Common Application changes college essays for 2013-14

The Common Application, widely used for college admissions by high school seniors at nearly 500 colleges and universities, has changed its essay prompts for 2013-14 and increased the number of words allowed for the essay from 500 to 650.

The Common Application, a not-for-profit organization, was developed in 1975 to help cut down on the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete. (Still, many schools that accept the Common App ask for additional information, including extra essays)

One of the big changes is the decision to drop an essay prompt that allowed students to write about a topic of their choice. That’s gone. The number of words accepted for each essay will now be 650, up from 500, which was set a few years ago after admissions officers complained that the lack of a limit led to long, unfocused essays. No essay can be less than 250 words.

Here are the new essay prompts for 2013-14:

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need
it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
• 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.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 8, 2013