Personal Essay Question 1 – Your Unique Story

Writing Your College Admissions Essay

Part 2 of Katrina Oko-Odoi’s Guest Blog Series:

Writing your College Admissions Essay for the New Common Application

Now that we’ve addressed the general changes to the 2014 Common Application, I’d like to take some time to focus on each individual essay prompt. Today’s focus is essay question number one. But before we dive into the essay topic, let’s consider the general instructions for the common app. essay:

“The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)”

These instructions offer some sane advice. Remember that the essay portion of your application is there to serve as a supplement to all of your transcript information and test scores. This is the most personal, unique component of your application, so it should reflect something original and significant about you. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, the new, extended 650 word length is helpful, but your goal shouldn’t be to reach 650 words. Shoot for 500, and allow yourself room for some extra additions during the revision process.

So, on to Question # 1:

“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.”

Is this question right for you?

Make sure to read through all of the essay topics before choosing which one best suits you. Question # 1 might be ideal for you if a unique experience, trait, or background defines your identity.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Are you a first or second generation immigrant dealing with finding a balance between two cultures and two languages?
  • Did you grow up in a nontraditional family environment (with two fathers, or two mothers, for example)?
  • Have you confronted severe forms of discrimination, oppression, or racism during your childhood in ways that have determined the person you are today?
  • Were you born with a rare disability, disorder or illness that has shaped your lifestyle and outlook on the world?
  • Do you follow a religion with values or beliefs that place limitations on your interactions with modern society (Amish, Mennonite)?
  • Did you experience a life-changing or traumatic event at a young age that impacted the person you are today?

As you can see, the examples I’ve listed here are scenarios that have had a defining or life-altering effect on who you are as an individual and how your identity has been shaped up to this point in your life. I haven’t covered all of the possibilities, of course, but this should give you a good idea of the type of personal story that would best address this question.

It is likely that, if you have experienced any of these unique situations, they’ve had some level of impact on your academic performance or your ability to participate in sports or extracurricular activities. But the most important thing when composing your essay is to illustrate how this experience defines you, and why it’s important to your identity. Make sure to speak your heart and remain sincere when describing your story – it’s the only way to reveal the true you behind all of the grades and numbers attached to your application.

For many of you, like myself, these situations may not apply.


Q: Does that mean you can’t write a compelling personal essay about your life experiences?

A: Absolutely not!


Q: Does it mean that another essay topic might be a better fit for you?

A: Perhaps. Be sure to consider your other options.


Make sure to check back for my next blog discussing Common Application Essay Question # 2.

Katrina Oko-Odoi is the Founder and Chief Editor of, a writing and editing company specializing in academic writing. For more insight into college essay editing and more, follow her blog:

Bobby Touran is the founder and CEO of ApplyKit. ApplyKit helps students manage their entire college application process and also provides key resources to help them excel every step of the way.