Big Changes in the College Common Application

(Summit, February 25, 2013)

The Common Application Board announced sweeping changes to the application used by almost 500 colleges for students planning to enter college in the Class of 2014. They removed the widely used “Topic of Your Choice” essay prompt and increased the enforced word limit on the long essay from 500 to 650 words.

Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application, said that the change to 650 words was based on “feedback from counselors.” While the prompts do not include the completely open option, the first one is quite broad and would appear to give students wide leeway to write about topics of their choice.
The new prompts are:

  • “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.”
  • “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”
  • “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
  • “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”
  • “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

Carolyn Mulligan of the Insiders Network to College feels that the prompts are great and in no way mourns the loss of the “Topic of Your Choice” since she sees the student’s application as the telling of their story to the admissions office. “These prompts offer a variety of ways for students to look within themselves, be very introspective and find experiences and life situations that form platforms from which they can tell revealing stories about themselves. “ The hard and fast 650 word limit (the essay will be cut off after that amount of words!) is fine as well. There is nothing wrong with telling your story in that amount of words. “When I work with a student and we have to edit a story and hone a piece to fit a word limit, we almost always agree that the essay is stronger and more punchy in the long run!” says Mulligan.

Another change is that the short essay on extracurriculars or employment will not be included in the main Common Application but can be put in each college/university supplement at their discretion. Still to be decided is whether they will keep the “Additional Information” section at the end of the “Writing” portion. Mulligan hopes they will decide to do this. “This is an important area for those with learning disabilities and others who may need to elaborate on discrepancies or special circumstances in their application for which there is no room elsewhere to explain.”