We strongly urge you to have at least your Common Application essay in good shape before senior year begins. Fall of senior year is a busy time and writing your essays while attending school is like adding a class to your schedule. Summer provides the luxury of uninterrupted time to reflect and write. Here's some advice to kickstart your essays over the coming summer months -- from a suggested reading list that we hope will inspire to some excellent step-by-step guidance on the new Common Application essay prompts.
Founded in 1908, Reed College is a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, known for its rich intellectual life. Dean of Admission Keith Todd joins us this month to answer not five -- but eight questions -- in the generous spirit of inquiry that exemplifies Reed College.
Located on 116 acres in a residential neighborhood, the Reed campus is just five miles from downtown Portland, and about 90 minutes from the Pacific coast. Featuring a lake and Reed Canyon, a wooded wetland with abundant wildlife and native plants, the campus is home to 1400 students.
The quirky intellectualism Reed is known for is on full display even on their website, which reads like a series of droll literary vignettes -- with comic overtones. (Not to go too Reedie on you.) In fact, Reed has produced 31 Rhodes Scholars, as well as numerous winners of the Fulbright, Watson, and National Science Foundation fellowships. Classes average 15 students with a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio. Reed offers 22 department-based majors (from Anthropology to Theater), 12 interdisciplinary majors (including History-literature or Mathematics-economics) and 6 dual degree programs (such as applied physics and electronic science). And students can also work with their adviser to design alternate interdisciplinary majors.
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?
College advisor Alice Kleeman joins us today in our ongoing series on the changes to the Common Application with some excellent guidance for students and how to think about the new essay prompts and an entertaining look back on some of the essays that have been favorites in her twenty years advising students.
The five prompts that will appear on the “new” Common Application should allow for nearly any topic you might choose. Below are some suggestions for academic, extracurricular, and personal topics that might fit neatly into a response for each prompt. Of course, these are just suggestions, designed to jumpstart your thinking, provide a gentle nudge if you feel stumped, and to help you decide which prompt might provide the best opportunity for you to show the admission office who you are. Your response to any college-essay prompt should be entirely personal and one that only you could write; these examples are just to get your essay juices flowing!
Essay Prompt One:
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.
“background,” “story,” “identity,” “incomplete without”
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.
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?
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?"
Earlier this week the Common Application board of directors announced changes to the "Writing" section of the online form as part of the digital makeover to occur in August. High school students applying from the class of 2014 will choose from five new essay prompts and will no longer have the option of writing on the "topic of your choice." In addition, the maximum length for responses increases to 650 words.
Here are the new essay prompts:
* 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.
* Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
* Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
* Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
* Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
OWL, the Purdue Online Writing Lab, is featuring excellent advice on the college essay from some of our good friends. Check out the post here -- for commentary on the essay and how colleges view this step in the application from Vanderbilt's Doug Christiansen, Caltech's Jarrid Whitney, and University of Chicago's Jim Nondorf, as well as undergraduate admission deans from University of Arizona, Rutgers, and University of Illinois.