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A Sneak Peek at the 2013 Common Application

A Major Shift in Essay Questions and Other Changes

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A Sneak Peek at the 2013 Common Application
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The Common Application isn't the only application template accepted by universities — the Universal College Application, for example, is accepted at 44 universities - but the Common App is one of the most popular. Some 3 million Common Applications were submitted to 500 schools in 2012. The Common App is an ever-changing document, however, and some of the biggest changes are coming this way in 2013, including a major shift in the essay prompts.

By the way, if your teen thinks starting his college applications during the summer is something only uber-competitive over-achievers do, he needs to rethink that view. By fall, the regular school schedule of classes, exams, sports and college apps fever will have reached crisis proportions. Encourage your kid to at least browse the Common App, which goes live Aug. 1, and rough out some essay ideas before the craziness of senior year begins. (P.S. Elizabeth Wissner-Gross' "Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day" is a terrific help in getting the process started.)

Dubbed the CA4 - Common App, version 4 - the new online application is expected to follow a similar outline, asking for personal and academic data, test scores, GPAs, extra-curriculars and teacher evaluations. (Note: Supplementary applications are typically required by music, drama and art programs and many private schools too, so reading the fine print on college admissions websites is critical. The Common App merely captures the basics.)

Here’s what to expect on the 2013 Common Application:

Basic Stats

In addition to basic family stats, language(s) spoken at home, courses taken, test scores and details on honors/AP classes and extra-curriculars, be aware that this application typically asks for estimates on hours per week spent on extra-curricular activities and/or work. In the same way that a football player would include practice hours along with game time in his totals, prospective music majors should include hours spent practicing alone, as well as ensemble rehearsal and performance time.

The Essays

The biggest changes on this year's common application are the essay prompts, which have been completely re-written. The "write whatever you'd like" option is gone, and the essay length has been capped at 650 words, a length the Common App reps say will be enforced.

These are the new essay prompts for fall 2013, released in February 2013:

  1. "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."
  2. "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?"
  3. "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"
  4. "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?"
  5. "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family."

Despite any snarky characterizations of question No. 4 as "Tell us about your happy place," this list of essay prompts actually strikes me as considerably easier to write about. They'll certainly be more interesting to read.

Interested in how those prompts compare to previous years? These were the questions in 2010, 2011 and 2012, in a nutshell:

  • Write about a major personal experience, achievement, risk or ethical dilemma and its impact on the applicant;
  • Write about an issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to the applicant;
  • An individual who has deeply impacted him and why;
  • A fictional character, historical personage, or creative work that has profoundly influenced him and why;
  • A personal experience that illustrates the diversity he'll bring to campus;
  • Or a topic of his choice.

One More Thing...

As your college-bound teens fills out these forms, don't forget that the identical application goes to all the schools. In other words, essay prompt No. 4 is not the place to declare that his happy place looks exactly like the College of William and Mary. Yale will not be amused. Save college-specific declarations of allegiance for the supplemental application and campus interview.

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