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What is a Background in an Essay: Introducing Information

What is a Background in an Essay: Introducing Information

Writing A Background in an Essay

Writing A Background in an Essay

Background in an essay refers to material provided in a nonfiction essay or work that explains the context of the issue you will explore in the essay.

This information is connected to the hook or opening statement, and then to the thesis statement, which you will write last at the end of the introduction.

write an essay about background

What is Background Information in an Essay

The background information is the supporting points you employ to demonstrate your argument or viewpoint. It is the grounds on which you base your point of view to prove your argument. background information is found in the introduction, just after the opening statement or the hook.

essay introduction

The amount and type of background material depend on the goal and topic of your essay.

You may need to provide definitions or an overview of the problem you discuss in the essay.

The background information in an essay will depend on the topic.

The background information in an essay on a scientific test may include test parameters, test objectives, test site conditions, sample kinds, sample size, and other background material.

If your essay is about COVID 19, your background information may touch on diverse points. These may include what kind of virus it is, its origins, and how many countries it has affected.

It may also include how many people have contracted it, and how it is transmitted from one person to another, among other things.

How to Write Background Information in an Essay                          

The key to writing background information in an essay is to master the art of the introduction. Grabbing the reader’s attention at the beginning allows you to include the information they need to comprehend your work.

The first paragraph/section of an essay is the introduction, and it is critical to creating an excellent paper. The introduction helps you begin the essay by grabbing the reader’s attention.

Then, you provide background information plus map out the core topic, direction, and objective of your essay.

Usually, an excellent introduction starts with a discussion around the essay’s topic. After that, you move on to the specific ideas you will explore in the body.

How do you write the introduction and include background information in an essay?

Example of essay background

Use an effective hook to make a solid first impression. This piques the curiosity and attention of readers, encouraging them to keep reading.

Provide background information about the main topic of the essay. It establishes a general framework for the paper by providing readers with the information they require before reading it.

It should start with broad concepts and then narrow down to the thesis (a single-focused idea).

Conclude with a concise thesis statement that indicates your motivation for writing, expresses the main idea/argument, and gives the body of the work a direction or outline.

The hook is the tool that captures attention and makes the readers want to keep reading. You can shape it as a question, an interesting fact or statistic, a quotation, or a story.

You can also use any other intriguing idea that piques readers’ curiosity and encourages them to continue reading.

Regardless of which option you choose, ensure the hook links to the essay’s topic in some way.

The background information sets the stage for the essay by offering a high-level summary of the topic. It introduces the broad topic(s) and eases the reader into the subject with general information.

Also, it may comprise concepts, facts, history, definitions, and other material that helps comprehend the specific information offered in the body.

It is critical to understand your audience and evaluate what readers may or may not know about the topic to provide relevant background information.

Besides, it enables you to offer readers the information they require before continuing to read the essay. So, presenting background information in the introduction acts as a link that connects the reader to the issue.

The length and depth of this bridge depend on how much information you believe the reader will need to comprehend the topic and realize why the difficulties you are looking at are essential.

Your thesis statement highlights the key idea or main argument and your motivation for writing the essay. You can also use it to outline the supporting ideas you explore in the body. It is usually the final sentence of the introduction.

Examples of Background Information in an Essay

1.”gettysburg address” abraham lincoln.

The hook in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was that the founding fathers believed that all men are created equal. Then he gave some background on the current state of the Civil War:

Gettysburg address

Now we are in the midst of a major civil war, which will determine whether that nation or any other nation so conceived and dedicated, can last for a long time.

And we have met on one of the war’s most important battlegrounds.

We’ve decided to devote a piece of the field as the last resting place for those who gave their life here so that this country could live. It is entirely appropriate for us to do so.

2. “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

Notice how the introduction hooks your attention and then swiftly offers you some background information about Joan Didion’s life in this personal essay by Joan Didion:

The origins of things are easy to perceive, but the endings are more difficult to see. I can pinpoint when New York began for me now, with a clarity that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

But I can’t pinpoint when it ended or cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the precise point on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

I was twenty when I first saw New York. It was summer, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress.

It had seemed very smart in Sacramento but had already seemed less smart, even in the old Idle wild temporary terminal.

The warm air smelled of mildew, and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I’d ever seen and all the songs I’d ever heard sung and all the stories I’d ever read about New York.

Josh Jasen

When not handling complex essays and academic writing tasks, Josh is busy advising students on how to pass assignments. In spare time, he loves playing football or walking with his dog around the park.

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How can I write background information effectively?

write an essay about background

This is the third and final chapter about Background Information . To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Consider what makes for effectively written introductory background information

– Provide five pieces of advice for effective writing

– Use an example paragraph to demonstrate background-information mistakes

Chapter 1: What is introductory background information?

Chapter 2: Which background elements are important?

Chapter 3: How can I write background information effectively?

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This third and final chapter about writing background information for the introductory paragraph of an academic essay focuses on the general tips and advice that (if followed carefully) should lead to more effective writing, which we’ve organised into five key areas. Once you’ve read and understood these five pieces of advice, you may wish to then unlock our beginner-, intermediate- and advanced-level worksheets to check your understanding of this topic.

1. Consider the Elements

As was described in some detail in Chapter 2, there are four key elements which may be included as introductory background information , which are (a) introducing the topic, (b) providing a hook, (c) defining key terms, and (d) highlighting topic importance. An effective writer should know when to vary both the length and inclusion of these elements depending upon the topic of their essay . If, for example, the subject matter of your essay lacks subject-specific vocabulary , then perhaps you shouldn’t worry about defining any terminology. Likewise, should your essay focus be on something important or significant – such as global warming or achieving world peace, then remember to detail this significance clearly for your reader.

2. Include Key Sources

One aspect of writing background information that students often neglect is the inclusion of key sources . First remember that sources should almost always be included in introductory background information, particularly when providing key statistics, definitions or theoretical concepts. Remind yourself here that referencing is intended to not only provide acknowledgement to the sources used and to avoid plagiarism , but to also assist the reader in locating those sources more easily.

Another consideration when citing sources during the introduction is to make sure that the key research for that specific topic has been included. Which authors and sources conducted the initial investigations about that topic, for example? And if you’re evaluating a theory, then which sources posited that theory first, and which later sources further developed those concepts? As is shown below, it may also be worth including a key multiple-source citation within your introduction:

Background Information 3.1 Multiple-Source Citation

3. Be Concise but Comprehensive

The third piece of advice about writing effective background information reminds the writer to be concise but also comprehensive. It’s not easy to find the right balance between including as few words as possible while still making sure that all the information necessary to sufficiently contextualise your essay has also been provided. One way of achieving this might be to first include all of the key information that your introduction requires without concerning yourself with aspects of concision. Once written, a writer is then able to carefully edit their work, rewriting any phrases or sentences that are able to carry the same meaning but in fewer words. Ultimately, by remembering the concept that academic writing requires the clear and concise conveyance of a writer’s ideas and arguments , you should be on the right path to academic success. 

4. Be Specific but Relevant

Two additional and important aspects of academic writing are specificity and relevance. It’s no secret that to write effectively, you should try to avoid having vague language throughout your essay – particularly in the introduction . The more specific a writer can be without providing unnecessary detail, the clearer and less ambiguous their writing will appear and therefore the more convincing their argument will likely be.

At the same time as being specific, a writer should try to be ruthless and critical in whether or not their background information is strictly relevant to their essay question and thesis statement . Ultimately, if such information lacks relevance, then those details should be deleted without question or repurposed elsewhere. Beyond a sentence or two to set the context, one good rule here is to avoid mentioning anything in your background that isn’t then further explored in the body section of your essay . Remember that most persuasive essays do not have the word count available for providing description within the body paragraphs, and so any concept that requires explanation should be briefly introduced and explained in the introductory background information first. 

5. Edit Carefully

Finally, as with all aspects of essay writing and academic assessments in general, an effective writer should always remember to edit and proofread their work carefully. Although even experienced writers make occasional typos and produce minor errors, non-native speakers of English also often make mistakes with other aspects of the language – such as word forms or subject-verb agreement . With this in mind, try to make sure that you, and perhaps also a peer, look carefully over your writing before the final submission deadline.

To highlight more clearly to you what might happen if the five tips we’ve outlined above are not followed, we’ve provided below a modified version of our Chapter 1 background information . This modified example demonstrates ineffective background that lacks sources , concision , specificity, relevance and careful editing :

Foreign Aid is Effective in the African Continent. Discuss.

The question of whether a country should provide assistance to a nation is not a contemporary one. 1 In fact, recent evidence suggests that cultures as ancient as the Egyptians may have been at war with their foreign neighbours on a yearly basis (Smith, 2016). 2 Something that may be taken as being somewhat ironic is that the majority of countries and nations that now depend upon foreign AID and investment exist firmly within the many countries that make up the African continent. 3 AID, or Assisting to International Developing, is however an relatively recent conceptual, with $1.7 trillions now spent annually on providing international support for little affluence countrys. 4 Many researchers have claimed that as much as 65% of this has failed to achieve its intended purpose. 5 With poverty levels increased year up to year, the questions off whether Africa has a promising future is an importance one.

Background Information 3.2 Example Problems

To reference this reader:

Academic Marker (2022) Background Information . Available at: https://academicmarker.com/essay-writing/introductory-paragraphs/background-information/ (Accessed: Date Month Year).

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Our background information  academic reader (including all three chapters about this topic) can be accessed here at the click of a button.

Gain unlimited access to our background information  beginner worksheet, with activities and answer keys designed to check a basic understanding of this reader’s chapters. 

To check a confident understanding of this  reader’s chapters , click on the button below to download our  background information   intermediate worksheet with activities and answer keys.

Our background information  advanced worksheet with activities and answer keys has been created to check a sophisticated understanding of this  reader’s chapters . 

To save yourself 5 Marks , click on the button below to gain unlimited access to all of our background information  chapters and worksheets. The All-in-1 Pack includes every  chapter in this reader, as well as our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets in one handy PDF.

Click on the button below to gain unlimited access to our background information   teacher’s PowerPoint, which should include everything you’d need to successfully introduce this topic.

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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

  • Background Information
  • Purpose of Guide
  • Design Flaws to Avoid
  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Reading Research Effectively
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
  • Broadening a Topic Idea
  • Extending the Timeliness of a Topic Idea
  • Academic Writing Style
  • Applying Critical Thinking
  • Choosing a Title
  • Making an Outline
  • Paragraph Development
  • Research Process Video Series
  • Executive Summary
  • The C.A.R.S. Model
  • The Research Problem/Question
  • Theoretical Framework
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  • Evaluating Sources
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Tiertiary Sources
  • Scholarly vs. Popular Publications
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Insiderness
  • Using Non-Textual Elements
  • Limitations of the Study
  • Common Grammar Mistakes
  • Writing Concisely
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Footnotes or Endnotes?
  • Further Readings
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Background information identifies and describes the history and nature of a well-defined research problem with reference to contextualizing existing literature. The background information should indicate the root of the problem being studied, appropriate context of the problem in relation to theory, research, and/or practice , its scope, and the extent to which previous studies have successfully investigated the problem, noting, in particular, where gaps exist that your study attempts to address. Background information does not replace the literature review section of a research paper; it is intended to place the research problem within a specific context and an established plan for its solution.

Fitterling, Lori. Researching and Writing an Effective Background Section of a Research Paper. Kansas City University of Medicine & Biosciences; Creating a Research Paper: How to Write the Background to a Study. DurousseauElectricalInstitute.com; Background Information: Definition of Background Information. Literary Devices Definition and Examples of Literary Terms.

Importance of Having Enough Background Information

Background information expands upon the key points stated in the beginning of your introduction but is not intended to be the main focus of the paper. It generally supports the question, what is the most important information the reader needs to understand before continuing to read the paper? Sufficient background information helps the reader determine if you have a basic understanding of the research problem being investigated and promotes confidence in the overall quality of your analysis and findings. This information provides the reader with the essential context needed to conceptualize the research problem and its significance before moving on to a more thorough analysis of prior research.

Forms of contextualization included in background information can include describing one or more of the following:

  • Cultural -- placed within the learned behavior of a specific group or groups of people.
  • Economic -- of or relating to systems of production and management of material wealth and/or business activities.
  • Gender -- located within the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with being self-identified as male, female, or other form of  gender expression.
  • Historical -- the time in which something takes place or was created and how the condition of time influences how you interpret it.
  • Interdisciplinary -- explanation of theories, concepts, ideas, or methodologies borrowed from other disciplines applied to the research problem rooted in a discipline other than the discipline where your paper resides.
  • Philosophical -- clarification of the essential nature of being or of phenomena as it relates to the research problem.
  • Physical/Spatial -- reflects the meaning of space around something and how that influences how it is understood.
  • Political -- concerns the environment in which something is produced indicating it's public purpose or agenda.
  • Social -- the environment of people that surrounds something's creation or intended audience, reflecting how the people associated with something use and interpret it.
  • Temporal -- reflects issues or events of, relating to, or limited by time. Concerns past, present, or future contextualization and not just a historical past.

Background information can also include summaries of important research studies . This can be a particularly important element of providing background information if an innovative or groundbreaking study about the research problem laid a foundation for further research or there was a key study that is essential to understanding your arguments. The priority is to summarize for the reader what is known about the research problem before you conduct the analysis of prior research. This is accomplished with a general summary of the foundational research literature [with citations] that document findings that inform your study's overall aims and objectives.

NOTE : Research studies cited as part of the background information of your introduction should not include very specific, lengthy explanations. This should be discussed in greater detail in your literature review section. If you find a study requiring lengthy explanation, consider moving it to the literature review section.

ANOTHER NOTE : In some cases, your paper's introduction only needs to introduce the research problem, explain its significance, and then describe a road map for how you are going to address the problem; the background information basically forms the introduction part of your literature review. That said, while providing background information is not required, including it in the introduction is a way to highlight important contextual information that could otherwise be hidden or overlooked by the reader if placed in the literature review section.

Background of the Problem Section: What do you Need to Consider? Anonymous. Harvard University; Hopkins, Will G. How to Write a Research Paper. SPORTSCIENCE, Perspectives/Research Resources. Department of Physiology and School of Physical Education, University of Otago, 1999; Green, L. H. How to Write the Background/Introduction Section. Physics 499 Powerpoint slides. University of Illinois; Pyrczak, Fred. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences . 8th edition. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2014; Stevens, Kathleen C. “Can We Improve Reading by Teaching Background Information?.” Journal of Reading 25 (January 1982): 326-329; Woodall, W. Gill. Writing the Background and Significance Section. Senior Research Scientist and Professor of Communication. Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions. University of New Mexico.

Structure and Writing Style

Providing background information in the introduction of a research paper serves as a bridge that links the reader to the research problem . Precisely how long and in-depth this bridge should be is largely dependent upon how much information you think the reader will need to know in order to fully understand the problem being discussed and to appreciate why the issues you are investigating are important.

From another perspective, the length and detail of background information also depends on the degree to which you need to demonstrate to your professor how much you understand the research problem. Keep this in mind because providing pertinent background information can be an effective way to demonstrate that you have a clear grasp of key issues, debates, and concepts related to your overall study.

The structure and writing style of your background information can vary depending upon the complexity of your research and/or the nature of the assignment. However, in most cases it should be limited to only one to two paragraphs in your introduction.

Given this, here are some questions to consider while writing this part of your introduction :

  • Are there concepts, terms, theories, or ideas that may be unfamiliar to the reader and, thus, require additional explanation?
  • Are there historical elements that need to be explored in order to provide needed context, to highlight specific people, issues, or events, or to lay a foundation for understanding the emergence of a current issue or event?
  • Are there theories, concepts, or ideas borrowed from other disciplines or academic traditions that may be unfamiliar to the reader and therefore require further explanation?
  • Is there a key study or small set of studies that set the stage for understanding the topic and frames why it is important to conduct further research on the topic?
  • Y our study uses a method of analysis never applied before;
  • Your study investigates a very esoteric or complex research problem;
  • Your study introduces new or unique variables that need to be taken into account ; or,
  • Your study relies upon analyzing unique texts or documents, such as, archival materials or primary documents like diaries or personal letters that do not represent the established body of source literature on the topic?

Almost all introductions to a research problem require some contextualizing, but the scope and breadth of background information varies depending on your assumption about the reader's level of prior knowledge . However, despite this assessment, background information should be brief and succinct and sets the stage for the elaboration of critical points or in-depth discussion of key issues in the literature review section of your paper.

Writing Tip

Background Information vs. the Literature Review

Incorporating background information into the introduction is intended to provide the reader with critical information about the topic being studied, such as, highlighting and expanding upon foundational studies conducted in the past, describing important historical events that inform why and in what ways the research problem exists, defining key components of your study [concepts, people, places, phenomena] and/or placing the research problem within a particular context. Although introductory background information can often blend into the literature review portion of the paper, essential background information should not be considered a substitute for a comprehensive review and synthesis of relevant research literature.

Hart, Cris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998; Pyrczak, Fred. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences . 8th edition. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2014.

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Understanding the Background in an Essay: Context and Significance

Table of contents, defining the background, the importance of context, establishing relevance, creating engagement, conclusion: framing the narrative.

  • Smith, John. "The Art of Effective Background Writing." Journal of Academic Writing, vol. 25, no. 2, 2018, pp. 87-104.
  • Jones, Emily. "Context Matters: The Role of Background Information in Comprehension." Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 3, 2006, pp. 386-401.
  • Johnson, Robert. "Crafting Engaging Backgrounds: Techniques for Captivating Readers." Writing Techniques Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 2020, pp. 55-67.
  • Thompson, Laura. "The Significance of Context in Essay Writing." Academic Insights, vol. 12, no. 1, 2019, pp. 23-38.
  • Williams, David. "The Power of Relevance: Creating Lasting Impressions Through Effective Backgrounds." Rhetoric and Composition Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, 2015, pp. 120-135.

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How to Write The Background Information Essay

How to Write The Background Information Essay

The background information essay is an essay that provides background information on a particular event, entity, or person. It’s essentially the backstory . These essays can provide a necessary foundation of information that is useful for many reasons.

The Background Essay Has Many Important Applications

There are several reasons to write an essay on background information. Some colleges and universities ask students to provide background information essays so that they are able to learn each student's personal story. This may be used to influence admissions, or as a simple getting to know you tool.

In another case, prior to taking on a full research project, a student may write a background essay on their research topic. This may be presented to an instructor, project team members, or research committee in order to gain support and interest in the upcoming project. The background essay may become part of the overall research materials when the project is completed.

As a third example, case studies are frequently done after writing a paper on background information about the subject of the study. Let’s say you are studying to get your Master’s in Social Work. If you are working on a case study about at risk rural teenagers, you might write a background information essay with biographical information on the teens you are studying.

Learning How to Write a Background Paper

Now that you know the particular reasons and backgrounds for writing these papers, let’s explore how to write them. Here are some tips for background writing:

  • Limit The Information to Only That Which is Relevant

The information that you include in your background essay should only be related to the assignment at hand. For example, if you are submitting a background essay for admission into a college or university, you don’t need to share the entirety of your life story. Instead, you just need to share the information that shows you have the background and characteristics that they are looking for.

Likewise, if you are writing about the subject of a study or research project, limit information to details that relate to the study or project. Adding additional information can damage clarity and be distracting. If you are concerned, you might look into background information paper writing services .

  • Do Not Violate Privacy

If you are dealing with human subjects remember that it is important to protect their privacy. Depending on the nature of your work, this could mean obscuring identifying information, ensuring that  HIPAA standards

 are met, or obtaining consent to reveal information.

  • If You Are Answering a Question or Set of Questions Only Address Those

If your background information paper assignment consists of a question or set of questions, limit the scope of your essay to answering those. On the other hand, it is also important to ensure that your answers are thorough.

  • Remember Your Audience And Your Goals

As you write, keep your audience in mind as well as the goals you are trying to accomplish. If you are writing an essay to obtain research approval from your instructor, you will probably want to be detailed and technical. On the other hand, if you are giving background information about a marketing case study, your language will be quite a bit different.

Keep the tips above in mind in the event that you are assigned a background information essay. This can serve as a quick reference guide and resource.

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, personal background essay examples.

Hey everyone! I'm working on my college applications, and part of it requires a personal background essay. I'm a little stuck, so if you guys could share some examples or tips, that'd be great! Please help me out, thanks!

Hello! It's understandable that writing a personal background essay can be challenging. Here are some tips to get you started and an example of how you might approach this essay:

1. Reflect on what makes your background unique. Consider your family's history, culture, traditions, values, and how these have shaped your experiences.

2. Delve into the details. Discuss specific experiences, anecdotes, or events that have had a significant impact on your life and highlight the lessons you've gained from your background.

3. Be authentic. Write from the heart and let your personality shine through. This essay is your opportunity to help the admissions officers get to know you beyond your stats and accomplishments.

4. Avoid clichés. Personal background essays are quite common, so if you're writing about a widely-covered topic (moving, learning a new language, etc.), try to find a unique angle or aspect that will set your essay apart.

Growing up in a multigenerational household, I've had the rare privilege of experiencing diverse perspectives on life from my grandparents, parents, and siblings. My grandparents, who emigrated from Vietnam, taught me the importance of staying true to our cultural heritage and maintaining strong connections with family. Daily rituals like preparing and enjoying traditional Vietnamese meals, participating in Lunar New Year celebrations, and listening to stories about my grandparents' journey to the United States helped me appreciate the strength and resilience of my ancestors.

However, this cultural pride was not always something I cherished. As a child, I was bullied for my Banh Khot and Banh Mi lunches, and I'd often ask my parents to pack more generic-looking sandwiches to avoid feeling like an outsider at school. It wasn't until my grandmother shared her own story of assimilation and how she strived to maintain her cultural identity in a new country that I realized the value of embracing my heritage. Inspired by her courage, I decided to educate my peers about Vietnamese traditions and founded a cultural exchange club at school. Together, we explored our heritages, organizing potlucks, cultural presentations, and language exchange sessions.

Through this experience, I've learned that embracing who I am and the unique background I come from has made me a stronger person. My personal background has taught me to be open to learning about other cultures, which I look forward to bringing to my future college community.

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The Classroom | Empowering Students in Their College Journey

How to Write a Short Essay Describing Your Background

How to Write a Self-Portrait Essay

How to Write a Self-Portrait Essay

Writing a personal essay is not as easy as people think. Sure, you're in expert on your life, but writing about one's background can be tricky, especially if the stakes are high for things like college applications or professional bios. Thought, planning and essay writing skills can make writing a personal essay much easier. Readers should get to know your background as you describe important elements in your life. It's important to lay these elements out clearly, without sounding pompous, which is no small feat! Luckily, with a bit of planning, you'll have no problem highlighting your best qualities while still sounding compelling to your reader.

Brainstorm your personal essay by making a list of your interests, achievements and goals. Include foreign travel, employment, research projects and any unusual activities. Consider difficult situations you may have overcome and how you coped with them. Don't just consider the good times: also think about hardships you encountered, family problems or disappointments, and how those have effected you.

Your essay's introduction should grab the reader's attention. A startling statement, appropriate quotation or anecdote will do just this, and make the reader want to read more about your background. Before you start writing, take time to outline your ideas, so that you know what sequence events will unfold in throughout your personal essay. When you write your introduction, use brief, informative and interesting sentences: for example “One of the most rewarding adventures of my life was when I overcame my fear of the ocean to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef."

To write the body of the essay, you'll need to flesh out your ideas. Follow your outline to develop your thoughts. You should use selective detail and stick to the important points in order to keep your essay brief. In fact, most college essays are 500 to 700 words long, which doesn't give you too much space to work with. Be sure to highlight your major accomplishments including as hobbies, experiences, likes and dislikes, other languages spoken, cultural heritage or community service are interesting discussion points, since these set you apart from others. Develop your thoughts clearly by using appropriate language and vivid images, and be sure that the body of your personal essay relates to the introduction.

Conclude your essay with a brief summary of the important points. Be sure to end with a powerful statement, like: “Even with my background, I realize I can’t change the world, but I hope to make a difference."

Other considerations: Be sure to use transitions from one paragraph to the next. Be honest and confident. Brevity is required, so don't ramble. Carefully check spelling, punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. Revise and edit your essay. Have someone else read it, in order to get an objective opinion on whether you adequately described your background.

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Based in Bellmore, N.Y., Shula Hirsch has been writing since 1960 on travel, education, raising children and senior problems. Her articles have appeared in "Newsday," "Mature Living," "Teaching Today," and "Travel News." She holds a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University and is a retired professor of English.

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Common App Essay Prompt 1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

Mark montgomery.

  • July 6, 2023

common app essay prompt 1 background identity interest talent

Write The Common App Essay Prompt 1 – Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

Common App Essay Prompt 1 reads like this: , “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.”

Essay Questions on the Common App

How will you decide whether this is the right prompt for you to address on your Common Application essay?

As high school seniors prepare to apply to college, they’re faced with the daunting task of writing an essay that will capture the attention of admissions officers and set them apart from the thousands of other applicants. Crafting a compelling narrative around their background story can be a powerful tool for students to showcase their individuality and leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee. The first prompt on the Common Application asks students to reflect on a various aspects of who they are as a person.

Actually, the prompt asks you to reflect on one of four different aspects of what makes you special: your background, your identity, and interest, or a talent.

As a reminder, here’s how Common App Prompt 1 reads:

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. 

To help you better understand how to address this prompt, I’ve highlighted the most important words in these two short sentences.  I’m going to address each below—not in the order of their appearance—but in order of their importance.

Defining Key Terms in Common App Essay Prompt 1

College admissions people know that some people have an interesting background that is the source of their identity. When discussing your background in your college application essay, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a part of your humanity that you may not have chosen or may not be able to change. This background can be cultural, ethnic, familial, medical, physical, economic, or any other circumstances that affect their lives. There may be elements of this personal background or history that have shaped who you are today and can be acknowledged in your essay.

When writing about your background in response to the Common Application Essay, it’s important to consider how these experiences have shaped you as a person. Also, recognize that not everyone has the same experiences and opportunities. Your background may have presented you with unique challenges or obstacles to overcome, and this can demonstrate your resilience and adaptability. Sharing your background will provide insight into your personality, your values, and your goals.

By reflecting on your experiences, you may discover strengths or skills that you didn’t realize you had, or recognize areas where you still have room for growth. Ultimately, your background is a part of who you are, and by embracing and sharing it, you can show the admissions committee how you have been shaped by your unique background and what you can bring to their campus.

Your identity may be related to your background.  However, your identity is different from your circumstances or history.  Rather, your identity is how you define yourself.  Certainly your background may be important, and may be one aspect of your identity.  But if you want to focus on your identity for this prompt, you need to think about how you present yourself to the world. Perhaps your identity is something completely different from your background or history.  We define our own identity, but our background can be how others see us.

So, if you want to focus on your identity for this prompt, ask yourself some questions. Who are you?  What are you?  What motivates you and drives you forward in life? How do you see yourself in the world? Your answers to these questions can reveal a lot about your character and the things that are most important to you. Take the time to reflect on what makes you who you are and use that understanding to craft a compelling and authentic essay that showcases your individuality.

To take it further, how does your identity demonstrate or determine other aspects of you as a person.

How does your identity reflect your values and beliefs? How does your identity guide your decisions and actions? By deepening your description of how your identity is important, you can take full advantage of this prompt and communicate who you are in a clear and compelling way.  

An interest is something that captures your attention and holds your focus. It could be a hobby, a passion, a cause, or even an academic subject that you find fascinating. Your interest can show how you spend your free time, what you care about, and even how you approach challenges and opportunities. This is your chance to showcase your personality and individuality in a way your background, identity, or talent may not. 

Even if your interest is not particularly unique, what’s important is that you are able to demonstrate how this interest has shaped you as a person and contributed to your growth and development. Think about what your interests say about you. Often, pursuing an interest requires dedication, commitment, and practice. By consistently engaging in an activity you’re passionate about, maybe you’ve learned discipline and time management. 

Use this as an opportunity to reveal your personality and individuality beyond what may be listed on your resume. It’s important to keep in mind that your Common App Essay should add something new and unique to your application. You want to provide insight into your passions that aren’t already indicated on your application.  Instead, consider writing about an interest that most people would not know you have. Demonstrate how this interest has shaped you as a person and provides insight into your unique character.

A talent is a natural ability or skill you possess in a certain area. This is similar to an interest, but it usually entails developing some sort of expertise or ability. It could be anything from music to math, writing to sports. 

Perhaps you have taught yourself origami or how to knit—and you have developed this into a talent that allows you tomake things for your family and  friends. Perhaps you have become excellent at woodworking or calligraphy, and have used this talent in some sort of  interesting way. Your talent is something that sets you apart and showcases your unique abilities. However, just like with interests, it’s important to remember that your Common App Essay should add something new and different to your application.

When writing about your talent you want to be sure it’s a significant part of your identity or has had a profound impact on your life. Your essay should provide insight into the unique perspective and personal qualities that have been developed through the pursuit of your talent. 

In choosing the focus of your essay, whether it be your background, identity, interest, or talent, it is crucial to consider its inherent meaning and significance to you. 

For instance, while your background as someone who grew up in a small town may hold certain nostalgic memories and experiences, it may not hold the same level of personal meaning as your profound interest in military aircraft or prestidigitation. These other aspects of your humanity may be better vehicles to reveal unique aspects of your character and aspirations than to describe the experiences and memories associated with growing up in a small town.

Similarly, you might possess a unique talent like wiggling your ears, which undoubtedly showcases a delightful quirkiness. However, the true depth of meaning may lie within your identity as a jazz musician. It is through music that you find solace, self-expression, and a profound connection to yourself and others. This identity as a jazz musician will encapsulate the essence of who you are profoundly more than your ear-wiggling talent.  

The key lies in identifying the specific background, identity, interest or talent  that holds the most profound meaning and impact on your life. It’s important to recognize the intrinsic importance and significance of the chosen focus. By selecting the most meaningful element, you lay the foundation for an essay that resonates with true authenticity and leaves a lasting impression on the admissions officer.

When it comes to crafting a compelling Common Application Essay, the importance of storytelling cannot be overstated. Note that the last word of the prompt requests that you share a story . So even in identifying the  background, identity, interest, or talent that helps your reader to understand the “real you,” your  essay will be considerably strengthened if you are able to relay an anecdote or short vignette that  illustrates this key attribute about yourself.  

The story you share in your essay is important, but it’s important to remember that it’s only the jumping off point. It’s the springboard for the reflection that comes next. While this prompt asks for the story at the end, it’s likely that you’ll tell the story at the beginning of your essay. However, it’s the reflection on that story that will truly make your essay stand out.

Your story acts as a starting point in the essay, helping to shed light on the core significance of the chosen background, identity, interest, or talent. It allows the reader to understand why this aspect of your life is important and why they should be interested in learning more about it. The story serves as a catalyst, moving the essay forward and creating a foundation for a deeper exploration of how the chosen item has influenced your personal growth, values, or aspirations.

Your story doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing to be effective. It can be a small moment that had a big impact on you, or a series of events that taught you an important lesson. What matters is that it is personal to you and highlights something meaningful about who you are. 

When brainstorming for your essay, take some time to reflect on your life experiences and think about the stories that stand out to you. Remember that it should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, allowing you to craft a cohesive narrative. By incorporating a well-structured story into your essay, you can illuminate the significance and impact of your chosen background, identity, interest, or talent. This understanding fosters a deeper appreciation for your unique perspective and cultivates a meaningful connection with your essay.

Incomplete Without it

Incomplete . This word carries significant weight in the context of your application. If your background or story does not truly contribute to shaping who you are, then perhaps your application can be considered “complete” without this particular narrative. In such cases, you should then be looking at other prompts for inspiration. If your background or story does not really help to shape your humanity, then perhaps your application is “complete” without this story.  You should then be looking at other prompts for inspiration. 

Similarly, this prompt offers you an opportunity to tell a story about yourself that is not related to your academic record or your primary extracurricular accomplishments.  If you find that your response to this prompt is a restating or an amplification of something that is already found on your application, consider writing about something else.

For example, if you are an American attending a high school in Norway, your admissions officer will see that you are an American citizen, that you lived 12 years in the US before moving to Norway, and that you attended a Norwegian secondary school.  If you want to write about growing up in Norway, be sure that you are providing information that captures your background or identity in a way that goes beyond your passport, visa status, and the location of your high school.

Similarly, if you have been captain of the debate team and won numerous tournaments, then you might not want to highlight your “interest” in debate in your essay. Instead, tell admissions something meaningful about yourself that they cannot see from reading the activity section of your application (and, perhaps, the recommendation letter from your debate coach).

The purpose of this essay prompt is to provide an opportunity for you to bring forth something fresh and distinctive to your application. You want to use your essay to bring something new to your application—something that  is not already evident in the other elements (transcript, recommendations, honors, activities, and  the like). The focus of this essay, then, should be something that is meaningful to you but that is not obvious. 

Application forms often capture details such as ethnicity, hometown, and important activities, so it is crucial to go beyond these surface-level facts and reflect on what truly allows an admissions officer to authentically “KNOW” you. What sets you apart goes beyond these surface-level facts. What is the “hidden” information that admissions wouldn’t see unless you addressed it? 

This prompt serves as an invitation to unveil the hidden layers of your humanity, illuminating the experiences, insights, and introspection that cannot be captured through your demographic information or checklist of achievements. The pivot of the essay should be something that reveals something personal or unusual about you that helps the reader put you in a new perspective, or that brings to light a hidden truth about you that will give context to the rest of your application. 

Common App Essay Prompt 1 Overview

In choosing the focus of this prompt, whether it be your background, identity, interest, or talent, it is paramount to consider its inherent meaning and significance to you. This will ensure that your essay delves deep into the core aspects that define your unique journey and experiences. 

Your essay should showcase your unique perspectives, values, and beliefs that have made you who you are today, in a clear and understandable way. Use your story as a jumping off point for your reflection.

As you embark on this writing endeavor, keep in mind that the goal of this essay is to bring something new and meaningful to your application, something that helps the reader understand you better and highlights your individuality. Your application is incomplete without this aspect—whether it’s your background, identity, interest, or talent—that contributes significantly to shaping who you are.

In our next post, we’ll be discussing the second prompt which explores a topic that many of us try to avoid but inevitably encounter: failure .

Essay Ideas About A Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent That Worked 

Through our extensive experience working with countless students, we have seen many captivating essays. These narratives showcase the profound impact of personal experiences, offering a deeper understanding of their perspective. The essays below exemplify how individuals skillfully incorporate their background, identity, interests, or talent to create compelling narratives.

  • This example exemplifies a student’s profound interest in magic, crafting a story of resilience and self-acceptance. Their essay reveals how their passion for magic is an integral part of their identity , making their application feel incomplete without sharing this significant aspect of their life. The student demonstrates the significance of embracing personal passions and finding fulfillment in activities that may be deemed unconventional or uncool by societal standards.
  • This student’s essay showcases his deep interest in mythology, while creating a captivating story that reflects his identity and personal growth. It demonstrates his ability to craft a captivating story that reveals his unique spirit and personal growth but also highlights the invaluable insight that admissions would not have otherwise known.

Dos and Don’ts for Common App Essay Prompt 1

Don’t write about your interest or talent in football if your Common App activities already indicate you are captain of the team and won the state championship:  your interest is fully indicated in the activities section of the application.

Don’t write about the fact that you are Chinese if your name is Wong or about being Latino if your name is Gonzalez.  Our ethnicity is a fact of our existence.  It is a statement of our genetic code and ancestry.  And it can be very important—or not important at all, depending on the circumstances or context. For instance, it could be important to write about being Chinese if your family is the only Asian family in your small town in Montana. Being “Latino” is not as specific as being a refugee from Venezuela or the child of a Mexican businessman who grew up in Singapore.  The point is our ethnicity is not really all that interesting by itself. If you are writing about your “background,” try to get much more specific and more focused on your individuality. 

Do write about the fact that you spend hours and hours perfecting your juggling or yoyo talents–especially if that is not listed as an activity on your application. 

Do write about your interest in fishing if it is something you do a lot but more as a hobby–and is not a part of your resume.

Do write about your life growing up in a particular place or neighborhood that has helped to define your values, your priorities, your ambitions, or academic plan.

The point is to ADD to your application by providing new and different information that helps round you out as a person.  The application tends to be fairly two-dimensional, so this essay (and any responding to a different prompt, frankly) is meant to provide context to the rest of your resume.

Need Help With Your Common App Essay Prompt 1?

Yes, you can certainly get help with your Common App essay! Writing a strong college essay can be a challenging and intimidating process, and it’s perfectly normal to seek guidance and support along the way.

At Great College Advice, we offer a wide range of services designed to help students with every aspect of the college application process, including writing and revising their Common App essay. Our team of experienced counselors and writing coaches can provide personalized feedback, guidance, and support to help you craft an essay that is compelling, authentic, and effective.

Whether you need help generating ideas, organizing your thoughts, or polishing your final draft, we are here to help. We offer a variety of service packages to fit your specific needs and budget, including comprehensive application counseling, essay coaching, and hourly consultations.

Additional Resources for Common App Essay Prompt 1

  • In this informative video, Dr. Mark Montgomery provides valuable insights and guidance on how to approach the Common App essay prompt 1. He takes you through the entire writing process and gives tips on how to clearly communicate your individuality and showcase your unique perspectives, talents, and interests.

For additional writing help, check out our Common App Essay Series for in-depth guidance on various topics. Our expert tips and insights will help you showcase your unique experiences and perspectives in a compelling way. Whether you’re just starting your essay or simply refining it, our series is designed to help you every step of the writing process. Make your Common App Essay stand out!

  • Common Application Essays: What are they?
  • Writing about Background Story
  • Writing About Failure
  • Writing about Questioning Beliefs and Ideas
  • Writing about a Period of Personal Growth
  • Supplemental Essays
  • Why Our College? – Supplemental Essay Question

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Home — Essay Samples — Life — Personal Statement — Educational Background


My Motivation to Study Transportation Engineering

  • Categories: Academic Interests Personal Statement Plans After High School

About this sample


Words: 1952 |

10 min read

Published: Jul 10, 2019

Words: 1952 | Pages: 3 | 10 min read

Table of contents

Educational background example, why transportation engineering, undergraduate studies, my personality, works cited:.

  • Boon, K., & Powell, C. (2009). The kids are not all right: The United States and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Quarterly, 31(1), 149-184.
  • Coble, C. (2022). How the juvenile justice system works. FindLaw. https://www.findlaw.com/criminal/criminal-law-basics/how-the-juvenile-justice-system-works.html
  • Dieter, R. C. (2016). Juveniles and the death penalty. Death Penalty Information Center.
  • Domanick, J. (2019). Cruel and unusual punishment: The shame of three strikes laws. The Crime Report. https://thecrimereport.org/2019/10/21/cruel-and-unusual-punishment-the-shame-of-three-strikes-laws/
  • Gonzalez, J. (2017). The impact of Prop 57 on California’s criminal justice system. ACLU of Northern California.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. (2021). Juvenile sentencing.
  • National Institute of Justice. (2016). Reducing juvenile recidivism. CrimeSolutions.gov. https://www.crimesolutions.gov/practice-details/Reducing-Juvenile-Recidivism
  • They Call Us Monsters. (2017). [Documentary]. Ben Lear (Director). Netflix.
  • Nellis, A. (2021). When juveniles are tried in adult criminal court. The Sentencing Project.
  • Proposition 57: California parole for non-violent criminals and juvenile court trial requirements (2016). (2023). Ballotpedia.

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  • How to write an essay outline | Guidelines & examples

How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples

Published on August 14, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.

An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph , giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.

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Organizing your material, presentation of the outline, examples of essay outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay outlines.

At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic  and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources , but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.

Creating categories

Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement . Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.

Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.

Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.

As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.

Order of information

When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.

Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion , but the organization of the body is up to you.

Consider these questions to order your material:

  • Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
  • Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
  • Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?

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Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.

In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.

The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.

  • Thesis statement
  • First piece of evidence
  • Second piece of evidence
  • Summary/synthesis
  • Importance of topic
  • Strong closing statement

You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.

Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.

Argumentative essay outline

This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.

Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.

  • Importance of the internet
  • Concerns about internet use
  • Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
  • Data exploring this effect
  • Analysis indicating it is overstated
  • Students’ reading levels over time
  • Why this data is questionable
  • Video media
  • Interactive media
  • Speed and simplicity of online research
  • Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
  • Evidence indicating its ubiquity
  • Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
  • Evidence that Wikipedia warns students not to cite it
  • Argument that it introduces students to citation
  • Summary of key points
  • Value of digital education for students
  • Need for optimism to embrace advantages of the internet

Expository essay outline

This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.

The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.

  • Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
  • Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
  • Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
  • Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
  • Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
  • Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
  • Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
  • Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
  • Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • Link to the Reformation.
  • Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
  • Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
  • Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
  • Summarize the history described.
  • Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.

Literary analysis essay outline

The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park .

The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.

  • Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
  • Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
  • Introduce the research question : How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
  • Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
  • Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  • Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
  • Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  • Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
  • Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  • Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
  • Answer the research question
  • Indicate areas for further study

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You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay . Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.

Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process . It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.

If you have to hand in your essay outline , you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.

When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay . However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline . Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

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If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

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  • Solar Eclipse 2024

What the World Has Learned From Past Eclipses

C louds scudded over the small volcanic island of Principe, off the western coast of Africa, on the afternoon of May 29, 1919. Arthur Eddington, director of the Cambridge Observatory in the U.K., waited for the Sun to emerge. The remains of a morning thunderstorm could ruin everything.

The island was about to experience the rare and overwhelming sight of a total solar eclipse. For six minutes, the longest eclipse since 1416, the Moon would completely block the face of the Sun, pulling a curtain of darkness over a thin stripe of Earth. Eddington traveled into the eclipse path to try and prove one of the most consequential ideas of his age: Albert Einstein’s new theory of general relativity.

Eddington, a physicist, was one of the few people at the time who understood the theory, which Einstein proposed in 1915. But many other scientists were stymied by the bizarre idea that gravity is not a mutual attraction, but a warping of spacetime. Light itself would be subject to this warping, too. So an eclipse would be the best way to prove whether the theory was true, because with the Sun’s light blocked by the Moon, astronomers would be able to see whether the Sun’s gravity bent the light of distant stars behind it.

Two teams of astronomers boarded ships steaming from Liverpool, England, in March 1919 to watch the eclipse and take the measure of the stars. Eddington and his team went to Principe, and another team led by Frank Dyson of the Greenwich Observatory went to Sobral, Brazil.

Totality, the complete obscuration of the Sun, would be at 2:13 local time in Principe. Moments before the Moon slid in front of the Sun, the clouds finally began breaking up. For a moment, it was totally clear. Eddington and his group hastily captured images of a star cluster found near the Sun that day, called the Hyades, found in the constellation of Taurus. The astronomers were using the best astronomical technology of the time, photographic plates, which are large exposures taken on glass instead of film. Stars appeared on seven of the plates, and solar “prominences,” filaments of gas streaming from the Sun, appeared on others.

Eddington wanted to stay in Principe to measure the Hyades when there was no eclipse, but a ship workers’ strike made him leave early. Later, Eddington and Dyson both compared the glass plates taken during the eclipse to other glass plates captured of the Hyades in a different part of the sky, when there was no eclipse. On the images from Eddington’s and Dyson’s expeditions, the stars were not aligned. The 40-year-old Einstein was right.

“Lights All Askew In the Heavens,” the New York Times proclaimed when the scientific papers were published. The eclipse was the key to the discovery—as so many solar eclipses before and since have illuminated new findings about our universe.

Telescope used to observe a total solar eclipse, Sobral, Brazil, 1919.

To understand why Eddington and Dyson traveled such distances to watch the eclipse, we need to talk about gravity.

Since at least the days of Isaac Newton, who wrote in 1687, scientists thought gravity was a simple force of mutual attraction. Newton proposed that every object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe, and that the strength of this attraction is related to the size of the objects and the distances among them. This is mostly true, actually, but it’s a little more nuanced than that.

On much larger scales, like among black holes or galaxy clusters, Newtonian gravity falls short. It also can’t accurately account for the movement of large objects that are close together, such as how the orbit of Mercury is affected by its proximity the Sun.

Albert Einstein’s most consequential breakthrough solved these problems. General relativity holds that gravity is not really an invisible force of mutual attraction, but a distortion. Rather than some kind of mutual tug-of-war, large objects like the Sun and other stars respond relative to each other because the space they are in has been altered. Their mass is so great that they bend the fabric of space and time around themselves.

Read More: 10 Surprising Facts About the 2024 Solar Eclipse

This was a weird concept, and many scientists thought Einstein’s ideas and equations were ridiculous. But others thought it sounded reasonable. Einstein and others knew that if the theory was correct, and the fabric of reality is bending around large objects, then light itself would have to follow that bend. The light of a star in the great distance, for instance, would seem to curve around a large object in front of it, nearer to us—like our Sun. But normally, it’s impossible to study stars behind the Sun to measure this effect. Enter an eclipse.

Einstein’s theory gives an equation for how much the Sun’s gravity would displace the images of background stars. Newton’s theory predicts only half that amount of displacement.

Eddington and Dyson measured the Hyades cluster because it contains many stars; the more stars to distort, the better the comparison. Both teams of scientists encountered strange political and natural obstacles in making the discovery, which are chronicled beautifully in the book No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein's Theory of Relativity , by the physicist Daniel Kennefick. But the confirmation of Einstein’s ideas was worth it. Eddington said as much in a letter to his mother: “The one good plate that I measured gave a result agreeing with Einstein,” he wrote , “and I think I have got a little confirmation from a second plate.”

The Eddington-Dyson experiments were hardly the first time scientists used eclipses to make profound new discoveries. The idea dates to the beginnings of human civilization.

Careful records of lunar and solar eclipses are one of the greatest legacies of ancient Babylon. Astronomers—or astrologers, really, but the goal was the same—were able to predict both lunar and solar eclipses with impressive accuracy. They worked out what we now call the Saros Cycle, a repeating period of 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours in which eclipses appear to repeat. One Saros cycle is equal to 223 synodic months, which is the time it takes the Moon to return to the same phase as seen from Earth. They also figured out, though may not have understood it completely, the geometry that enables eclipses to happen.

The path we trace around the Sun is called the ecliptic. Our planet’s axis is tilted with respect to the ecliptic plane, which is why we have seasons, and why the other celestial bodies seem to cross the same general path in our sky.

As the Moon goes around Earth, it, too, crosses the plane of the ecliptic twice in a year. The ascending node is where the Moon moves into the northern ecliptic. The descending node is where the Moon enters the southern ecliptic. When the Moon crosses a node, a total solar eclipse can happen. Ancient astronomers were aware of these points in the sky, and by the apex of Babylonian civilization, they were very good at predicting when eclipses would occur.

Two and a half millennia later, in 2016, astronomers used these same ancient records to measure the change in the rate at which Earth’s rotation is slowing—which is to say, the amount by which are days are lengthening, over thousands of years.

By the middle of the 19 th century, scientific discoveries came at a frenetic pace, and eclipses powered many of them. In October 1868, two astronomers, Pierre Jules César Janssen and Joseph Norman Lockyer, separately measured the colors of sunlight during a total eclipse. Each found evidence of an unknown element, indicating a new discovery: Helium, named for the Greek god of the Sun. In another eclipse in 1869, astronomers found convincing evidence of another new element, which they nicknamed coronium—before learning a few decades later that it was not a new element, but highly ionized iron, indicating that the Sun’s atmosphere is exceptionally, bizarrely hot. This oddity led to the prediction, in the 1950s, of a continual outflow that we now call the solar wind.

And during solar eclipses between 1878 and 1908, astronomers searched in vain for a proposed extra planet within the orbit of Mercury. Provisionally named Vulcan, this planet was thought to exist because Newtonian gravity could not fully describe Mercury’s strange orbit. The matter of the innermost planet’s path was settled, finally, in 1915, when Einstein used general relativity equations to explain it.

Many eclipse expeditions were intended to learn something new, or to prove an idea right—or wrong. But many of these discoveries have major practical effects on us. Understanding the Sun, and why its atmosphere gets so hot, can help us predict solar outbursts that could disrupt the power grid and communications satellites. Understanding gravity, at all scales, allows us to know and to navigate the cosmos.

GPS satellites, for instance, provide accurate measurements down to inches on Earth. Relativity equations account for the effects of the Earth’s gravity and the distances between the satellites and their receivers on the ground. Special relativity holds that the clocks on satellites, which experience weaker gravity, seem to run slower than clocks under the stronger force of gravity on Earth. From the point of view of the satellite, Earth clocks seem to run faster. We can use different satellites in different positions, and different ground stations, to accurately triangulate our positions on Earth down to inches. Without those calculations, GPS satellites would be far less precise.

This year, scientists fanned out across North America and in the skies above it will continue the legacy of eclipse science. Scientists from NASA and several universities and other research institutions will study Earth’s atmosphere; the Sun’s atmosphere; the Sun’s magnetic fields; and the Sun’s atmospheric outbursts, called coronal mass ejections.

When you look up at the Sun and Moon on the eclipse , the Moon’s day — or just observe its shadow darkening the ground beneath the clouds, which seems more likely — think about all the discoveries still yet waiting to happen, just behind the shadow of the Moon.

More Must-Reads From TIME

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  • Jane Fonda Champions Climate Action for Every Generation
  • Stop Looking for Your Forever Home
  • The Sympathizer Counters 50 Years of Hollywood Vietnam War Narratives
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