Common App restructures for fall

Applicants will lose the option to create their own essay topics in the 2013-14 admission cycle

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Common Application essay will be extended from 500 to 650 words and will no longer allow applicants to choose their own essay topic starting in the 2013-14 application cycle, wrote Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application, in an email to The Herald.

All the essay topics have been slightly altered, and a short response question asking applicants to elaborate on one of their activities will now be “moved to member supplements for colleges that wish to ask it,” Anderson wrote.

The “topic of your choice” will be replaced by a question about “background or (a) story” that helps define the applicant.

Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission, said he feels “neutral” toward the changes. Since the University switched to the Common App in 2008, applications have significantly increased, Miller said.

But applications plateaued after 2011 because of what he described as the “baby boom echo,” when the number of high school seniors peaked. He added that he is unsure if and how the University will revise its application supplement.

“We’ll take a look at the new Common App and then decide how and if we need to wiggle around a little bit on our supplement to get access to the information we want,” Miller said. “At this point, I couldn’t tell you that I see any big issues with the change in questions.”

Julia Bengochea, director of admission, planning and administration, said she does not think these changes will affect the number of applicants the University receives. The Admission Office can change the Brown supplement every year, she said, adding, “once this admission cycle is complete, we’ll take a look at our supplement questions.”

Steven Roy Goodman, an admission strategist at Top Colleges Advising, said the changes would force member universities to rely more heavily on their supplements to get usable information about applicants, creating more work for applicants. He said he felt the changes were to help the universities, not the students.

“The Common Application is designed to help the institution,” Goodman said. “It’s kind of like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It should be designed to help the driver. But it’s really designed to help the people processing the paperwork.”

Michele Hernandez, a private college consultant and former admission officer at Dartmouth, said she does not think essay word length will affect applicants but said she was unhappy with the elimination of the “topic of your choice” option.

Hernandez said she felt the prompts were “boring” and that member universities are “bullied into accepting the Common Application and their changes.”

“The Common App will become useless because more supplements will be added,” Hernandez said. “It was supposed to help students, but now it’s more clunky to do both the Common App and the supplement.”

But Anderson wrote that he does not feel the topics are more rigid or that these changes will result in fewer creative essays. “What we have provided are prompts to spark thinking, not specific questions to be answered,” he wrote.

Jeffrey Durso-Finley MA’91, a guidance counselor at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., and former Brown admission officer, said overall he does not think these changes will prevent his students from being creative or affect the quality of applicants to Brown.

“I don’t think it will be a big deal because the topics left are broad enough that you can take whatever you want to write about and fit it into those prompts,” Durso-Finley said.

Adam Horowitz ’16 said he opted for the open prompt essay in his college applications and wrote about hummus. He said the content and structure of the essay would not fit with the current choices.

He added that the increased essay length “makes kids feel like they have to fill it,” possibly losing quality over quantity in applications.

“Sometimes the best essay someone could write is not in any of the categories, so they can’t put their best foot forward,” said Tim Schlenger ’16, who chose the “topic of your choice” option during the application process. “I think the same number of students will apply (to Brown), but some of the best essays won’t get written because the options are limited.”

Prospective students voiced similar sentiments. Owen Robison, a senior at Pelham Memorial High School in Pelham, N.Y., applied regular decision to Brown. He said he wrote a topic of his choice and added that he felt he “wouldn’t be able to convey” what he wanted to without the topic of his choice.

Alternatively, James O’Shea, a high school junior at Devon Preparatory School in Devon, Pa., said he doesn’t think the changes will make a difference either way.

“The new (essay) questions give a student an opportunity to express themselves,” O’Shea said. “I think them getting rid of the ‘topic of your choice’ isn’t really a big deal.”