Aug 29, 2013

Applicants beware: ‘Stealth’ essays can result in incomplete applications

Cornell University (Wikipedia)

Now you see it.  Now you don’t.

If you’re looking for the Cornell University writing supplement in the new Common Application, you might be lulled into thinking that one of the most selective colleges in the country has suddenly dropped its writing requirement.

But beware.  Cornell is one of many Common Application member colleges with “stealth” essays that don’t appear until college-specific questions have been fully completed.  And “undecided” is not an option when it comes to selecting one of Cornell’s colleges or schools.

You have to answer all the questions to submit the application.  And once you answer the college/school question, an essay will be “unlocked.”

In fact, it could be two additional essays—if you select the “Alternate” admission option which allows students two shots at receiving a golden ticket to Cornell by permitting them to select two different colleges for admission consideration.

“I had a student in yesterday who swore up and down that Cornell has no supplemental essays.  I knew that this couldn’t be correct,” said Gordon Kirtland, an independent college consultant in Singapore.  “The Writing Supplement section for Cornell shows no essays until you fill in the Member Questions section, indicating which school at Cornell you are applying for.”

Prospective Cornell students will find that until they’ve completed the college-specific questions, there will be no indication on Cornell’s landing page or the on the student dashboard that a writing supplement even exists.

And you wouldn’t see the essay prompts that are specific to the individual colleges.

Taking it one step further, a student could conceivably complete the Cornell application, submit it and still not see that there is an essay (or two) required if he or she doesn’t check back to the landing page or the dashboard where the writing supplement has quietly appeared—no fanfare or warning.  Just appeared.

Naturally, we hope that students would be on top of requirements as posted on a college admissions webpages.  Cornell is very clear there about what is required. 

But a student in a hurry or one with utter confidence in their understanding of the Common Application could easily think they were finished and possibly miss a deadline.

And if you’re a procrastinator or basing time management decisions on what is immediately presented, you could find yourself in the position of having to crank out additional essays at the last minute—never a good plan!

Cornell isn’t the only college with stealth essays. Until you commit to one of UVa’s colleges, you won’t know there is a second essay prompt determined by which program you’re applying to.  Or if you don’t check that you’re interested in Boston University’s Kilachand Honors College, you won’t know that there’s an extra essay required for that as well.  The same goes for the Emory University Scholars Program.

The relationship between college-specific questions and the writing supplement is part of the new “smart” technology the Common Application introduced to improve user experience.  In this case, the smart questions essentially unlock honors, scholarship, or school/program-specific requirements found only in the writing supplement.

For the record scholarship questions appear to be located in the “General” subsection, while honors college and program-specific questions tend to appear in the “Academics” subsection. 

And it would help enormously if the Common App would complete the Writing Supplement column on the application requirement grid it provides for all member colleges.

Moral of the story:  complete the questions before making assumptions about writing requirements.  In fact, feel free to experiment—change your answers and see how the writing supplement responds. 

Also, check with the college website to be sure that you have all your requirements in order.

But whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute to start your application or you risk having a big surprise very late in the game.

And most college applicants hate surprises.

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