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How To Write A Perfect College Essay for the Common Application–Your Background Story

Girl who is looking down a a blank piece of paper with lots of crumpled paper around her. She is learning the don'ts of writing her college essay
A girl sitting a desk with paper and pen and lot of crumpled up paper in front of her.

Well, it’s that time of year again:  college essay time!

As a professional, I always like to change things up.  Fortunately for me, this year the Common Application decided to adopt entirely new prompts for the essay section.
Many college counselors moan and groan about these changes.  Are they the best ones to let kids show off their innermost feelings and their outermost dreams?  Will they allow students to freely express their thoughts, communicate their abilities, and articulate their ambitions?

These are interesting questions, but not the ones that will help students focus on what are now staring them in the face:  the Common Application prompts as they are.  No sense moaning. We have to deal with them.
So this is the first in a series of posts to help students sort out the meaning of the prompts, and to offer some tips on how to address each one.
Today we start with the first prompt : The Background Story.
Here’s how it reads:

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.

To help us along, I’ve highlighted the most important words in these two short sentences.  I’m going to address each below—not in the order of their appearance—but in order of their importance.


This is the pivot of the prompt.  However you address this prompt, you are being asked about your identity. You are asked to address the fundamental nature of how you see yourself as a person.  Who are you?  What are you?  What makes you, well, you?  Admissions officers want to be able to say, “hey, I understand who this kid is and where he came from, because the kid understands this about himself and is able to communicate it in a clear, compelling fashion.” So, this essay must address your identity, however you define it.


College admissions people know that some people have an interesting background that is the source of their identity.  This background can be cultural, ethnic, familial, medical, physical, economic, or just about any other set of circumstances that defines who you are as a person.


Some students have a story that helps define who they are.  A story, by definition, is a narrative, an account of events in one’s life that may help to shape your identity.  A background is something that is not really fixed in time: it’s a circumstance.  A story, on the other hand, exists in time, and has a beginning, middle, and end.  Do you have a story that helps to explain the way you see yourself, that has helped to form you as a person?  If so, this is the story at the core of this prompt.


This word is also important.  If your background or story does not really help to shape your identity, then perhaps your application is “complete” without this story.  You should then be looking at other prompts for inspiration.
So to summarize, as you approach this prompt, you need to be able to clearly communicate your identity, and then you need to give the background or story that shapes that identity.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the second prompt, which is all about something we all wish to avoid (in vain):  failure.
Writing About Failure
Writing About A Belief or Idea
Writing About A Place or Environment
Writing About the Transition to Adulthood
Writing About Your Background Story


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