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Background Identity Essay

Common App 1: Background and Identity

The Prompt

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 Essay


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.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou.

We have recently learned of changes for the Common Application’s personal statement essay prompts for 2017-18. As stated on the Common App website, the changes reflect “the feedback of 108 Common App member colleges and more than 5,000 other Common App constituents, as well as consultation with our advisory committees and Board of Directors. Students represented the single largest share of constituent survey respondents (59%), followed by school counselors (23%), and teachers (11%).”

In 2017-18, there will be seven prompts, five of which were used previously (some with revisions), and two additional prompt choices. To clarify, the applicant only needs to respond to ONE prompt! It will continue to have a 250 word minimum and 650 word maximum.  I will discuss how to approach each prompt.

The Common Application Board of Trustees’ stated goal is to give each applicant an opportunity to express authentic authorship with a unique story that directly reveals who he or she is.  I have three general suggestions about approaching these prompts, consistent with my philosophy of essay-writing, for you to pass along to your student:

1. Speak honestly in your own voice. As I wrote in my post, How Parents Can Help–Or Not–with College Essays, admissions people can smell parental word-smithing a mile away: “If it sounds like it was written by a forty-five year old attorney, it probably was.” They want to hear what the student has to say, not the parent; it is the student that they are deciding whether or not to accept. As mentioned in How Important Is the College Essay, Anyway?, the personal statement is just that, personal; it offersa rare opportunity in this crazy process for a student to control the application product, to genuinely speak for oneself. As master of one’s destiny in this journey of self-discovery, it is not only desirable, but also imperative, that the young adult speaks for oneself.

2. Emphasize your positive qualities (while being honest about your vulnerabilities and opportunities for growth). In Confessional College Essays, I cautioned not to use the essay process as psychotherapy or attempt to cry victimhood as a way of getting into college. Colleges are not rehabilitation centers; they want young people who can constructively contribute to the college community. Conversely, do not be so concerned with presenting a perfect picture that you come off as phony; tonality is a key element in a college essay. Present a balanced portrait of the real human being you are.

Video: The College Essay

3. Remember to suggest qualities that will translate into contributions to the college and the world.A college application is like a job interview. If they “hire” you, what you will do for them? Will you sit alone in your room and study all day, without ever joining a student organization, conducting undergraduate research, or giving back to the community surrounding campus? Self-actualization is noble, but it must be balanced with the humility to offer one’s talents to serve college and society.

Below are suggestions for addressing the seven prompts:

1. 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. [No change]According to Common App, among 800,000 unique applicants during the 2015-2016 cycle (information not yet available for 2016-17), 47 percent chose this prompt, making it the most frequently selected. Unless there is no question that this prompt is the absolute right one for you, it might be worthwhile to consider a more unusual prompt that will be fresher for admission officers to read.

If you do choose it, emphasize how your unique story will help you contribute to the college community. If you are an underrepresented minority or first generation college applicant, such “hooks” will be noted in your application. But how will you use your cultural, ethnic or socioeconomic background or gender identity to enrich the student body? Interest or talent allows you to write about a specific defining activity in your life, such as animals, sports, music, or social action, which will be an asset in your college career and in the future. If your story is about conquering adversity, clarify the character strengths that helped you overcome obstacles and how your distinctive strengths will translate into success, empathy, or sense of mission in college and beyond.

2. 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? [Revised] 17 percent of 2015-16 college applicants chose this topic. It has not been popular in my experience either, since it walks a fine line between sounding phony (i.e.,”my only weakness is working too hard”) or sounding like a victim or a failure (rather than a winner who experienced vulnerability).

In the past, I recommended this topic only if: “You are an achiever who could be otherwise viewed as a ‘water walker’ lacking empathy for mere mortals; you can point to a specific positive change that came from the experience; and you are a talented enough writer to address a delicate topic with finesse.” This prompt has now been broadened to include not just “failure” but also obstacles, challenges, or setbacks; it will probably result in more applicants identifying an experience that “rings true” for them in this category.

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised] With only four percent of 2015-16 applicants choosing this prompt, it offers a window to write about a fresh and novel topic. Its revision may lead to more applicants identifying a relevant experience for this category, because it is clearer that it involves discussion as well as action.

In the past, I advised focusing on constructive challenges. As a humorous example, I cautioned not to write about the time you broke into your high school to prove that they had inadequate security. Instead, I advised writing about the time you developed a bill to address a social issue in Youth in Government that later was considered by your “real” state legislature. These action challenges are, however, rare for high school students. This year’s revision now allows writing about questioning the status quo in an academic setting, to which many more applicants will be able to relate.

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change] Only ten percent of applicants chose this prompt. I believe that this is one of the greatest essay opportunities, not only because it is rare to find, but because the writer can use it to provide dramatic, real-life evidence that he or she is an innovative, curious agent of change who will make a difference. Combined with excellent academic credentials, this essay can highlight a quality that makes an applicant truly a standout that an elite institution will find desirable. With my encouragement, a number of my clients have chosen this topic, leading to extraordinary essays. I am not surprised that this prompt will be used in 2017-18 with no revisions. 

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised] This prompt has been changed significantly from its previous version, when it was (in my view) too similar to the first prompt, with a “rite of passage” flavor, referencing transition from childhood to adulthood. 22 percent of 2015-16 applicants chose this prompt. Now it has been broadened to include any kind of personal growth or realization, not just coming of age per se. The revised prompt offers rich opportunities for self-revelation, such as an LGBTQ student addressing coming out. This essay allows one to demonstrate awareness, courage, and initiative, which will clearly be of value in college and life.

6. 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? [New] This new prompt is an improved version of an older one replaced several years ago. The Washington Postcommented on that replacement: “…the ‘Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content’ prompt…induced a nationwide eye-rolling epidemic and a multitude of essays on beaches, libraries and grandmas’ attics.” This new prompt appears to be its reincarnation, suggesting that applicants write about creative or analytical endeavors, rather than sleeping or sunbathing.

7. 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. [New] Years ago, there was a “topic of your choice” prompt, and it has always been missed. Some students simply have something to say that none of the prompts cover; this prompt offers the opportunity to speak.

If you live in New Jersey or New York and desire guidance for writing essays this year, contact Position U 4 College.

On June 1, 2017   /  College Essays