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Your College Essay and Changes to the Common App

Last month, Jed attended the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), where representatives from the Common Application unveiled three significant changes for next year’s applications:

  • All essays will be web-only.
  • The Common Application will eliminate the “topic of your choice” option.
  • Each essay will have a 500 word limit, and essays that exceed it will result in an error message.

Let’s look at what these changes mean for you and what they indicate colleges really care about when making their admissions decisions.

Many college counselors have criticized the Common Application’s decision, arguing that removing the “topic of your choice” inhibits the applicant’s creativity outlet.  Instead of writing about a personal and unique topic, students now choose one of four topics, risking similar answers with other applicants.  Similarly, the 500 word limit requires students to mince their words and include only the most necessary elements, a difficult task for most high school students.

How can you work around these limitations to make sure your essay stands out among other applicants?

First, focus on the specifics.  If you went on a missions trip that changed your life, don’t discuss a week, or even a day.  Describe, in great detail, one moment from that trip.  A vivid, well written description of a moment conveys more in 500 words than does a general overview of a longer period of time.

Second, show, don’t tell.  Don’t tell the admissions office “I’m a hardworking person.”  Show it in the example you provide.  You do want to wow your reader with your outstanding character and personality.  Let yourself shine through specific examples.

Third, cut the fluff. You can find many online lists of informal words and clichés to avoid.  Write several pages, then take a Sharpie and cross out vague intensifiers (a lot of, very, really, totally, extremely), vague adjectives (beautiful, good, happy, wonderful, amazing), filler words (like, you know, just), and all “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, been, being, be).  Avoid clichés as much as possible (ClichéSite has a helpful list of phrases to avoid).  Next, find the essay’s best sentence.  Use that sentence as the central component for your second draft.  Repeat until you have an essay that radiates with personality and sincerity.

Fourth, get feedback.  We don’t always enjoy sharing our work with others, but feedback can only help the essay process.  Get someone besides your grandmother to read your essay and ask, “What does this essay say about me as a prospective student?”  Listen to their feedback, don’t make excuses, and revise when appropriate.

Yes, the Common Application changes provide some challenges for next year’s applications.  They can also provide helpful boundaries to craft an excellent essay.  See the word limitation and the required writing prompt as opportunities for you to break out of familiar writing tendencies and write an essay you can take pride in.

By the way, in honor of the Common App’s changes, this post contains exactly 500 words.


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