Scott Anderson of the Common App on the New Essay Prompts

Last year, more than 2.5 million online applications were submitted to the Common Application’s 488 member colleges -- from Adelphi University to Yale. The next generation of the electronic form -- dubbed CA4 -- will launch in August of this year. But in the lead up to the unveiling of the digital makeover, the Common App last week announced new essay prompts, as well as a new length limit of 650 words, which will be enforced by the new technology. (You can see our earlier story here.) The Common Application Director of Outreach Scott Anderson joined us to talk more about these changes.

What was the impetus for the new essay prompts? Why was it seen as necessary?

For the last few years, two of our six essay prompts--topic of your choice and significant experience--have accounted for over 70% of all essays. That clustering prompted us to ask: "Can we make our prompts more appealing and, by extension, more effective, both as an invitation for students to share their stories and as a tool for helping our members make informed decisions?"

What was the process you went through to arrive at these questions? What issues did you grapple with?

This past summer we solicited suggestions from our membership and also from the 15 counselors on our Outreach Advisory Committee.  From there we had several rounds of voting, discussion, and editing within the advisory group.  Our top priority was ensuring that any student, regardless of background or access to counseling, would be able to find a home within the options.  We also wanted to get the instructions right. Students need to know how the essay is used, but they also need to know how to approach the challenge of writing about themselves.

What impact do you foresee the changes having?

We believe we have crafted prompts that accomplish two goals.  First, they provide significant flexibility for students to tell meaningful stories about themselves.  Second, they provide students a framework for telling these stories.  In that light, we hope that the new prompts will result in more focused writing, which will benefit both students AND colleges.

Why the longer length of 650 words as opposed to the old guideline of 500?

Length was never an issue until our Board chose to enforce it--a decision they made in an effort to level the playing field among applicants.  The strong reaction to our decision to enforce our historic 500-word limit proved one thing: very few people had been paying attention to the instructions to begin with.  Based on helpful feedback from counselors, some of our Board members pulled out copies of particularly effective essays and started counting words.  That's what led us to 650. 

Can you address the minimum length of 250 words and why that decision was made?

The 250-word minimum is a Common App membership requirement within our bylaws.  It exists to ensure that a sufficient untimed writing sample will be part of a college's holistic evaluation.

Can you elaborate on how the new prompts and getting rid of the topic of choice prompt “level the playing field”?

My "leveling the playing field" comment was really more about enforcing the length than about replacing "topic of your choice."  Our Board sought to end ambiguity in how the essay instructions were being interpreted.  Colleges do not have the time or inclination to count words in an essay.  Experienced counselors know this and advise their students accordingly.  But students without access to sufficient counseling are, in the absence of an enforced limit, left to guess how closely they should adhere to the instructions.  Setting and enforcing a limit means that every counselor, member, and support specialist will be able to provide an identical answer when a student asks, “How long can my essay be?”

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

This is not a criticism we have heard, but it certainly strikes me as unfounded.  Consider the options open to students in the "describe a place or environment" essay.  The science lab, the library stacks, a museum (of any kind), watching election returns with one's family...the opportunities to convey intellectual interests are limited only by a student's creativity.  And that's just using one prompt as an example.

Can you give us a sneak peek at the further changes we can expect in August with CA4?

It's all coming soon--I promise.  But the most important thing to remember is that, aside from the essay, the content of the application is not changing.  The application will continue to ask the same types of questions it always has, only in a new, streamlined, easier-to-navigate interface.


Our discussion of the changes to the 2013-2014 Common Application continues tomorrow with a Q&A with Outreach Advisory Committee member Ralph Figueroa, Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy and later in the week a post from advisor Alice Kleeman providing examples of possible topics that respond to each of the new prompts.


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