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A Brave New Common App: The New Essay Topics for 2013

February 9, 2013
Kristin Keating

Change can be both scary and exciting. It comes as no surprise, then, that revisions to the Common Application have been stirring up a national frenzy. Ok, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but trust us: we, along with schools, counselors, and educators across the country, have been watching these changes like hawks.

Perhaps the biggest changes for high school juniors eyeing the upcoming application process are the revisions to the personal statement. The application will now enforce a word limit of 250-650 words and require students to choose from one of five new prompts.

Let’s take a look at the new prompts in comparison to this past year’s.

Last year's instructions for the essay:

  • Please write an essay of 250 – 500 words on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below, and attach it to your application before submission. Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate box. This personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. 

This year's 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.)

Now, the prompts:

Next Year’s Application: 2013-2014 Last Year’s Application: 2012-2013
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.
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

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

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

  Topic of your choice.

Here’s what immediately jumps out regarding the new prompts:

They are still broad in scope, but provide applicants with more useful direction.

Last year, the Common Application unleashed the bombshell that “Topic of your choice” would no longer appear on the application—a controversial decision that some argued would inhibit students’ creativity. The committee of counselors responsible for generating the new prompts, however, argues that this new approach is a more equitable one, requiring all students to write intelligently and articulately within the same parameters.

I must admit that I too first mourned the loss of the open-ended prompt. When working with students on brainstorming topics, my tack has always been to decide on the topic first and worry about which prompt to select after. If the essay didn’t immediately lend itself to any of the other available prompts, “Topic of your choice” solved the problem with a click of the button.

But as I think about some of the most interesting and successful essays I read this year, all could justifiably fit at least one of the new prompts. The revised prompts are worded in such a way that they nudge students towards doing what good personal statement writers do naturally—pinpoint a moment that exemplifies something larger about themselves and explain why.

They beg for a story.

Everyone loves a good story. It’s a tip I’ve been giving students for years. These prompts seem geared towards generating essays that exhibit some sort of narrative arc. A prompt such as “Describe a historical figure that has had an influence on you” runs the risk of encouraging an essay that simply recounts a laundry list of inspiring characteristics (i.e. “Thomas Edison has showed me the importance of hard work, persistence, and ingenuity”). A prompt that asks students to describe their transition from childhood to adulthood, however, practically begs the writer to set the scene with good descriptive detail and narrative panache (at least one would hope).

They beg for YOUR story.

One of the most common pitfalls students encounter when writing about a person, issue, or event of importance to them is that the essay becomes a tribute to this object and the admissions officers end up learning very little about the applicant herself (perhaps half-wishing they could offer a seat to her inspiring older sister instead!).

The new prompts have a much more personal bent—they ask about the writer’s story, lessons, decisions, or environment, hopefully ensuring that the bulk of the essay is about the applicant’s own perspective, values, motivations, and ambitions. Even the new instructions, which now ask the question “What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?” prompts a student to reflect on what their record fails to reveal about their suitability for college—and this is precisely why the personal statement exists.

They give a little more wiggle room to the loquacious.

Five hundred words has always been a good ballpark length for a personal statement—it’s long enough to capture the reader’s interest, develop a point or two, and reflect on the significance of a moment or experience without testing the attention span of a busy admissions officer.  Although the Common Application has not technically enforced a 500-word limit in the past, law-abiding students have often limited themselves to this length based on the provided instructions. Concise writing is an art form worthy of admiration; however, I have often found that sometimes one does need that extra fifty or so words to finish developing a point or to add a little artistic flair. The new 650-word limit gives students a bit more of a cushion.

And now the pitfalls…

Of course, all growth comes with growing pains. No essay prompt is perfect, and each of these new prompts harbors their own unique dangers. The prompt asking students to reflect on their transition to adulthood, for example, might be challenging for those teenagers who, quite understandably, still see that transition as lying ahead of them. The prompt asking students to discuss a moment of failure has always been one to select with caution, for students should always be careful of what flaws they elect to reveal to schools and how compelling their comeback stories really are. 

One of my current Yale-bound seniors (who powered through over a dozen applications to top schools this past fall) also pointed out that these new prompts reminded her a great deal of the essay topics she encountered on her supplements and wondered whether the removal of the open-ended prompt will make it more difficult for students to generate different topics for the main portion of the application and the supplements. Clearly, these changes to the Common App will have significant ripple effects that will also alter how schools customize their own portions of the application.

Nevertheless, what I see underlying these prompts is a genuine desire to help better steer students in the right direction—to use their personal statements to reveal the distinct perspectives they can bring to a diverse college campus, to discuss the moments that have made them who they are, and to express themselves in their own unique voices. 

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