06/27/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Common App Changes and What They Mean to Applicants


The Common Application, which offers one uniform application for students to submit to any of the 488 partner colleges, has decided to make subtle changes for the 2013-2014 admissions year.

Previously, the Common App included the applicant's basic information (language proficiency, parental education and family size), highschool performance with spaces for standardized testing scores and a brutally short section for extracurricular activities (only ten slots -- with a one-line description per each).

And, of course, there was the infamous Writing portion -- two essays: one short elaboration of an extracurricular activity of interest and a second 500-word personal statement on any topic per the applicant's choice.

There were previously four pre-selected topics for the personal essay: "evaluate a significant experience, achievement or risk" and "indicate a person of great influence" were among the selection. In addition, applicants had the option of selecting a "Topic of your choice."

In the 2013-2014 Common Application, available August 1, students will not have the freedom of writing an essay that does not fulfill a Common App prompt.

Instead, the original topics will be replaced by more direct prompts, some of which include a "background or story that is so central to [the identity of the student]" and a description of a place or environment in which the applicant is "perfectly content." The remaining three topics can be found in an announcement from the Common App.

The topic changes should not be entirely surprising, as these were announced in February -- although the lack of freedom for a student to compose a topic of their own choice will still be hard to swallow.

The more startling change is the stricter word count. Students were able to square-dance around the 500-word maximum, sometimes going over with the benefit of the doubt from an admission officer. Students will now have to be even more concise in their word choice, as the writing box will maintain a tally that prevents any words over 650 limit.

In addition to the major changes of the essay, the 250-word Activity essay, used to demonstrate a student's most prized co-curricular activity, will be optional by choice of the individual colleges.

However, not all colleges plan to follow the Common App's change.

"We will continue to expect that applicants tell us about their most important extracurricular commitment," commented Shawn Abbott, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Admissions at New York University.

"Yes, there are new essay prompts, but the essay topics aren't vastly different from past topics. ... If anything, they will level the playing field and potentially limit the level of copied essays we receive every year, now that the topics are somewhat directed," he added.

Although the changes do pose a change to the application process for students, Abbott was confident that the improvements would offer beneficial results for NYU's admission process for the year.

These changes may simplify the responsibilities of an admission officer, dependant on whether the institution continues the inclusion of an Activities essay.

They could also offer a similar benefit to students. If an applicant's selected colleges do not require an Activities essay, the student can devote more time to their personal essay. Yet, as aforementioned, we should not assume many top universities and colleges to follow the Common App's decision to elect the short essay voluntary.

At the center of the Common Application remains the personal essay: a now 650-word exploration of the applicant's inner mind and character. With the possibility of eliminating the short essay, colleges can focus more intently on the essay, which, as we know, can sway an applicant's admittance.

If now isn't the time to choose a topic, and then perfect the essay, it's never.