-deprecating attitude, the essay instantly stands out from the others around it. Although humor is there and is an integral part of the essay, it never takes over the narrative. It's used in the very beginning to separate itself from the pack, then moves into a more traditional inventory as it develops.
After humorously deconstructing the candidate's weaknesses, it moves into strengths. Many applicants don't know what their strengths are, and the purpose here is to show that even what you might regard as a weakness can be recast as a strength if you know how. Essentially, the writer declares a paradox in their thesis statement: all that time people say they wasted watching movie and playing video games is actually a strength.
The most important part is in the body, where the writer then backs up what they're saying. Making unfounded claims is good for attracting attention, but not so good for getting into college. The key is understanding what you've learned from your time enjoying culture. The writer then hits it, point by point, showing where movies, television, and video games have all made them a more ideal candidate for entry.
The conclusion dramatically restates the thesis, and includes the most stirring line at the end. This applicant is fluent in the language of today, and uses a rhythmic three-part statement on the end to drive the point home. This student knows they are not the traditional over-achiever that colleges are said to want; instead, they show that they're bold and innovative, two qualities that are irresistible.
College Admissions Essays:
The Common App. Prompt #1
Out of the seven prompts you can chose from to write your application essay for The Common Application, I like the first one a lot. (UPDATE: As of 2017, you can now write about any topic you want. See new prompt #7.)
Prompt No. 1 is trying to “prompt” you to find and share a story that will reveal an important part of what makes you unique and special.
These are called personal essays, and they are what my entire blog is trying to help you learn to write!
In a nutshell, you write these types of essays in the first-person (I, me, you…point of view) and use a “write-like-you-talk” casual style.
Narrative-style (storytelling) essays are natural “grabbers” because you use mini-stories from real life, also called anecdotes, for your introduction to illustrate a larger point.
Related: How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
The structure can be as elaborate as you want, but in general, you “show” the reader your point with an anecdote at the beginning, and then “tell” or explain what it means in the second part. (Here’s a quickie guide to help you Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.)
(Those stiff, 5-paragraph essays from high school English class are history!)
Narrative, slice-of-life essays are ideal for almost any type of admissions essay. But some college application essay prompts are trickier than others to figure out how to answer the question by telling a story.
Others, however, are easier and actually ask for a story. Like Prompt No. 1. (and No. 2 and 4).
Here’s how to find and tell a story for Prompt #1:
Prompt 1 from 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.”
1. FIND A TOPIC: First, see if you have something interesting in your “background or identity” or with an “interest or talent” that could make a great topic:
A. Background: I believe that if your “background” is central to your identity, it could involve anything in your life that shaped you.
If you’re a student who faced an intense issue growing up, this is your chance to share that—since it most likely was defining for you (shaped who you are in some way).
By an “intense issue,” I mean anything from a parent who was abusive, or alcoholic, or not on the scene for whatever reason, to having a personal issue of your own (you’re deaf, or wheelchair bound, or bi-polar, or the oldest of 10 kids, or you’re battling a debilitating illness…).
Your “background” also can be defining if you come from a different culture, or have a family who practices an extreme religion or other unusual belief system, or a unique family situation (you’re adopted, or your parents are lesbians, or your mom is blind, or you survive on food stamps, or your dad hosts a famous talk show, etc…).
I think the point is that if you have a background that has been challenging on some level, it most likely affected who you are, and what you value and how you approach your life. If this is the case, it could make an excellent college application essay.
B. Identity: I would say if there’s something about you that defines you in a big way, this could be considered your identity. It really depends upon how you see yourself.
Here’s some that come to mind: You are any type of LGBTQ or any variation based on gender and sexual orientation. You are bi-racial. You were raised by your grandmother. You’re a triplet. You are the son of a celebrity.
I would say if you believe it’s shaped who you are on a fundamental basis, and you want to write about it, go for it!
C. Interest: I think this is self-explanatory. What is something you do that you are passionate about?
My advice is to pick something that is central to your life, and then find an interesting way to write about it. If you just spell out your “interest” in piano, talking about how you took lessons, gave recitals, love it so much, etc., that could be a dull, thumbs-down essay.
Instead, decide what specifically about the piano shaped you, and write about that. Or what personal quality or core value you developed from playing piano. Or was there something unexpected you learned from playing piano.
In general, I would be careful writing about an interest.
If you do go for it, find a way to write about that interest that reveals more about you than why you like to do it.
D. Talent: Same advice as with writing about an “interest.” Be careful!
A talent is really an interest that you are good at, right? Who wants to read about how you are really great at chess, or horseback riding or playing video games? Not me!
I would strongly advise you to not write about how good you are at something. The danger is that you come across as boastful or full of yourself, and that can be off-putting to college admissions folks. Remember, the goal is to be likable.
The best trick to writing about a talent is to think of “a time” it involved some type of problem (failure, challenge, obstacle, mistake, etc.). That can help you inject humility into your essay.
Of course, it’s possible to write a great essay about something you excel at, but give a lot of thought to what you have to say about it, and what your essay will say about you.
HOT TIP: One way to write about a tricky topic such as an interest or talent is to search for topics in the area of the everyday, or mundane.
Topics that are about impressive feats, like the time you climbed Mount Everest or saved someone’s life or won a gold medal, often backfire. Instead, the opposite–mundane or everyday topics or stories–work the best!
If you write about a talent, an essay about how you are the best at making tamales or tying fly fishing knots or cleaning cars would be much more palatable than how you play first-chair violin or won the state championship for cross country.
It is possible to write about impressive accomplishments, but you need to find the right angle or you risk coming across as all-important and not as likable.
2. FIND A STORY: Once you find a topic (and pick either something from your background, identity, interests or talents), try to find a compelling story or anecdote (a real-life moment) to start your essay that is an example of or illustrates the point you want to make about yourself.
To make sure it’s a compelling mini-story, make sure your anecdote involves a problem. (If you are writing about your background or identity, look for an example of how it was a problem on some level to use as your anecdote.)
This is also an approach that could bring some drama or a twist if you are writing about an interest or talent.) Not only does an anecdote work as a “grabber” for the reader, it sets you up to talk about how you dealt with the problematic moment and what you learned. (How to find a juicy problem HERE.)
3. CRAFT AN ANECDOTE: Tell your mini-story in the form of an anecdote. Just relate something that happened to you. Start at the peak of the action. This will be your introduction and take up the first paragraph or two.
Set the scene. Use descriptive language and concrete (specific) details. Include action verbs. Put us in that moment by describing what you saw, smelled, heard and felt. Include a snippet of dialogue, if it works.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
Condense your anecdote into a paragraph or two to use as your introduction. (How to write an anecdote HERE and HERE.)
4. TELL THE BACK STORY: Then give a little background (the “back story”) explaining what led up to that moment or event or problem, and then go on to describe how you felt about it, how you handled it, and what you learned in the process.
Make sure to find some way to express how what you learned linked to a defining quality—so that your essay has a sharp focus and doesn’t try to reveal too many different things about you.
5. WRAP IT UP: To write a conclusion, link back to that little moment you started with and bring the reader up to the present. Kind of like a status update.
Share how you plan to use your defining quality or the lesson you learned in your future goals and dreams, especially if it relates to your educational goals.
Example of a Personal, Narrative-style Essay
The New York Times just happened to share several well-written college application essays in a recent story to inspire college-bound students like yourself.
I’m going to copy my favorite one below, by a student named Lyle Li, which used the narrative style of writing.
I will indicate where the writer used an anecdote (in red) to “show” his point, and then where he went on to “tell” explain what it meant to him (in blue).
This essay is excellent. I believe he addressed his “background” in this piece. He shows us the challenges his family has faced, and we learned what the student values, and why. In the process, he comes across as a very authentic, determined and likable guy.
I believe the main reason this worked so well is that he chose a mundane topic for his story (his mom’s restaurant job), as opposed to some impressive accomplishment. Can you see the “problem” he shared in this essay?
Last thing: notice how personal this student was in this essay and how he opened up about his thoughts, fears and dreams. The more personal an essay, the more it connects with the reader.
See what you think:
By Lyle Li, from Brooklyn
Essay Written for New York University
(ANECDOTE FOR INTRODUCTION: “Showing”)While resting comfortably in my air-conditioned bedroom one hot summer night, I received a phone call from my mom. She asked me softly, “Lyle, can you come down and clean up the restaurant?”
Slightly annoyed, I put on my sandals and proceeded downstairs. Mixing the hot water with cleaning detergents, I was ready to clean up the restaurant floor. Usually the process was painstakingly slow: I had to first empty a bucket full of dirty water, only to fill it up again with boiling water. But that night I made quick work and finished in five minutes. My mom, unsatisfied, snatched the mop from me and began to demonstrate the “proper way” to clean the floor. She demanded a redo. I complied, but she showed no signs of approval. As much as I wanted to erupt that night, I had good reasons to stay calm.
(NOTICE HOW HE BACKGROUNDS HIS ANECDOTE HERE)Growing up in rural China, my mom concerned herself not with what she would wear to school every day, but rather how she could provide for her family. While many of her classmates immediately joined the work force upon completing high school, my mom had other aspirations. She wanted to be a doctor. But when her college rejections arrived, my mother, despite being one of the strongest individuals I know, broke down. My grandparents urged her to pursue another year of education. She refused. Instead, she took up a modestly paying job as a teacher in order to lessen the financial burden on the family. Today, more than twenty years have passed, yet the walls of my parents’ bedroom still do not bear a framed college degree with the name “Tang Xiao Geng” on it.
(EXPLAINING WHAT THE ANECDOTE MEANT: “Telling”) In contrast, when I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls. I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper middle class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn.
Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round. It’s funny how I never see my mom in makeup, expensive jeans, lavish dresses, or even just casual, everyday clothing that I often see other moms wearing. Yet, one must possess something extraordinary to be able to stand in front of a cash register for 19 years and do so with pride and determination.
On certain nights, I would come home sweaty, dressed in a gold button blazer and colored pants, unmistakable evidence of socializing. In contrast, my mom appears physically and emotionally worn-out from work. But, she still asks me about my day. Consumed by guilt, I find it hard to answer her.
Moments such as those challenge my criteria of what constitutes true success. My mother, despite never going to college, still managed to make a difference in my life. Tomorrow,she will put on her uniform with just as much dignity as a businesswoman would her power suit. What is her secret? She wholeheartedly believes that her son’s future is worth the investment. The outcome of my education will be vindication of that belief.
In hindsight, I’m astounded at the ease with which I can compose all my views of this amazing woman on a piece of paper, but lack the nerve to express my gratitude in conversations. Perhaps, actions will indeed speak louder than words. When I graduate on June 1st, I know she will buy a dress to honor the special occasion. When I toil through my college thesis, I know she will still be mopping the restaurant floor at 11:00 PM. When I finally hang up my diploma in my bedroom, I know she will be smiling.
(Mr. Li will be attending N.Y.U.)
Want to learn how to write an anecdote like the one Lyle Li crafted to start his compelling essay? Watch My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
What about the other four Common App prompts? Find help for other Common App prompts.
Check out my tutorial video on How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4: When Your Problem is a Good Thing. (I like the new Prompt 4 as much as Prompt 1.)
For more inspiring sample college application essays, check out my collection of narrative essays: Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked!
Ready to start writing your own narrative essay? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to help you find a unique topic and start writing your own slice-of-life essay.
If you want more help, considering investing $9.98 in my short and simple ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, which takes you step-by-step through the entire brainstorming and writing process.