Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story

Tips and Strategies for an Essay that Discusses Your Personal Story

Teenage boy writing in book on table
Share Your Story tips. Astrakan Images / Getty Images

The first essay option on the Common Application asks you to share your story. The prompt was modified slightly for the 2016-17 admissions cycle to include the words "interest" and "talent," and the prompt remains unchanged for the 2017-18 admissions cycle:

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.

Figuring Out How to Tell Your Story

This popular option appeals to a broad spectrum of applicants. After all, we all have a "story" to tell. We've all had events or circumstances or passions that have been central to the development of our identities. Also, so many parts of the application -- test scores, grades, lists of awards and activities -- seem far removed from the actual features that make us the unique individuals that we are.

If you choose this option, spend some time thinking about what the prompt is really asking. On a certain level, the prompt is giving you permission to write about anything. The words "background," "identity," "interest," and "talent" are broad and vague, so you have a lot of freedom to approach this question however you want.

That said, don't make the mistake of thinking that anything goes with option #1. The story you tell needs to be "so meaningful" that your application "would be incomplete without it." If you focus on something that isn't central to what it is that makes you uniquely you, then you haven't yet found the right focus for this essay option.

Tips for Approaching the Essay

As you explore possible ways to approach this first essay option, keep these points in mind:

  • Think hard about what it is that makes you, you. If you end up telling a story that hundreds of other applicants could also tell, then you haven't fully succeeded in tackling the question of identity that stands at the heart of this prompt.
  • Your "story" most likely isn't a single event. Being voted prom queen and scoring that winning goal may be impressive accomplishments, but by themselves, they are not stories about the formation of your identity.
  • Your "story" can take a variety of forms. Did you grow up in a difficult domestic situation? Did you live in an unusual place that had a significant impact on your childhood? Did you or someone in your family have significant challenges to overcome? Were you surrounded by people who had a major influence on your development? Did you move frequently? Did you have to hold a job from a young age? Do you have a particular obsession or passion that has been a driving force in your life for years? 
  • Make sure your essay is adding a rich dimension to your application. You have 650 words to present yourself as an interesting and passionate individual who will be a positive addition to the campus community. If your essay is repeating information that can be found elsewhere in your application, then you're wasting this opportunity.
  • If you don't think you have a story to tell, you are wrong. You don't need to have grown up in a yurt in the Himalayas to have a background that is worth narrating. A Connecticut suburb produces its own meaningful stories.

    Read Sample Essays for Option #1:

    The Essay's Purpose

    No matter which essay option you choose, keep in mind the purpose of the essay. The college to which you are applying uses the Common Application which means the school has holistic admissions. The college wants to get to know you as a person, not just as a list of SAT scores and grades. Make sure your essay captures YOU. The admissions folks should finish reading your essay with a much clearer sense of who you are and what it is that interests and motivates you. Also, make sure your essay paints a positive portrait. The admissions folks are considering inviting you to join their community. They will not want to extend an invitation to someone who comes across as insensitive, self-centered, boastful, narrow-minded, unimaginative or indifferent.

    Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability. A brilliantly conceived essay will fail to impress if it is riddled with grammatical and stylistic errors.

    If you aren't convinced essay option #1 is the best choice for your purpose, be sure to check out our tips and strategies for each one of the seven 2017-18 Common Application essay options.