The New Common App

Ahh, October. For most, it is the month of pumpkin pie, Halloween, and orange leaves. But for seniors, it’s the month for hammering out those college essays. And at this time, juniors should start brainstorming for their applications next year as well. But before anyone starts writing down any ideas, it is important to note the new changes the Common Application is undergoing starting August 2013.

Next year’s Common Application has a new format. In the past, there has been a “topic of your choice” prompt along with five other essay questions. Beginning August 1, 2013, the new Common App will no longer have the “topic of your choice” option, and will instead be replaced with a more specific question. Additionally, the essay prompts will no longer be the same every year, but will rotate and change annually. Furthermore, the Common Application is strictly enforcing the 500-word limit.

There have been mixed responses from admissions officers. While some think that this provides a more level, equal playing field for all applicants by administering more specific requirements, others think that this severely limits student creativity.

From a student’s perspective, I see some problems. I personally used the “topic of your choice” prompt for my application, finding that option to leave the most room for creativity. The application process is stressful enough without having to write an essay to answer a specific question. I found it reassuring to know that in the worst-case scenario, if I couldn’t think of a response to any specific prompt, I had the choice of writing about anything I wanted. Students, unfortunately, don’t have that option next year.

But, while next year’s essay may be a bit more difficult to write, it is not impossible. The prompts are still general enough that students can find ways to respond. The most important thing is to choose a unique story to tell; it is important to stand out, and it will be hard to do so, since everyone is going to be responding to the same question. The best thing to do is avoid the idea that first jumps out at you: how you carried the soccer team to county victory, how grandma influenced you as a person, or how a family vacation exposed you to the French culture. Focus on the little things that make you special, not a general experience that most high school students have. The idea may take a long time to come to you (it took me four months to think of a good essay topic!), but it will help the admissions officers get a clearer view of who you are.

Don’t stress. Don’t try to make your essay perfect. Just be yourself, and the essay will be a lot more unique than you expected, regardless of the limited prompts that the Common Application may throw at you.