Jan 28, 2012

The Common Application announces 2012-13 Essay Topics

In case you’re sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for notification of next year’s essay topics for Common Application member colleges and universities, I have great news—the topics will remain the same as they have been for the past several years.

For juniors who are waiting “on deck” to begin the college application process, this means you will be asked to write an essay (approximately 250-500 words) on one of several broad options, including:

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  • Topic of your choice.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Not if it ends there. But unfortunately, many colleges aren’t content with the basic Common Application requirement. They ask for “supplements,” which can be devilishly time-consuming and tedious.

For example, this year George Washington University asked for an essay of approximately 500 words that responded to one of two topics (your choice):

  • The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote that "one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests." Tell us about one of your beliefs - how you came to it, why you hold on to it, what has challenged it, and what you imagine its influence will be on your education or pursuits.
  • "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." - A. Einstein. Describe your most interesting mistake.

Obviously, the last option begs the question “Does this application count?”

Taking a more straightforward approach, Johns Hopkins asked applicants to discuss why they chose specific majors. American University wants to know why you’re a good fit for their community, and the University of Mary Washington zeroed in on the college honor system and asked related questions.

In their Common Application supplements, the College of William & Mary wanted to know (in 500 words or less) “what makes you unique and colorful,” and the University of Virginia asked applicants to UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences, “What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, or challenged you, and in what way?”

If you were interested in the honors program at Christopher Newport University, you needed to think into the future and reflect on the “highlights” of your life in 250 words or less. And UMBC’s honors college wanted to know about “a problem you have studied or know about that needs an interdisciplinary solution.”

For the Johnson Scholarship at Washington & Lee University, applicants were asked to react to one of five complicated prompts including:

"'Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one.' (Robert E. Lee, President of then-Washington College, 1865-1870) Discuss a time when you were tempted to do a wrong thing or when you actually did a wrong thing. What was your motivation? What lessons did you draw from this experience? Do you believe that there is always dishonor in doing a wrong thing? Why or why not?"

While it’s reassuring to know that the Common App will stick with a group of essay topics that virtually covers the entire range of human experience, the bigger question remains as to what colleges will cook up in the way of supplementary essays for next year. I can hardly wait.

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