Feb 19, 2020

Essay-optional colleges

The Common Application recently released the seven prompts being used for the personal statement or what some consider the “college essay” for 2020-21. Not surprisingly, the prompts weren’t changed from the past several years and students can once again look forward to selecting “Topic of Your Choice” as the most engaging of the questions posed.

And various stakeholders, including high school counselors, college admissions offices, English teachers, and essay consultants could heave a sigh of relief and dust-off worksheets, brainstorming exercises and previously-successful sample essays. Yet however often we repeat the same assignment, the mystique associated with a simple essay considered a central component of the college application continues to strike fear in the hearts of rising seniors in every corner of the country and beyond. It’s only supposed to be between 250 and 650 words. And lots of college admissions folks assigned the responsibility of reading these often-tiresome documents quietly suggest that between 500 and 550 words is just fine, thank you.

Yet, parents and others continue to fret over the essay. They hire consultants and send their children to special essay-writing workshops and camps, many of which are very expensive. Some parents even stoop to writing the essay themselves or looking for someone to do it for them. And the final products are often sanitized to the point that the only obvious fingerprints might be those left by “editors” who don’t know that in the U.S. we spell it “color” and not “colour” or analyze and not “analyse.” And high school students don’t usually use the terms “whilst” or “amongst”—not often anyway.

College admissions readers tell us they can spot a parent-written or manufactured essay a mile away. The voice of a 40-something adult is usually quite distinguishable from that of an awkward adolescent, even one trying to sound a little older or more sophisticated.

But the warnings don’t always deter families from trying to control the process by offering help or enlisting the best possible help to improve the final product, including more-than-willing English teachers. And even if admissions readers aren’t always as smart as they think they are about spotting undue interference, the essays they are getting are usually quite polished and have been through a number of hands before they see them.

So what’s the solution? Some readers tell us they simply ignore the personal statement or they read it last and ascribe little to it. If that’s the case, then why assign it or even keep it in the application?
With that in mind, a significant number of Common Application member colleges have made the decision not to require the personal statement. Out of 888 colleges on the Common App for 2019-20, 398 do NOT require a personal statement. Students are offered the opportunity to include it for these colleges, but there’s no guarantee it will be read let alone considered in the final decision.

Some colleges that do not require a personal statement include:

Arizona State University
Bowling Green State University
College of Charleston
Cooper Union
DePaul University
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Florida Institute of Technology
Florida State University
George Mason University
Indiana University—Bloomington
Middle Tennessee University
New College of Florida
Ohio University
Ole Miss
Oregon State University
Radford University
St. John’s University (NY & MN)
University of Central Florida
University of Iowa
University of Kentucky
University of Missouri
UNC Charlotte
University of South Carolina
University of Tampa
West Virginia University

For the record, 381 Common App members don’t require “supplements” or college-specific essays. AND, 219 Common App colleges require neither a personal statement nor any essay supplements (nine in Virginia alone). Sweet—right?

And what’s the moral of this story? The personal statement may or may not be required for consideration in the application process. If you’re applying to colleges that don’t require one, you’re home free—no need for a workshop. And the personal statement may or may not be read or considered to be of much value, even by those requiring it. After all, it’s only a single piece of a larger puzzle that when complete should provide a detailed picture of the applicant—accomplishments, goals and character. You want to do a good job on it, but it’s usually not worth a whole lot of anxiety or thousands of dollars to get right. And it’s not worth compromising integrity to get perfect.

Yes, the Common App essay prompts have been released—six months in advance of August 1 (the usual start date for the Common App). But for now, they are for thinking about, not stressing over.

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