As a former college admission director and a writer, I particularly enjoy working with my students as they conceptualize, create and revise (again and again and again) their college essays. Learning about students through their writing was always the favorite part of my folder-reading duties in my former life when I sat on the “other” side of the desk.
Students’ essays enlightened me and also made me laugh and cry. Sometimes they’d make me groan out loud, when pieces written by bright and capable kids I’d fervently recruited were simply ho-hum. Indeed, as much as my colleagues and I sought to encourage applicants with strong high school programs as well as high grades and scores, it was the essay that often tipped the admission committee’s balance in favor of accepting an “on the bubble” candidate. Well-written, thoughtful essays helped us truly know students—warts and all—and we were grateful for that privilege.
With the recent announcement that the 2013-14 version of the Common Application will feature five new essay prompts (and will allow for longer pieces, up to 650 rather than 500 words), students will have new opportunities to put forth their best authentic selves. Here are the topic choices:
- 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.
Some counselors and students may bemoan losing “topic of your choice” as an essay option. As much as I have encouraged my own students to select that prompt, as appropriate, I can understand the thinking that by eliminating it, students’ writing might be more focused. As Scott Anderson, the Common Application’s director of outreach, put it (The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 15, 2013), “We wanted to make sure all students have a home.” On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be upset that the essay’s word limit has been extended–even with the new, automatic character cut-off replacing over-the-limit attached PDFs.
As independent educational consultants (IECs), we provide an invaluable service to our students by guiding and supporting them throughout the often-daunting college search and admission and financial aid application processes. Now more than ever, encouraging students to tell personal stories that help them to come alive—and assist admission folks to look beyond their stats—is essential to their becoming viable candidates at selective institutions.
The late, great Grace Paley, who served on our admissions committee when I worked at Sarah Lawrence, was famous for loudly and enthusiastically urging (nay, commanding!) us to err on the side of admitting “iffy” kids if their essays truly sang to us. Good advice.