Who and Why - the identity questions in college applications
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Who and Why - the identity questions in college applications

Admission Counselling :
  • Written by UnivAdmitHelp
  • Category: Admission Application
  • Published on 17 Oct 2019

How to answer the "identity and culture" question in college applications

The Common App has a question, “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.” (250-650 words)

How would you answer that? 

What makes you you? When the question talks about background, or story, or identity, what are they really looking for? Other applications have the following questions similar to the Common App:


# UWash: Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the UW. (300 words)


# MIT: Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)


The first task at hand is to understand what the question is about. Usually, this question is an opportunity for you to showcase the best version of yourself. (As an aside, there are many versions of you. Do you know all of them?)

A - you must know yourself - your identity. 

B - know yourself in all different contexts.

C - choose the context that is most apt for the question, the course, and the college that you are aiming for.

While answering these questions might be hard, the question that precedes them is harder. The quest for your perfect education begs an essential question: Who are you? What are you working towards and why? Who is the person who is aiming for this admission? There are many factors that contribute to your identity. For the purpose of this question, you could begin by populating the following list: 

  • Personal Identity: Habits, eccentric interests, nature, accomplishments: all of these come under personal. For instance, I am a person of many interests, but one thing that helps to define the picture is my love for languages. It encompasses many foreign languages, the love for grammar, vocabulary, coining new words, co-relating one aspect of a language to another. Similarly, you may want to explore what kind of interests define you? Further, are you religious? Atheist? Are you a tinkerer at heart? A creator/artist? A builder? A puzzle solver? The truth of the matter is that you are not one person.


  • Home and Family Identity: Being an elder brother, an only child, being brought up in a joint household with a democratic view, learning to care for a frail grandparent, or having a solitary point of view over life. All of these, or none of these, could form the basis of your identity. Reflect upon how certain family and home ties have contributed to or formed your life.


  • Identity of Origin: where you come from does indeed matter. An applicant for MIT asked on a forum, “For the previous questions, I simply put that my background was white, and (to my knowledge) is European descent. I'm not really sure what MIT is looking for with this question. I realize that they include it for students whose cultural background plays a significant role in their lives, but my cultural background isn't really a significance in my life.” The truth is that admission officers are not looking to classify you by race or ethnicity. Having an exotic background is not necessarily the correct answer. If one of your parents is Kashmiri and the other Bengali, would you base your identity on the food cooked in the kitchen? If your home is primarily Punjabi in culture, would that make you less interesting? 

The point to remember here is, if your Origin adds something to your identity, use it.

When you have made the above list, maybe you come across many points from each that you like. However, it is not necessary to write about every angle that you’ve enlisted. You must glean the identity dimensions that stand out.

Here are a few examples that would help you understand the point better -

  • I am a gamer and have practiced the art of abstracting real world problems through this pragmatic, fun approach for over ten years now. I have played in various game modes and have given my learning a new dimension through each of those. Sandbox environments like Kerbal Space Program helped me understand the nuances of rocket propulsion and gravitational theory. Role Playing Games (RPGs) allow me to understand human behavior. I am particularly fond of Sims through which I have lived the role of my future self in a social setting. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA) allow me to practice survival strategies in make-believe world scenarios. Through hours of gameplay, I have not only learnt my subjects, but also have gleaned practical insights into the workings of the world and society.


  • I come from a middle- class background and am a budding tennis player and have played at the state, national and international level along with which I have been pursuing my education. I am now looking forward to playing for India soon and also secure my future by completing my undergraduate studies in the field of food science and technology in the United States of America.


Pick out the version of you that will make you shine as an applicant. It should make you memorable the way an author creates a well fleshed out character in a story.


Read: Why you need a story to write your SOP