Feb 5, 2013

The Common Application announces 2013-14 Essay Prompts

After “two years of discussion about the role writing plays in a holistic selection process” and considerable feedback from industry professionals, the Common Application (CA) Board of Directors today announced essay prompts for 2013-14. 

And without further ado, here they are:

  • 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.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

While the Board proposes to “revisit” the essay prompts each year, the 2013-14 questions aren’t particularly creative or groundbreaking. There are no questions about Waldo, John Stuart Mill, or St. Ignatius.  And anyone concerned about the elimination of “Topic of your choice,” can heave a sigh of relief as the first question pretty much covers that territory. 

But for next year’s college applicants, “failure” and not success is emphasized and the “transition” question will no doubt produce a boatload of Bar Mitzvah essays.  The rest of the prompts are fairly standard and no more likely to result “thoughtful and creative expression” than the similarly generic questions used in previous years.  

That’s not a criticism.  It’s just what happens when a single application attempts to serve nearly 500 colleges and universities differing in mission, size, and priorities.

In addition to the prompts themselves, there is a little additional news regarding next year’s essay requirements.  Yielding to pressure from counselors and colleges concerned about software changes in the new CA4 online application, the Board increased the “enforced” word limits from 500 to 650.  

This concession is designed to quiet those who felt a little flexibility in word limits is a good thing. But make no mistake, 500 words is still the target limit.

Although the statement from the Board does not directly address the issue of document uploads, it’s assumed that the use of formatting (italics, underlining, or math symbols) will not be accommodated in any part of the online application—another possible blow to creativity or basic grammar (yes, the titles of works should be underlined or italicized). 

And that’s just fine for the large state institutions to which the Common Application is successfully marketing its products. For them, the essay is not as important a part of the application process as scores and grades.

But for the core group of CA liberal arts colleges and others valuing creativity or the ability to think outside the box, the news is not as good.  Although these schools will continue to ask more probing questions in their supplements, they will have to get used to generic-looking responses from students unable to distinguish themselves or their thoughts by formatting, font, or other creative approaches to the essay.

The next chapter in the CA4 story will evolve as the new application is revealed over the coming months.  There’s still some hope that other recommendations will be implemented such as embedded links to online media or the ability to “tailor” recommendations for particular colleges.  

Note that other application products, including the Universal College Application already have these capabilities and have chosen to spend the extra money required to accommodate document uploads.

Common App member institutions are receiving a special introduction to the CA4 in May at the 1st Annual Common Application Member Conference scheduled to take place at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center at the National Harbor.  The rest of us have been promised webinars and PowerPoint presentations before CA4 launches August 1, 2013 and next year’s seniors are asked to “beta test” the new online form.

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