A completely new set of essay questions await next year’s pool of applicants on the 2013-2014 Common Application.
Announced last week, there will be five new questions from which applicants can choose one to answer. In addition, the word limit for the responses has been increased to 650 words from 500. The old “topic of your choice” question was removed.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, who also sits on the Common Application Board of Directors, believes these questions will give students more “potential to be more insightful, a little more self-reflective.”
One of these new questions is, “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.”
Another question asks students to “recount an incident or time when [they] experienced failure” and the lessons they learned from that experience.
President of Hernandez College Consulting and Co-Founder of Application Boot Camp Michele Hernandez thinks the new essay prompts are uninspiring.
“If you ask boring, cliche prompts, you get boring, cliche essays,” Hernandez said. “As an English teacher and a former admissions officer, I wouldn’t want to read a lot of these essays.”
The new questions were created by the Common App after two years of consultation and discussion with its Outreach Advisory Committee, which is composed of 15 school counselors and educational consultants.
“This diverse group was selected to represent students from as many social, cultural, and educational backgrounds as possible,” Common App Director of Outreach Scott Anderson said in an email.
“They should have reached out to way more than 15 school counselors,” Hernandez said. “I think they should have done a much more comprehensive poll because 15 people does not make the country.”
Director of College Counseling at the Lawrenceville School Jeffrey Durso-Finley did not have such strong feelings against the changes. He said he’s “interested to see where the ‘failure’ prompt goes,” as his instinct is to steer students away from that essay.
“It’s too easy to write something trite or alternatively too misguidedly grandiose. E.g., Having received a C on a math test but then working my way back to an Honors grade now means I can accomplish anything.” Durso-Finley said in an email, “It would be a long reading season if as an admission officer I had a few hundred of those.”
Furda believes the prompt asking about a student’s background will be very popular. “When Penn had the essay question, ‘You just completed your 300 page autobiography. Please submit page 217,’ it’s a metaphorical page out of your life — you could write about anything,” Furda said. “In many ways, this is like that type of question.”
Anderson said he hopes that the elimination of the “topic of your choice” question will better guide students’ writing process.
“The open-ended nature of ‘topic of your choice’ can be an obstacle for students since it forces them to write in the absence of a framework,” Anderson said.
The new prompts, he explained, “maximizes the best of each approach: the flexibility that comes with broad questions and the focus that comes with specific prompts.”
Beyond these new essay questions, the new Common App will also no longer have an extracurricular activity short answer question. “Member [institutions] who still wish to ask the question can do so in their writing supplement,” Anderson said.
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