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Common Application Personal Statement

The Common Application Essay’s First Prompt

In my previous post, I provided an overview of things to consider when writing and revising the Common Application Personal Statement (CAPS) and individual college application essays. In this (belated) article, I will discuss the first of the 7 CAPS prompts (2021 – 2022: they don’t change much) and how to address it. I had originally planned to address all 7, but time and space will not allow it: I have a life and hopefully, so do my readers.

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.

As I stated in the last article, the CAPS – no matter the prompt – is a test of the Delphic maxim, “know thyself.” Despite its innocuous tone, the first prompt is designed to coax writers into differentiating themselves. Much is made about admissions committees seeking well-rounded students, but the truth of the matter is more complicated. AdComs want diverse, well-rounded classes consisting of interesting, high-achieving students that possess leadership, civic-mindedness, cultural literacy, and a host of other attributes that students often spend years demonstrating through clubs, volunteer work, travel, founding non-profits, and other activities that, I assure you, generally do not differentiate them from one another. A good response to the “background, identity, interest, or talent” prompt should show something that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the application. The ask is right there: share a glimpse of a part of your life “so meaningful that your application would be incomplete without it.” This is an opportunity to share a story that will make an applicant stand out.

One of the biggest missteps in addressing this prompt stems from how students prepare for college in high school: by pursuing extracurricular interests, talents, and activities that, although of interest to the student, come across as accumulated social capital for college applications. Students have a tendency to want to use this prompt (as well as the others) to detail those activities – how hard they’ve practiced to become first violin or how much they love volunteering every summer to feed the homeless – that probably already appear in their college application jacket. The second misstep stems from writing stories about one’s background or identity, usually in discussing one’s experience as a person of color, first-generation American/child of immigrants, or identity as LGBTQ+. While all those things are important and undoubtedly crucial to the formation of one’s self, they’re not terribly compelling essay topics, even though they’re listed in the prompt (and show up as community inquiries in individual college essays, e.g. Brown, U Michigan etc). There are very few times where I would advise a student to write about their ethnic or sexual identity: the former is rarely as diverse as the writer thinks – especially when the story slips into talking about parents/grandparents instead of oneself – and the latter seldom adds anything of interest to the reader because it’s difficult to connect one’s sexuality to one’s potential contributive power to an incoming class except, perhaps, as a data point.

Style aside, what works well in this essay is a background that demonstrates contrast: an unexpected story that defies the stereotypes that other students – who haven’t hired me or read this – will inadvertently bring to the table. What does this mean? It means that a starting quarterback who loves to knit stuffed animals for his baby sister comes across far more interesting than the quarterback who writes about his passion for football. It means that the Asian girl who took violin lessons since she could hold a bow but plays bass in an all-grrl (yes, I’m old) punk band is vastly more interesting to read about than the struggles of getting to first violin. It means that the state powerlifting champion who came out as non-binary and pansexual to their friends and evangelical parents last summer has a more meaningful story than the president of the school’s LGBTQ+ club who uses the CAPS’ 650-word limit to champion social justice.

Having a passion for football (or anything else), getting to first chair, and championing social justice are all good things – provided they make you happy – and I am not suggesting that any of these things don’t have a place in a college application. They just usually don’t make for great essay topics for this prompt because they don’t typically provoke writers to find meaningful stories in them.

I am also not suggesting that any student start pursuing knitting, join a punk rock band, or come out after they break the state bench press record for the sake of their college applications. The point is that if you’re choosing this prompt, you really should have a “background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful” that to leave it out would be to paint an incomplete picture of yourself, that to leave it unexpressed would border on self-betrayal.

I’ve given big examples here, but your story doesn’t have to be something Earth-shattering, provided that you write about why it’s meaningful to you. This is your story, so be bold in telling it. Why does this mean so much to you? With whom, if anyone, do you share this part of yourself? How does this inform your sense of self and how does it complicate it? What effect does it have on your other interests? Where does it conflict with the other parts of you and how do you reconcile those conflicts? Finally, how does this interest more broadly inform your values, how has it made you a better person, how has it changed the way you see or engage with yourself, your family, your world?

You have a story without which your application would be incomplete. Be fearless in finding it, be fearless in telling it.

Some do’s and don’t’s:

  • Do feel free to write about your weird hobbies and quirks (unless they’re illegal, violent, or refer to self-harm – a very big red flag for admissions readers).
  • Do feel free to write about chronic illness, but be as frank as possible and talk about living with illness.
  • Don’t turn an essay about chronic illness into an explanation as to why your GPA plummeted: you’ll have an opportunity for that elsewhere.
  • Do celebrate your cultural heritage… but pick something – a tradition, a specific interest, a particular talent – that speaks to it and focus on your story around it.
  • Don’t turn this into an essay about the interest or talent per se: the essay is about you. This is not the time to discuss the history of knitting or the greater importance of your self-directed research on feline hairballs to the scientific community, so discuss your early knitting and hairball experiments.
  • Don’t overlook the small stuff: one of the best essays I ever read was by a girl who lost all her hair in some kind of salon incident gone horribly wrong. She used the incident to reflect on her hair (which had since grown back), the way people reacted to her before and after, and how it affected her ideas about beauty.
  • Do consider starting from the outside looking in from someone else’s point of view, e.g., “When I walk down the sidewalk and see people crossing the street to avoid me, my self-consciousness swells into every corner of my 6’5″ 250-pound frame. I sometimes wish I could hang a sign around my neck that says ‘volunteers at animal shelter’ or that I could reassure them that I’m just on my way to buy yarn so I can finish my latest knitting project, but I know that even that wouldn’t change much, so I just smile and keep walking.”
  • Don’t steal the above opening sentence.

The remaining 6 of the 7 CAPS prompts are below (emphasis mine throughout).

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

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