Oh, the App, it is a-changin’

(with apologies to Bob Dylan.)

In a post to “The Choice” blog on October 10, Hannah Steinhardt of the New York Times reported on one of the announced changes to the Common Application for 2013 – specifically, that the essay prompts will be revised and the “topic of your choice” prompt will appear no more. The post generated a number of comments, mostly from people who were dismayed to see that prompt vanish.

I had the opposite response. I think the prompts are in need of revision, and I’ll be happy to see “topic of your choice” take a hike.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that students find the more focused prompts easier to respond to – structure helps. Furthermore, in my experience as a reader of many, many application essays, the “topic of your choice” prompt doesn’t add much of value to the roster of questions available to students using the Common Application. The essays that students write on a “topic of their choice” often focus on a significant event in their lives — an option already offered by the first prompt in the Common App set of questions.  It also seems to me that the “topic of your choice” prompt yields the least interesting responses. In my previous post, I pointed out that students tend to focus on the task (writing an essay) rather than the goal (writing an essay that introduces you effectively and engagingly to an admissions committee).  In the absence of a specific question to serve as a focus for their essays, many students recycle something written for another purpose – a class assignment, for example. Those essays, even when well written, often don’t provide the type of personal insight useful to admissions officers.

So I say onward and upward, Common Application! Revise away!

For those who feel that the new essay prompts show that “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast,” one can but hope they’ll get over it, because, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’…for the times they are a-changin’.”

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