Vanderbilt Dean of Admissions Christiansen on the New Common App Essay Prompts

In our continuing series on the new changes to the Common Application, Douglas L. Christiansen,  Vanderbilt University's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions, joins us today to share his thoughts about the role of the essay in the admission decision as well as the impact of the new essay prompts and length limits.


What are your thoughts about the new Common Application prompts?


The Common Application’s new prompts were devised after months (indeed, years) of input from member institutions. To that end, I am confident that the prompts contain wisdom from colleagues who collectively have read hundreds of thousands of college essays. The array of topics is deliberately broad, in order to appeal to as wide a range of college-going seniors as possible. Each topic asks the student to hone in on one area of their experience and let the admissions officer get to know them through this particular experience. The new prompts are meant to elicit stories full of interesting details and experiences and  I am looking forward to reading these essays. I believe the prompts will help applicants write more personal stories, allowing my colleagues to get to know many applicants a little bit better than they might have been able to in the past.


What impact do you foresee the changes having on college admission offices?


I believe that admissions officers will need to read essays in the context of each prompt in a way that has not been necessary to date. Currently, many, many applicants choose the “topic of your choice” and write about any number of subjects. Under the new system, though, students are asked to select one topic and cannot go outside that rubric. Admissions officers will need to be very familiar with the topics so that we can read in the context of the prompts. Overall, though, officers will still be involved in an holistic review process in which the written essay is one component of many.


What impact, if any, will there be on students?


The vast majority of students applying for admission next year have never applied for admission to college before, so these new prompts will be all that they know! However, many students may have heard that they can write about “anything” they choose. While the new prompts cover a wide range of ideas, students will begin to think about the essay differently and will no longer be told—by their counselors or by admissions officers—that they can write about any topic they choose. For some students, this new rubric will provide needed structure.


I have heard from many students that writing the essay can be difficult because they can’t figure out what to write about, they can’t decide on a topic. There is a myth among students that they must come up with the most creative topic in order for their essay to be noticed, and thinking about the essay in that way can be paralyzing. Now students no longer have the responsibility to come up with a topic and they can spend all of their time actually developing the essay itself. I think for many students this will feel “easier.” However, the crux of the essay remains the same: students should use the essay to tell us more about their life experiences, their passions and interests, than the rest of the application allows.


What are your thoughts on the longer length for the essay? What guidance do you plan to give to applicants?


I am thrilled with the longer length of the essay insofar as many students felt hemmed in by a 500-word suggested limit. But it’s important to note that many institutions—including Vanderbilt—did not impose a strict word limit. We read a fair number of essays now that are over 500 words. The important thing for students to remember is that the exact number of words used is far less important than the overall writing quality and the content of the essay. I advise students to consider the topics, develop a plan of attack for the essay, construct a content outline, and then write. Editing, proofing, and re-writing are all part of the writing process. It’s important for students to make time for the essay so that they can practice all the steps of the writing process to ultimately submit an interesting and thoughtful essay that relates something about their life experiences, passions and interests.


How would you characterize the importance of the essay in the admission decision? How is the essay used in the admission decisions at a college like Vanderbilt?


In an holistic review process, the essay is one important component among many. What students should understand is that the essay is really the one place in the application that they have to help an admissions committee get to know them, in a way that grades, test scores, class rank, and recommendation letters cannot. It’s the place in the application that students can control in real-time. While one can argue that students have controlled their own academic record, the essay allows the applicant to control a piece of the application as they are applying. I hope that helps many students feel somewhat less anxious in the process.


At highly selective institutions like Vanderbilt, the essay is used in conjunction with a student’s academic profile (rigor of curriculum, grades, rank in class, test scores, letters of recommendation) and their extracurricular activities list. Admissions officers try to understand the full picture of the student’s experience and what s/he might bring to campus—in the classroom, in residence halls, in our student organizations, etc. The essay rounds out the application. Without it, the application has far less personality. Admissions officers are keenly aware that we are admitting talented young men and women—we are not interested in admitting pieces of paper! Students should understand that their application is truly a conglomeration of pieces that make a whole and it is our job as admissions officers to fit the puzzle together in the best manner possible, to understand the talents of each applicant, and to build a class of students who together form a community of learners, thinkers, and doers.


Vanderbilt University is a private research university located in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 1873, Vanderbilt serves more than 6700 undergraduates in its four undergraduate colleges. Douglas L. Christiansen holds a Ph.D. in higher education administration and is Vanderbilt University's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions. He is also an assistant professor of public policy and higher education in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations at Vanderbilt's Peabody College. In his role as vice provost, Dr. Christiansen oversees the offices of Undergraduate Admissions, Student Financial Aid and Undergraduate Scholarships, Enrollment Management Systems, University Registrar, Enrollment Management for Health Sciences Education, Center for Data Management, and the Vanderbilt Institutional Research Group (VIRG).  He also oversees the Chancellors and Cornelius Vanderbilt scholarship programs and the POSSE scholars program.  He has been in higher education and admissions for nearly twenty five years. Dr. Christiansen also currently serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for The College Board.

Previous posts on the Common Application changes include a feature discussing the new prompts and word-limits, and Q&A’s with Common Application Director of Outreach Scott Anderson Common App Outreach Advisory Committee member Ralph Figueroa,  Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy; and Wayne Locust and Nathan Fuerst from Admissions at University of Connecticut. Our series continues tomorrow with a post from college advisor Alice Kleeman providing examples of possible topics for each of the new prompts and a Q&A with Jeannine Lalonde, Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at University of Virginia.

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