Dec 5, 2012

The Common App seeks Comments on Essay Changes

It’s no secret that the Common Application will be implementing new software for students applying for admission in the fall of 2013.   

While many in the industry have been anxiously awaiting a new and improved Common Application that is more user-friendly and works well on Apple products, the process by which the new essay requirements have been vetted is coming under scrutiny.

When asked if he had supported eliminating the “Topic of Your Choice” option from among the Common Application essay prompts, one admissions dean remarked, “No one asked.”  And at a recent counselor breakfast, deans from Harvard and Princeton indicated their dismay over several of the proposed changes.

In a letter he publicly shared on the NACAC Forum, Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application, defended the process and suggested that input on application content was provided by a 15-member Outreach Advisory Committee composed of admissions deans and college counselors.

To promote further discussion, I posted the following letter for consideration by NACAC member colleges and counselors:

Many thanks for sharing with us some background on the proposed changes for the Common App.  I very much appreciate your willingness to entertain comments and open the discussion further.  As you might imagine, I received quite a bit of feedback from my article all of which supported Cristiana Quinn’s views questioning the rationale and need for some of the changes you are proposing.  I also received similar feedback from postings on the IECA and HECA elists.  

Your letter raises several questions, which I hope you and the Common App might be able to address as you work to develop an application that both serves the needs of your member colleges and reduces stress for student applicants. In absence of a more formal forum for questions and comment, the following is based on feedback I’ve received from some member colleges and counselors—both school-based and independent.

Essay Prompts.  Which of the essay prompts is most frequently used by student applicants?  My understanding is that the “Topic of Your Choice” option is by far and away the most popular.  So why eliminate it?  Colleges seeking more specific answers or writing samples are free to include them in the supplements.  What’s the point of making the options more restrictive?  And why would YOU want to engage in an annual debate over essay prompts?  

Essay Length.  Is there a technical or financial reason you are eliminating the ability to “upload” essays?  The issue of essay length is hotly debated, but most counselors seem to feel that the current model of uploading an essay with a clearly stated guideline makes most sense.  An upload allows for some formatting and flexibility in length, both of which are greatly appreciated by applicants and colleges.  It is my understanding that you can easily control upload length on your end (to avoid a 50-page document) and that colleges can easily decide not to read beyond the recommended limit.  Why not simply emphasize the importance of keeping to the limit while allowing for reasonable flexibility for those needing to exceed it?  And why not keep the upload function?  The Common App is becoming way too “generic” in look and form.  Why not provide for a little individuality?

Additional Information.   Does the Common App intend to eliminate the ability to provide “Additional Information” in the form of an upload?  If so, there is universal agreement that this is a terrible idea.  Students need to have a place to explain important issues affecting the information provided on the application and some need a place to list high school work or extracurricular experiences that go beyond the 10 spaces you currently allow.  I agree that sometimes the information provided in this section is repetitive and unnecessary, but why not leave it to the colleges to decide whether or not to include it in the admissions decision?

Further Enhancements.  While many of the enhancements you are implementing are very welcome improvements, would you be open to considering some additional suggestions?  For example, why not simplify the process for tailoring applications by making it easier to create “alternate” applications?  Why not give counselors the option of tailoring their recommendations for specific colleges?  It can’t be that difficult, as other applications have this option available. Will you be adding an ability to link to online content now that you're doing away with the paper application? And hopefully, the new application will be more browser-friendly, but if it’s not, please consider opening the application to Chrome and making it easier to use on Apple products.  Finally, there are many “interface” issues that have been raised with regard to Naviance.  Are these being addressed in the new application?

Forum for Comment.   Has there been a public forum or means for soliciting input from CA members or other admissions professionals?  I’ve attended presentations and listened to webinars, but in each case, the new application has been presented as a fait accompli.  In your letter, you suggested input was gathered from only 15 board members.  Why not survey ALL member colleges or formally solicit comments (beyond the casual commentary on a message board) before implementing such sweeping change, much of which is based on a philosophy of college admissions that is worthy of some debate?
Again, I appreciate that you are opening a door to comment and I welcome a vigorous debate on some of these issues.  And, I encourage others to use the Forum or contact the Common Application directly with your comments.

If you have additional comments, feel free to post them here but make sure you also convey your thoughts known to the Common Application, which suggests emails may be sent to Or write directly to individual members of the Common App Board, who are listed on the website.

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