Jan 22, 2011

The Common Application Announces Essay Topics for 2011-12

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 (250 words minimum) 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 three 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.

  • In his lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," British scientist C. P. Snow asserted the provocative idea that scientists have "the future in their bones" while "the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist." Do you have views on the capacity of science and/or the humanities to solve society's most pressing problems? How has your education thus far prepared you to understand the relationship between "the two cultures"?

  • "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 and to describe activities in which they intend to participate as undergraduates. 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?”

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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