According to the Common Application, in recent admission seasons more than a third of applicants chose to write their college essay on a “topic of your choice.” It is therefore not surprising that some outrage and disappointment met the organization’s announcement that it was eliminating this prompt from the application altogether. The new application that will debut this Fall will feature five specific essay questions that will change every year. Instead of a vague prescription to cap the uploaded word count to 500, new formatting will also limit the student to a minimum of 250 words and a maximum of 650.
When it was first announced that the “topic of your choice” is to be axed, many counselors bemoaned what they saw as a further paring away of the student’s ability to inhabit the application – and, by extension, the increasingly conformist process of applying to college – with some measure of creativity and self-expression. Some anticipated the boredom inflicted on admission officers who will have to read hundreds of essays written to the same small set of questions. Comments in The New York Times predicted “a glut of clichéd essays,” describing the new questions as insipid and uninspiring. In other forums, counselors also expressed concern that the strict new limit will inhibit students’ ability to fully express something meaningful about themselves.
For many, however, the fussing may be misplaced. As admission officers who read countless application essays every year will attest, there is rarely anything new under the sun anyway. The real distinction has therefore never been between essays that address novel and exotic topics and those that rake over more familiar ground, but between statements that seem trite, immature, or manipulative to the reader, and those that are authentic, articulate and revealing, regardless of the prompt. As for the stricter limit on length, William Zinsser long reminded aspirant writers that their work can only benefit from greater concision and discipline. Few people are truly aware of how badly they write, he said, because “Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say.”
Arguably the new essay questions only rephrase the same question the Common Application has always asked of students: choose a place, a moment or an action and describe it in such a way that it becomes a lens through which the reader gains insight into how you have grown into the person that you are.
The complete college application is a narrative of a young person’s actions, aspirations and intentions as revealed by the choices the student made in the classroom and outside of school. Even though the particulars will vary wildly, strong applications will each tell a story that is cohesive, interesting and thoughtful, and the essay is one very useful and important tool for helping student do the job. The Common Application clearly hopes that its new essay prompts and limits will guide students to better wield this tool.