Ralph Figueroa on the New Essay Prompts: Room for Every Story

Ralph Figueroa is Dean of College Guidance at New Mexico’s Albuquerque Academy. Figueroa was one of 15 counselors who served on the Outreach Advisory Committee for the Common Application, advising the organization about the role that writing plays in an holistic selection process.

He joins us here today to talk about the new essay prompts, the process that resulted in the changes and the issues the committee grappled with to arrive at the new guidelines for students.


 What impact do you foresee the changes in the writing prompts having?


I hope that these changes will make students, families, and teachers think about these essays and talk about them in a new way. Change can be scary, but I am confident that when they read the prompts and the guidelines, they will realize that we have given them real freedom to find the best way to convey information about themselves that will give colleges a better idea of who they really are --beyond the numbers of the admission process.


What impact, if any, do you foresee for students?


Hopefully, students will understand that what we are trying to get out is their story, their voice. I want them to step away from what they think will be catchy, or memorable, or clever, and start focusing on what is TRUE.


What was the process you went through to get to these new prompts? What issues did you grapple with?


We solicited prompts from counselors through various means, but the Outreach Advisory Committee also brainstormed and came up with our own ideas. We really focused on coming up with prompts that would appeal to every type of student we could imagine: the scientist, the artist, the debate kid, the athlete, the artsy, the technological, the journalist, the bookworm, and those who fall into multiple categories. You name it, we considered it. We debated and voted on the different prompts, edited them as a group, and refined them. We spent a lot of time deciding on the combination of questions that would work best together, making sure that every type of student had an outlet for expressing their story and that there was room for every kind of story.


Why the longer length for the essay? What are your thoughts about this and do you plan to encourage students to go for it or stick as closely as possible to the old 500-word limit?


This is funny for me. I was definitely one of the voices insisting that we stick to the 500-word length. But then one of the Advisory Committee members challenged us to go back and read essays from our own students that we thought were particularly effective. I took up the challenge, knowing that the most effective essay I EVER read was just 230 words. (Ironically, that would not make the minimum length we have mandated.) Much to my surprise, almost every OTHER essay I examined was between 600 and 650 words. So I absolutely had to admit that I was wrong. I think 650 words is the right length.


One criticism of the new prompts is that there is no opportunity for students to address intellectual interests. Can you respond to that?


I don’t think that criticism is valid in the least. EVERY one of the prompts opens the door to intellectual interests and an intellectual discussion. What could be more intellectual than discussing challenges to a belief or idea? What about an environment where you are content -- prompt number 4? Surely an environment of ideas and discourse will appeal to some. I can fit intellect into the answer of any of these prompts, and I think students will, too. I can’t wait to see their work.


Previous posts on the Common Application changes include a feature discussing the new prompts and word-limits and an interview with Common Application Director of Outreach Scott Anderson. Our series continues tomorrow with thoughts from the University of Connecticut's Vice President for Enrollment Wayne Locust and Director of Admissions Nathan Fuerst, followed by a Q & A with Vanderbilt University's Dean of Admissions Douglas Christiansen and a post from college advisor Alice Kleeman providing examples of possible topics for each of the new prompts.

A graduate of Stanford University and UCLA, where he earned a J.D., Ralph Figueroa has been counseling students at Albuquerque Academy, an independent day school for students in grades six through twelve, for ten years. Prior to that, he was Associate Dean of Admission at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University and while there he became the central figure in the best-seller “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College” by Jacques Steinberg, former editor of the New York Times’ college admission blog The Choice.


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