Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

Well, May just flashed by, and a number of projects and events took me away from blogging for several weeks. Apologies for the extended silence in AdmissionsCafe, and thank you for your patience!

Now that things have mostly quieted down for the class of 2013 and current seniors have made their college choices for fall, juniors (and their parents) are revving up for coming marathon of the 2013-2014 admissions cycle. With “CA4,” (the latest version of the Common Application) on the horizon, the months ahead are sure to be interesting.

Members of the Class of 2014 won’t have to worry about the changes in the Common App, of course – CA4 will simply be what they know as the Common App. College counselors and college admissions personnel who have been through earlier iterations of the Common App will be the ones making comparisons, and beginning sentences with phrases like: “well, last year it worked like this…” From what I’ve seen so far, (kudos, by the way, to the Common App board and to all those who worked on the many aspects of the new version!) CA4 looks like a very effective and user-friendly revision. I’m especially enthusiastic about the changes to the writing section, and am eager to see how students respond to the new essay prompts.  

When changes to the writing section were announced last fall, I commented on the hue and cry over the disappearance of the “topic of your choice” prompt. (See post of 12 October 2012) I’m happy to see that it hasn’t returned, and I think the new prompts encourage essays that offer self-reflection. This is a big improvement – I felt that the previous prompts were written in such a way as to discourage reflection. The previous prompts led with the invitation to describe a person, event, or issue of importance. The request for reflection, to “tell us why this is important to you,” tacked onto the end of the prompt, led many students to think that this was of less importance to readers.

In addition, the new prompts, by giving students well-defined and specific topics to which they can react, provide structure for the responses that I think they will find helpful. We’ll have to see how things go as students begin to craft their responses, but my hunch is these prompts will do a better job of eliciting useful information about applicants for admissions officers.

I have mixed feelings about the 650 word limit on the essay, and I will be interested to see how students respond to it. In combination with the new prompts, the word limit should certainly cut down on the number of recycled class assignment essays that applicants submit, which will be a boon for admissions officers. And the 650 word limit for the essay is not out of line with length restrictions that versions of the University of California application, for example, have contained. I am eager to see how the word limit will be perceived by students, though. Will there be any characteristics common to the respondents who feel that 650 words is too few? Will there be characteristics shared by those who feel that 650 words is way too many? Will there be a pattern of differences emerging between the two camps? I do like the fact that a variety of opinion on this matter has been anticipated in the Common App instructions: I smiled when I read that “650 words is your limit, not your goal.”

Looking at another area of CA4, the ability to create “alternate versions” of the Common Application still seems like an existential oxymoron to me. (Also, each time a student wants to create an alternate version of the Common App, I’m reminded of Calvin’s “duplicator” machine in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Click here and here to see two of those cartoons.) However, I understand the genuine motivations for, as well as the superstitions and anxieties that provoke students to create alternate versions of the application. I’d love to know the reasoning behind the decision to allow “unlimited” edits to all parts of the application except the essay, though, and to know why the number of essay revisions was capped at three. I understand the rationale about balancing the need for students to make corrections and updates to sections of the application with the philosophy of a “common” application, as one of the Common App explanatory notes says. But why three essay versions? Why not two or four? Is there a dry, technical reason for this, or did the discussions about this limit veer into the realm of philosophy? (In the latter case, I wonder if we can look forward to earnest, if esoteric, conference presentations about the nature of the essential self, as seen through the lens of the Common Application…)

In any event, one of the great things about working in college admissions is that the scene is always changing. No two years are ever exactly alike, despite overall similarities in the cycle as a whole. Clearly, the changes embodied in CA4 and the ways in which students respond to the new version will keep things lively this fall. So all hail CA4! Here’s hoping the August 1 launch goes smoothly.

Application essays: the voyage begins

Now that October has arrived, Early Action and Early Decision application deadlines are creeping into view and students are focusing their attention on application essays and supplements.

Over almost thirty years in admissions and college counseling, I estimate that I have read upward of 80,000 individual application essays. As an admissions dean, I worked closely with my staffs at different colleges to create essay prompts that would be interesting to students and useful to us in the evaluation process, and then eagerly awaited the responses. As a college counselor, I helped students decipher those “interesting” prompts, saw them wrestle with ideas for their essays, and encouraged them as they worked through various drafts.

My experience on both sides of the admissions desk confirmed my long-held belief that high school students and college admissions personnel exist in parallel universes.

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

Though everyone works on the same process with the same application materials, the perspective of each world is, to some extent, self-limiting. This creates a significant communications gap between the two universes. The “what was asked or said” vs. “what was heard” discrepancy between “Admissions Officer World” and “High School Student World” can be seen pretty clearly through the lens of the application essay.

Broadly speaking, I’ve observed that:

In “Admissions Officer World,” the application is seen as a uniform structure or framework that prompts students to represent themselves clearly, authentically, and in some detail…while in “High School Student World,” students tend to view the application as a constraint, into which truncated information about their lives must be squashed.

Inhabitants of “AO World” think of the application essay as a vehicle for self-introduction (“tell us about yourself”)…while inhabitants of “HSS World” often look at the essays and ask “what do the colleges want to hear?”

Admissions personnel hope the essay will elicit self-reflection on the applicant’s part…while students often see the essay as a means of reporting or describing events, and worry that discussing the personal significance of those events will seem trite, formulaic, or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Admissions personnel at colleges that use institution-specific applications or that request supplements to the Common Application work hard to create interesting essay prompts…which are often viewed by students as contrived (at best) or downright baffling (at worst).

So essay questions are frequently as open-ended questions as possible…which can be frustrating for students who tend to wish for more direction and specificity.

Overall, I think much of the confusion about application essays stems from the fact that students tend to focus on the task itself (“I just need to write the essay”) while college admissions personnel tend to focus on the goal (how does the essay enhance the picture of yourself that is created through the application.) The gulf between what college admissions officers say about application essays and what students hear is widened and muddied by the amount and variety of (frequently contradictory) information available to students from multiple sources, not all of which are reliable. We may not be able to do much to turn down that noise in the system, but those on both sides of the admissions desk can help students as they craft their essays.

In an effort to avoid a further “War of the Worlds,” I offer these suggestions to facilitate reconciliation of the parallel universes:

For college admissions officers:

Offer more information about the context and purpose of the application essays, to let students know how the essays fit into the application as a whole. Over the last decade or so, I’ve listened to a number of admissions reps describe the application process to prospective students, and very few offer “big picture” information to their audiences. It’s obvious to admissions officers that the essay supplements and enhances the information about the applicant that is elsewhere in the application, but students aren’t always able to think about the essays in that broader context. It’s task vs. goal orientation again, and admissions officers could provide more information about the overall goal of the application. I know that not every college or high school can offer “case study” sessions, in which students have the opportunity to review complete sample applications, but these are so useful. Seeing a whole application that is not your own helps one understand how the individual pieces work together.

If you want essays that are less narrative and more reflective, rephrase the prompts. As written, most essay prompts lead with the invitation for students to describe an event, a person, or an issue – and then conclude with a short phrase asking for some reflection. As a result, students often feel they should focus their essays on the event, person, or issue, and include just a sentence or two about what the event means to them. If you’d rather learn more about how the student processes his or her experience rather than how he or she reports it, use the question to direct the response. Flip the standard phrasing and try something like: Please reflect on an event or person important in your life. We don’t need to know a lot about the event or the person you choose – but we’d like to know why either was significant for you, and/or how you have changed as a result of that experience or from knowing that person.

For students:

Before you begin the application, think about the personal qualities you want to present to the admissions officers who will read your application. Take a step back and think carefully about the information each piece of the application will provide about you: the transcript and test scores say something, teacher and counselor recommendations say something – what do you want admissions officers to know that won’t be covered elsewhere? Once you’ve decided what you want to present, then look at the essay prompts and see which one gives you the best opportunity to illustrate the points you want to make about yourself.  When you are submitting multiple essays or supplements with an application, make sure each response complements the others, and adds new information about you to the application.

Detail will win the day. Many essays fall flat because the writers don’t offer sufficient examples to illustrate the points they want to make. Details make individual essays vivid and are unique to each writer. So don’t just say that you learned a lot from working for the Parks Department last summer – let the reader know, specifically, what you learned or how the experience changed you. Don’t leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – if you don’t illustrate your points, the conclusions drawn by readers may not be the ones you intend.

Quality of output is proportionate to quality of input. I know that some students feel they do their best work under pressure, with a deadline only hours away. I also know that the best essays I’ve read are NOT first drafts. Trust me on this. Your essays will improve if you allow yourself the time to brainstorm, try out a few different ideas, and revise. And revise again. An ancillary bonus to getting an early start on your essays is that it will make your parents happy, and let them know they don’t have to hound you about deadlines.

Good luck to all as we boldly go into this next phase of the admissions cycle!

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day