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Changes to Common Application questioned

For those who don’t know, the Common Application is a not-for-profit organization that provides an admission application that students may submit to any of the more than 450 member colleges and universities that accept it. It 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. But as it turns out, even with the Common App, many schools ask for additional information, including extra essays. Now the Common App folks have said they are going to make some changes next year. Doris Davis, a former president of the Board of Directors of the Common Application writes about the changes and the possible effects. Davis is co-founder of, an online educational program that helps students more effectively present themselves on the Common App, and has held admissions leadership roles at several Ivy League universities.

By Doris Davis

Although the Common Application is over 35 years old, it is still going through growing pains. Founded in 1975, the Common App was a paper application for the first 23 of its existence. At age 26, the Common App expanded its previously “private schools only” membership to include public universities. And then in 2010, the Common App expanded its “U.S. institutions only” membership to include international universities. From its founding in 1975 with 15 colleges and universities, the Common Application now includes 488 U.S. and institutions of higher education. So after decades of growth and change, why did the recent announcement about upcoming changes generate so much discussion and controversy? As a former Board President of the Common Application, I have a few answers.

It is no surprise that there is support and criticism for the proposed changes to the Common Application. As long as I can remember, there has never been uniform opinion about the overall questions that are asked on the Common App, the format of the Common App or even the criteria for membership. There also has been an ongoing debate about the definition of “common”.  To what extent can an application that is used by schools that admit fewer than 10% of applicants also be used by schools that admit over 70% of applicants? What is the common denominator that unites these 488 Common App schools? While all 488 schools agree to use holistic admissions as a criteria for membership, the similarities end there.

The changes announced by the Common Application may have the unintended consequence of not only underscoring the “common” links among the institutional members, but it may lead to common links among applicants.

The Common Application announced that beginning next year, several changes will be implemented. The two changes that have drawn the most robust attention are the decision to eliminate the “topic of your choice” as one of the essay topic selections and the decision to strictly limit the personal essay to 500 words. Here is my view on these proposed changes:

Having served as the Chief Admissions Officer at two institutions where I led the effort to implement the Common Application (Barnard College and Cornell University), I know that the Common Application organization values and respects the opinions of its member institutions. Therefore, I assume that the Common Application surveyed its members schools before making these decisions. Also, having served as the President of the Common Application Board of Directors, I also assume that there was extended and thoughtful discussion among Board Members about these changes. Nevertheless, by eliminating the “topic of your choice” question, it may have the unintended consequence of making student essays more common thus making it more difficult for admissions officers to differentiate among the applicants based on personal attributes. This may especially be the case at colleges where a majority of the applicants “look alike” with regard to academic qualifications. Eliminating the “topic of your choice” question may suppress creativity as it forces students to develop essays within a limited framework. It is possible, perhaps, that one of the new questions may provide some degree of flexibility that is not immediately apparent, so we may not know the full effect of the change until we see the new essay prompts. It is quite possible that students may be able to show their individuality within a structured framework. The question remains however, what was the harm in allowing students to click a box that indicated that their essay did not fit the established topic choices?

Although I am not supportive of the decision to remove the “topic of your choice” question, I support the proposed change to enforce the word count for the essay. In my experience, students either (a) feel that a longer essay is better than a shorter essay and therefore write more than they need, or (b) feel that if their essay exceeds 500 words, the admissions officer will not read beyond the 500th word and that they will be penalized for exceeding the word limit. Based on my experience of reading thousands of essays, 500 words is more than enough words to write an effective and compelling essay. There is a precedent from our friends in California; the University of California on-line admissions application system imposes a strict word count for their 2 essays. The word count is limited to 1,000 words for the two essays; students get an error message if the two essays exceed the 1,000 word count.

So what does this mean for future applicants using the Common Application? Like a parade, the experience is most relevant and exciting for the first timers. For students who will be using the Common App next year, they don’t have the legacy of knowing that there used to be a “topic of you choice” option or that their essay could have exceeded 500 words. For them, the experience will be new and untarnished, just as it should be.