Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Common Application Changes You Need to Know

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors received an early but welcome present for National School Counseling Week when Common Application released their essay topics for next year.  The announcement can be found at, and it contains some additional changes counselors will want to keep in mind when working with juniors:

·         Common App has done away with the short essay that was required for all applicants.
·         These essay topics are for the first part of the Common Application.  If an individual college wants students to write additional essays, those will be found in the Supplement section of Common App.
·         The word limit for the new essays has been raised to 650 words, and the essay instructions make it clear that students don’t have to write 650 words—if fine if their essay is complete in less than 650 words, as long as it’s at least 250 words long.
·         At the same time, the new maximum of 650 words will be strictly enforced.  In the past, some students have written well past the maximum; that won’t be allowed next year.

The new offerings leave out what’s been the most popular topic among students—“Write an essay on the topic of your choice.” Counselors were extremely unhappy when this omission was announced in the fall, but the Common Application committee charged with developing the new essay topics made sure the choices would be very broad, allowing students ample opportunity to tell their individual stories. (Full disclosure:  I was on the selection committee.)

Common Application decided to release the new topics at this time to make sure everyone understood a change was coming—one change of many, as Common App prepares to roll out a new version of the entire application, CA4, on August 1st.  While counselors appreciate the advanced notice, they also wonder if the availability of these new topics might lead juniors to start working on their college essays now, well before their junior year has ended.

Knowing this might happen, Common Application posted this notice on their Facebook page:

JUNIORS: Just because you know what our colleges will ask you to write about doesn't mean you should start writing. It's February 6. You have more pressing things to do. You'll have plenty of time to be a college applicant. For now, just be a student.

It’s important to find ways to reinforce this message with students and parents.  The essays and assignments teachers give juniors are designed to develop the skills colleges want to see in college essays—skills like analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation.  If students can hone those skills now with a lab report, a History paper, or an English essay, they will surely apply them later with a Common App prompt like “describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

Students also want to make sure their essays are engaging, and nothing kills inviting writing like too many rewrites. Several college admissions officers say students are writing essays that are “safe”, writing that has good structure, but doesn’t really tell the reader much about the student.  This lack of color will only go up if students agonize over a small essay for up to ten months, or if parents badger them about these essays from now until Labor Day.

College essays are part of an exciting process, but the glory of the Super Bowl comes only to those who master the nuances of training camp.  Common Application has shown students the goal line; now counselors must show them how to get downfield.

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