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Common App to remove ‘topic of your choice’ option

Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012

Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 08:10

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Zhuangchen Zhou / The Tufts Daily

Common Application officials this month announced the elimination of the “topic of your choice” essay option, among other changes to be enacted in August.

The Common Application, the standard form for college applications, will be updated next fall.

Common App officials announced a series of changes to the application, including the removal of the “topic of your choice” essay prompt, at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling earlier this month.

Instead of the free−choice essay, the application will rotate every year between four or five topics.

The Common App’s new format, which will go into effect Aug. 1, also features stricter enforcement of the word count limit and a streamlined process for students requesting a waiver of the fee. The option to upload a resume to the site will be delegated to the individual collee’s discretion, in an effort to simplify the site’s user experience.

The alterations have prompted mixed reactions. Most critics take issue with the removal of the open−ended essay topic, which Common Application Director of Outreach Scott Anderson said 36 percent of Common App users chose to write this year. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the announcement that the essay topic would be removed was “met with gasps” at the conference.

The option to choose their own essay topic allowed students to take a more creative approach to the application, Tufts Admissions Counselor Tom Esponnette said.

“I know a lot of colleges are a little bummed about that because [the essay] gives students a little more freedom of choice,” Esponnette said. “A good number of students chose to be creative within their essays.”

Anderson said that the Common App’s intention was to streamline the application, not to limit creativity.

“The question — and the criticism — presumes that ‘topic of your choice’ is the only option that encourages student expression,” Anderson told the Daily in an email. “We don’t believe that to be true, and neither do the 15 members of our ... group of school−based and college−access counselors representing students from diverse geographic and socio−economic backgrounds.”

The Tufts supplemental application within the Common App encourages creativity, Esponnette explained, so the change will not deal a significant blow to Tufts applicants’ ability to express themselves.

Becca Joseph, a high school senior currently applying to colleges using the Common App, said the revamped application would still allow for creativity in her writing because the other five topics are mostly general.

“The prompts are pretty vague,” she said.

Joseph chose the “topic of your choice” prompt to write about a trip that helped her overcome her shyness. She said she picked the prompt for its open−endedness, but she believes she could have worked within the constraints of the upcoming application structure.

Freshman Philip Dubow disagrees with the elimination of the application’s open essay, noting that he relied on that topic when applying to Tufts and other schools last year.

“I found the other prompts to be constraining,” Dubow said. “I think that it’s going to severely limit the depth and the breadth that students can go into.”

Esponnette said that enforcing the 500−word limit should be manageable for students.

“Most people stuck to the [suggested] word limit,” he said.

Joseph, however, expressed concerns that applicants would need to cut important parts from their essays to adhere to the word limit.

“If it’s a few words over, it should be okay,” she said. “If you cut it down, and you have to cut a few parts just to fit the word requirements, it’s not fair.”

Esponnette said despite the removal of the universal option to upload a resume, he anticipates students who wish to send in resumes, at least 1/4 of applicants, will be unable to do so.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll still see the resumes next year,” he said. “It gives us another piece of information of the students, [but it’s] not as valuable as the essays.”

Anderson said the changes will result in a “new streamlined, intuitive interface” for the application’s site.

This will be especially helpful for students applying for waivers of the application fee, Esponnette said.

Dubow, who had to apply separately for 10 different fee waivers last year, said the ability to apply for all of them at once would have made the process much easier.

“That’s a great thing,” he said. “Personally that would have saved me a lot of time.”

Overall, Anderson said, the Common App’s most significant updates are an attempt to adapt to the website’s heightened popularity. The Common App last year received and processed 2.8 million applications from 663,000 applicants and eight million school forms, he said.

“The most significant features are under the hood,” he said. “The current system performs extremely well, but it was not designed to handle the volume we are anticipating in coming years.”

“We expect those numbers to continue to rise as more institutions join the association,” he added.

Esponnette said the forthcoming changes are the most significant update to the Common Application during his time working in admissions.

“There have been changes, but no major changes in the past few years until this upcoming one,” he said.

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