Apr 23, 2016

The Coalition releases essay prompts and brings back ‘topic of your choice’

Michigan State plans to delay implementation
Not that it ever really went away, but the much-loved and possibly over utilized “topic of your choice” prompt will be included among essay questions revealed yesterday by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success for the application set to launch in July.

While warning that not all coalition member institutions will require an essay and each will treat essays differently in their admissions processes, the suggested prompts for the 2016-17 application year are:
  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
Sound familiar?  The first three questions look very much like those used by the Common Application. The fourth poses a more unique challenge, and the last is an umbrella large enough to accommodate virtually anything and has never left the Universal College Application.  Note that no suggested word limit was provided.

In another context, the announcement might have been met with cheers, but with all the controversy surrounding the launch of the new application, the appearance of essay prompts several months before the start of the 2016-17 application year was cause for increased criticism about how the powers behind the association of 90-plus colleges and universities have chosen to do business.
There were no public announcements and no emails to the counseling community, similar to those sent by the University of California system concerning their new “personal insight questions.”  It didn’t seem that anyone on the coalition mailing list was alerted to the prompts.  They just appeared, and an opportunity to generate interest or—more importantly—support was lost.  

“Leak a wee bit of information publicly, and then make us beg for every randomly released tidbit moving forward,” said Tara Dowling, director of college counseling at Rocky Hill School, in her characterization of the coalition announcement.  “Oblige us to visit the website religiously until we are absolutely hypnotized by searching for the new items that are posted at random intervals.”

Summing up the views of many of her colleagues, Ms. Dowling concludes, “I absolutely do not believe that the Coalition wants anyone to use this application next year.”

And as reported earlier this week by Inside Higher Ed, a few dozen members of the Coalition may be planning not to use the new application system for next year.

According to an email from James Nondorf, chairman of the Coalition and the University of Chicago’s vice president and dean of admissions, only 60 out of 93 current coalition members plan to use the new application.  Among those Inside Higher Ed has confirmed will be delaying a year are Colorado College, Georgia Tech, Michigan State University, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Vermont.

"The decision of whether or not to go live this year with a coalition application is largely driven by the technology resources at individual member schools and being able to support a new application this coming cycle," wrote Nondorf.  "Some members must also engage their public legislatures, and that requires more time."

Three members, the University of Washington, the University of Maryland at College Park, and the University of Florida, are reported to be using the system exclusively. But even those specifics remain in the realm of insider information, with confirmation coming on an “as needed” basis.

The Coalition promises an early release of two of the three main elements of their new technology—the Student Locker and Collaboration Space—at the end of this month.  Information on the status of integration with Naviance has also been promised along with interim guidelines for schools currently using Naviance for document transmission. In addition, Inside Higher Ed reports the planned appointment of a new executive director. 

Hopefully, these developments will be handled with a little more commitment to keeping the counselor community informed.

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