University of Virginia's Jeannine Lalonde on "Hearing the Student's Voice" and the New Common App Essay Prompts

In the final installment of our series on the changes to the writing section of the Common Application, Jeannine Lalonde, Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia -- and the force behind one of our favorite admission blogs "Notes from Peabody" -- joins us to talk about the new essay prompts and the role that the essay plays in admission decisions.

What are your thoughts about the new essay prompts?

I’m on the Common Application’s Apps Advisory Committee and the Outreach Committee shared the questions with us a few months ago. I was impressed with how the questions were defined, yet give the applicants freedom to go in whatever direction feels right to them.

I can still remember sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and being uncertain about how to start a personal statement for my college applications. These questions would have given me a nice jumping off point.

What impact, if any, do you see the new essay prompts having – on both college admission offices and applicants?

I hope they let students stop spending too much time fixating on finding the “right” topic and instead help them see the topic as a vehicle they can use to share something important with us. As an admission officer, I crave hearing the student’s voice and I think these questions will facilitate that happening.

How would you characterize the role of the essay in the admission decision?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that academic preparation and performance is foremost in our minds when we’re reviewing applications. In this day and age, students have access to counselors who have been working with us for years, their school’s historical college admission data, and the information that we put out via our website and social media. Most students are applying having done the right things when it comes to their academic preparation. They are perfectly capable of doing good work in the classroom.  The subjective parts of the application help us understand who the student is and what they are like beyond the data on the transcripts and score reports.

The essays are usually my favorite parts of the file. I love getting a sense of the student’s tone and style through their writing. The essays often bring the application to life.

What are your thoughts about the longer length of 650 words as opposed to the old 500-word limit?

Most students write essays that are totally appropriate in length. A few write too little and a few write too much. The note about the essay length makes it clear to those who are inclined to write too much that we aren’t looking for term papers. Part of being a good writer is being a good editor.

Do you have a view on the loss of the “topic of your choice” prompt?

I wasn’t passionate about this when we first discussed it, but I’m glad it’s gone away. Many students used that open-ended prompt to write what I call the “resume by prose” or the love letter to U.Va. What a missed opportunity!


The University of Virginia is a public flagship research university located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, U.Va.serves more than 14,500 undergraduates, offering 51 bachelor’s degree programs in 47 fields. Jeannine Lalonde is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia, where she manages her office’s activity in new media. Her blog, “Notes from Peabody,” provides an in-depth look into the admission process at U. Va. Prior to her move to Virginia in 2005, Jeannine was Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. Jeannine has a bachelor’s degree from Providence College and a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Boston College. She is the proud owner of CavDog.

Previous posts on the Common Application changes include a feature from college advisor Alice Kleeman featuring suggestions for topics on each of the new prompts, a recap of the changes in the Common App, including the new prompts and word-limits, 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; Wayne Locust and Nathan Fuerst from Admissions at University of Connecticut; and Vanderbilt University’s Dean of Admission Douglas Christiansen.



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