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Common App announces 'no change' for 2014-15 essay topics

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The Common App recently announced that there would be no change in essay topics for the 2014-15 application. This came as no surprise to many, not so much because the topics were compelling or that they evoked inspired responses from applicants, but more because it confirmed a growing belief that Common App management would unilaterally make decisions about application content without much meaningful collaboration with admissions professionals.

A year ago, during the run-up to the ill-fated launch of the new online application (CA4), the Common App vetted various essay topics with 15 school counselors and elected to drop the hands-down favorite among high school students—“Topic of your choice.”

This decision produced considerable push back from within the counseling community and ignited a contentious exchange of correspondence involving executive level staff annoyed with counselors questioning the process of determining essay topics.

To quell the controversy, the Common App promised an annual review of topics and suggested that feedback would be sought before decisions were made in the future.

It was also strongly hinted that changing essay prompts would help curb or at least put a damper on a growing cottage industry of essay consultants, websites, and handbooks.

But collaboration seems to have been put on the back burner as the Common App management and its Board of Directors began addressing larger flaws in a system that produced a series of mishaps and problems in application submission and data collection during the 2013-14 application cycle.

At an emergency meeting called in mid-December, the Board initiated an “independent” review of Common App technology and organization.

Two surveys were subsequently devised by Censeo, a third-party management consulting firm with credentials in federal procurement, and were sent to all 517 Common Application members as well as 50,000 school counselors. Independent educational consultants as well as student applicants were intentionally left out of the process.

Then again, the Common Application didn’t particularly want feedback on specific essay prompts, the use of direct entry text boxes, or the strictly-enforced 650-word limit. Instead respondents were asked to simply agree or disagree with a single statement:

The new essay topics provide students with an opportunity to express themselves in their own voice while demonstrating their writing ability.”

And according to the Common App, 70% of the responding member colleges and 90% of the school counselors agreed—although no indication was given as to how “strongly” they agreed.

“I love the new prompts—and not just because they are new,” commented Terry Cowdrey, Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Colby College and former member of the Common Application Board of Directors. "I think we are learning more about students."

This feedback provided management with all the support needed to do what they intended to do anyway—retain last year’s essay prompts—much to the disappointment of many in the counseling community.

“I was hoping for a more thoughtful review of the topics and the reinstatement of topic of your choice to allow students a little more freedom in their essays,” said Wendie Lubic, a Maryland-based independent educational consultant. “It seemed like repeating topics was a knee jerk reaction to save effort since they [the Common Application] have a long list of fixes.”

A retired Montgomery County Public School counselor with an independent consulting practice added, “I've been counseling since '82, so this is not the first time I've seen a repeat of essay prompts. In the future, however, I would recommend a more thorough assessment than what seems to have happened this year.”

So for better are worse, the essay prompts remain unchanged and for 2014-15 will be as follows:

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