With the vast majority of applications for the 2012-2013 application season already submitted and the start of the 2013-2014 app rush still half a year away, you may think that there’s not much going on when it comes to college admissions. Think again.
Last year, the Common Application announced that it would be making some substantial changes to its widely used application solution. While details were scarce at that time, the last week has shed significant light on what will be different for users of the Common App in 2013-2014 and on. Overall, the most notable change involves the essay required as part of the application packet.
Starting this coming fall, students will face an entirely different set of essay questions along with slightly different requirements for composing the essay. The new prompts are:
1. 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.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Here are the six most important things to know about essay-related changes on the 2013-2014 Common Application.
1. There is no longer a “Topic of your choice.” In previous versions of the Common App, students were given five fairly detailed essay prompts along with one that simply said, “Topic of your choice.” That option, which appealed to many applicants because it allowed them to write on pretty much anything with which they were comfortable, is now gone.
2. All essays must be typed and submitted online. As part of this new application, students will no longer have the option to upload files or even print and submit hard copies of their work. If you use the Common App you’ll have to use the online application, which will include a text box where all essays must be cut and pasted for submission.
3. You have an additional 150 words with which to work. For several years, the Common Application did not put an length limit on the essay it asked students to write, instead only specifying a minimum. Unsurprisingly, that elicited complaints from countless admissions departments, who found themselves deluged with multi-page submissions that in some cases read like short novels rather than essays. In response, the Common Application added a 500-word maximum limit to their essay, which pleased admissions departments but frequently frustrated applicants, parents, and counselors who felt it was too short. Just goes to show you can’t please everyone. The new essay requirements seem to seek a compromise between the two sides, giving applicants 30% more words to work with while still capping submissions at a reasonable length.
4. The 650-word limit is hard, with absolutely no room to go beyond it. While the Common Application is giving applicants more space to use in their essays, they are also changing submission options so that even an essay that is 651 words long will no longer be accepted. I’ve always advocated that applicants adhere to length limits as written, while some others have argued that it is acceptable to go over so long as it is only by a small amount (often claimed to be 5%, 10%, or 50-100 words). On the new Common Application, applicants will be forced to cut and paste their essays into a text box on the online application. That text box will automatically count the words in the submission, and will not allow students to submit if the essay exceeds that 650-word maximum.
5. All submissions will have to be in plain text. This is closely tied to the point above and is directly related to applicants now having to submit all essays online. While programs such as Microsoft Word allow you to accent your writing with things like boldface, italics, and underline, those formatting elements will not carry over when applicants copy/paste their essays into the submission box on the application itself. If you’re someone who relies on those formatting elements to clarify or add color to your writing, you’ll need to find a different way to accomplish those ends.
6. The short essay asking you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity is gone. Not much to explain here. Applicants will now only have the single essay (not counting any supplementary ones requested by individual schools) to complete as part of the Common Application.
If you want more information about these big changes, including in-depth analysis of the new essay prompt options, be sure to check back often. We’ll be exploring these changes in detail over the coming weeks and again when the 2013-14 application season begins in earnest.