The Common Application Essays: #1

By Ryan Hickey + updated on August 19th, 2015

Before deciding which prompt to tackle for the 2015-2016 Common App, take a few moments to analyze each one. One of the biggest mistakes of applicants is making assumptions about the prompt and reading what they want to read instead of what is actually there. This results in essays that are off topic and confusing to the admissions officers. In this series of articles, we will thoroughly analyze each of the 2015-2016 prompts so that you can have the best opportunity to create an ideal college admissions essay.

Here’s Prompt 1. The italics simply indicate that the wording is new for the 2015-2016 application season.
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 phasing of this prompt isn’t significantly different from the one for 2014-2015, so if you’ve already started based on last year’s prompt, that’s okay.


Let’s look at the second sentence first because it’s the easiest to analyze. The sentence is really just an invitation to write on this topic if you feel that the main sentence applies to you. However, there is some meaning here. The admissions officers are letting you know that the topic of the essay needs to be of deep personal significance. If you’re not 100% certain that this prompt applies to you as an individual, you probably want to take a look at the other four prompts.

The first sentence includes items that really apply to everyone, which can make it a little confusing to applicants. We all have a background, an identity, interests, and some level of talent in certain areas. Therefore, the second half of this sentence is the most significant part of the prompt: ‘so meaningful’ and ‘incomplete without it’ are the key phrases here. Choose this prompt if you have some aspect of yourself about which you are very passionate and is essential to helping the admissions officers understand who you are.


The most common pitfall is when applicants select this prompt and write about something that they feel will impress the admissions officers instead of writing about how this aspect of yourself is crucial in your life. Although you may have won an award due to your talent or pursuit of a certain interest, that should be incidental to the story. The main focus of the story should be personal meaning, and the essay should demonstrate self-reflection and an understanding of this aspect of yourself in the broader context of community and society. Finally, you won’t be allowed to write a book, and writing about numerous smaller incidences in your life, while meaningful to you, can seem superficial to the admissions officers. You’ll need to choose your anecdote(s) wisely.

Ultimately, this prompt should be used if you feel that there is an exceptionally important aspect of yourself that is not reflected in any other part of the application package and can’t be fully expressed through any of the other prompts. Because the prompt is not giving you a specific topic to write about, the Common App is giving you a lot of leeway here. Use that freedom judiciously while showing your individuality and passion.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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