05/31/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

Say Goodbye to the 'Topic of Your Choice'

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Two big changes are coming to the 2013-2014 Common Application Essay. After two years of discussion, The Common Application Board of Directors' has just released the new essay prompts for college applicants who are applying in the upcoming admissions season. This is first time there have been changes to the essays in years (including to the word counts!), and it's clear that the Common Application Board took great care when shaking things up in the application essays. Gone is the highly popular "topic of your choice." Last year nearly 30 percent of the students I work with chose this prompt. "It's easy," one student said to me. "You literally can't go wrong," another applicant said. But I don't always agree. Sometimes applicants choose that prompt because they weren't challenging themselves enough.

My job as a college application essay consultant is to dig deep and find that life experience that will make their essay stand out from all of the others. Often times my students start with the topic first and then try and shoe-horn the story into it. Sure, this can work. But I always tell my applicants, "find the great story first." Then, when they have a story which is a true reflection of what kind of student or person you are, then we'll see which prompt you should use.

The second change to the Common Application Essay is with respect to the word count. This year, the word count has been raised to 650 from 500. As The Common Application folks say, "650 words is your limit, not your goal." And while you can always stop at 500, why not use every word you can? I encourage my students to always write the limit. Those extra 150 words can make the difference between a very good essay and a very great one. They have also instituted a minimum of 250 words. Here are the new prompts:

Common Application Essay Questions for 2013-2014

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.

And so I offer the same advice every summer: have fun, have some great experiences, take good notes if you remember to. But why wait until the fall to write all of those essays? Get them out of the way now. Then you can go to the beach!