Changes in the Common Application on tap for 2013-14

Students using the common application for college will find new and more defined essay prompts, beginning this summer, and they will be able to write longer.

The maximum length of the essay under the new guidelines will go from 500 words to 650.

The new essay questions are the product of two years of discussions with lots of advice from 15 counselors who serve on the Common Application Board of Directors’ Outreach Advisory Committee, officials said.

“For the last few years, two of our six essay prompts--Topic of your choice and significant experience--have accounted for over 70% of all essays,” said Rob Killion, executive director of The Common Application. “That clustering prompted us to ask: ‘Can we make our prompts more appealing and, by extension, more effective, both as an invitation for students to share their stories and as a tool for helping our members make informed decisions?’”

The group’s top priority, he said, was to be sure “that any student, regardless of background or access to counseling, would be able to find a home within the options.”

The new essay prompts are:

• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The questions, he said, give students a chance to “tell meaningful stories about themselves” and a “framework” to do so.

Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, sits on the Common Application Board of Directors and supports the changes. He said the new prompts give students a sense of direction but yet do not point in the exact direction.

“We want a well written, revealing statement that is going to help us understand a 17 or 18-year-old applicant better than we would from other sources of information,” Furda said.

He said although the first essay prompt isn’t as broad as allowing students to write about the topic of their choice, it “really provides some latitude to think about a topic you’d like to discuss.”

As for the new word limit, he noted that the previous limit hadn’t really been enforced for a while. The new limit will be, and it will require students to write a minimum of 250 words with 650 as the maximum.

“It’s a balance between giving students enough latitude to develop their ideas,” he said, “while also making the statement that concise writing is important.”