The Four-in-One Prompt: Common Application Essay Prompt 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.

The Common Application Essay Prompt 1 is my favorite within this year’s Essay section. I call it the “four-in-one” because students have multiple options within a focused topic. It’s a brilliant choice for most writers who need structure, but crave freedom.

I reveal this preference for Prompt 1 to “my kids” after we’ve hashed out the pros and cons of each of the seven options and many applicants, even after I declare my love, choose another topic that better satisfies their subject matter. They do, however, weigh my reasons against their own and switch gears only if they feel Prompt 1 will yield a better piece of writing, one with heart and heft. They’re smart cookies, these rising seniors. To write a memorable narrative’s their goal, one that enables them to express their them-ness while both adhering to the word count limit and not repeating what’s contained in the other sections of their Common App.

Here’re a few reasons why Prompt 1 gets my nod:

It Begs for Personalization. Students often feel their life experiences are either truly exceptional or not exceptional enough. I had to inform a humble rising senior that a) the fact she played violin since she was four WAS a sign of commitment and grit (truly exceptional) and I had to break it to one overly confident rising senior that b) other varsity soccer players scored championship goals that year (not exceptional enough). While these young writers do have perspective on their accomplishments, just as often, they’re not approaching their stories in the most accurate — and attractive — manner. I would argue that this is due to a lack of “the reveal.” And I get it: To disclose personal thoughts and sentiments in an essay sent to strangers does sound counter-intuitive. But, by the same token, there’s an art to the personal essay that protects the author from feeling exposed while giving the reader an intimate portrait of the writer. Ah, there’s the rub!

Who Doesn’t Have An Interest? One of my students last year claimed that he had no passions or hobbies. After we FaceTimed for an hour, and I kept track of each activity he did or interest he had, it turned out that he was more engaged with the world than he realized. “Wow,” he said. “I’m interesting.” And he is. From Pokemon card collecting (an obsession since age three) to cooking (a commitment to pizza-making since age nine) to debate and news analysis (a slow-burn love starting in high school), this student decided to write about how he has too many interests and needs to break up with a few of them pre-college – to have room to acquire new ones. I call this the anti-essay, addressing the converse of what the topic asks. This is a wonderfully creative way to take a prompt and make it your own.

The T Word. When parents and I meet or chat on the phone for the first time, the T– or G– word inevitably comes up. The parent’s voice usually softens to an almost-whisper as if what they are about to disclose is either too embarrassing or top-secret to be uttered. “My son’s a very talented musician.” Or “My daughter is gifted in math.” My response almost always disarms and sometimes alarms them. “All students are talented.” And I believe this. A student’s talent or “gift” might not be noticed in a conventionally measured or assessed way. I’ve worked with LD students who gut it out academically, endure extra-time standardized testing, slog through school days chock-full of extra-curriculars and yet, when it comes to their essay, they produce odes that they didn’t know they were capable of penning. “My daughter’s not a talented writer. It’s not her thing. Can’t you just write her essay?” one parent asked me. And my response was, “Your daughter’s got this. Trust her.” This particular student’s now matriculated at a top research university working harder with greater success than her talented peers!

>> Check out this NPR article: Forget Talent, Success Comes From ‘Grit’

The Common Application Essay Prompt 1 provides a wonderful springboard for many narratives. Have your student give it a whirl.

For Essay Coaching and/or College Counseling, drop me a line at or give me a holler at 917-863-2424.