As many parents and students are already aware, this year will mark some dramatic changes in the Common Application essay’s content and format. The admissions and college prep communities are abuzz with analysis of the new essay standards, and CEA’s advisors have been following the changes every step of the way. Below we created a guide to help lead our students through these amendments and what they will mean for the writing and application process.
What is the change? In previous years, the common application essay required students to submit a personal statement, allowing them to choose from a list of up to five topics, the last one being “topic of your choice.” This free-choice topic is no longer an option, which has proven to be one of the more controversial and panic-inducing changes of the new Common App. Instead, the application will provide five topic choices that will rotate based on yearly feedback. The 2013-2014 questions are as follows:
• 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.
What does it mean for students? Many parents, students and even teachers worry that the omission of the “topic of your choice” option will limit students’ creativity and make an already stressful topic selection process even more difficult. We at CEA are here to tell you: it’s not so bad. Often, our advisors find that too much choice inhibits a student just as much as, if not more than, a little restriction. The five topics available to students this year are all wonderfully broad — open enough present students with plenty of options when they comb through their imaginations and memory banks; and closed enough to provide a little needed direction. We prefer to think of this free-choice omission as an enhanced guiding tool, not a closed door on creativity.
What is the change? Students will no longer have the ability to perform unlimited uploads of (and thus make unlimited changes to) their common application essay. The 2013 online form limits students to just three essay uploads over the course of the entire application process. The change was made to discourage students from tailoring the common application essay to fit each individual school. The hope and expectation is that any school-specific information will be relayed via the college-specific writing supplements.
What does it mean for students? The essay upload limit has two major effects on the application process. First, it puts more pressure on students to perfect their Common Application essay early in the game. Careful proofreading is more important than ever this year as a student’s opportunities to upload edited/corrected versions of the personal statement is limited. Whether a student is applying to his or her first choice institution, or submitting a more casual rolling admissions application early in the game, the first essay that is transmitted to the common app information bank needs to be a polished, final draft. The inability to edit the Common App essay before each school submission will also put more weight and emphasis on college-specific writing supplements, and many admissions experts expect the number of supplements to increase as a means of compensation in the next few years. This means more essays for each student to write in each admissions season. The good news is, the more opportunities students have to express themselves in writing, the more they can show their personalities and core values to the admissions committee. The bad news is, more essays. But don’t worry. We are here to help!
What is the change? While the Additional Information section still exists as a venue for students to express crucial information not reflected on their application, the short essay asking students to describe their favorite activity is no longer part of the Common Application essay requirements. Instead, extended information about extracurricular activities, job experience, and other subjects will be requested on a school-by-school basis. These requests will present themselves in the Writing Supplement portions of the Common Application
What does it mean for students? As mentioned earlier, many admissions experts expect the number of Writing Supplement requests to increase over the next few years in response to the Common Application essay’s new restrictions regarding customization. While this shift will generally require more work from the student, it will also offer more opportunities for truly qualified students to shine before the admissions board. For example, colleges will now be able to request anything from additional short and long form essays to résumés, research papers and other graded assignments to help narrow down the applicant pool. While the omission of the short activities essay from the main Common App is a lost opportunity for students, we are hoping most schools will choose to include a comparable question in their Writing Supplements this year. Fingers crossed!
What is the change? The word count for the common application essay has been increased from a 500 word to a 650 word maximum with a 250 word minimum. Essays will no longer be submitted as attachments, but rather entered into standardized text boxes within the online Common Application form. The new word count will be enforced via this text-entry system. Formatting within the text box will allow for bolding, italicizing and underlining, but no other special formatting will be supported.
What does it means for students? An increase in word count does not necessarily mean colleges will be expecting to see longer essays from students on the whole. In fact, we believe essays should still clock in around the 500-550 word mark. The key is, students should say what they need to say as powerfully and concisely as possible. The word count increase allows for a little more flexibility in wordplay and descriptive language, which can be very useful, but students should not feel pressured to fill up all 650 words, just because they’re available. The 250 word minimum, while never previously stated, has always been a given and should not change a student’s approach to the essay one bit. As for manipulating the text style beyond bolding and italicizing, you know a CEA advisor would never let a student get away with that in the first place. We like to let the words speak for themselves.