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The 'Uncommon' Application: member pages replace writing supplements for some

UVa will use its member pages on the Common App to ask essay questions and avoid having students submit a separate writing supplement.
UVa will use its member pages on the Common App to ask essay questions and avoid having students submit a separate writing supplement.
Nancy Griesemer

As hard as folks at the Common Application push to enforce ‘a one-size fits all’ application process, Common App member institutions push back equally forcefully for freedom to individualize applications in ways supporting their various admissions priorities.

For example, most super-sized universities don’t need or particularly want essays and some don’t seem too concerned about guidance or teacher recommendations. But to join the Common App club, colleges must agree to accept at least one essay and one recommendation as part of the standard application package.

We call this providing a ‘holistic’ review of candidates—a core value of the Common Application.

But for those colleges that have traditionally conducted real holistic reviews, a single essay and generic recommendations are usually not enough. They want more.

It's a tough balancing act and in the quest to redesign components of its electronic application, the Common App had to find common ground between the conflicting needs of big state institutions and small liberal arts colleges—all equal members of the organization.

As a first step, the new application was designed to include a series of innovative “smart” questions incorporating common concerns colleges have about majors and programs on “member pages.” Sometimes these questions trigger additional questions in other parts of the application and sometimes they stand alone.

But beyond the more generic member questions, the Common App needed to accommodate the kinds of individualized essays or short answer questions necessary for a true holistic review—enter the Uncommon Application.

The 2014-15 Common App accomplishes this in two ways. First, some colleges elect to use the new, more robust member pages to ask essay questions. For the applicant, this saves the trouble of submitting two separate components of the same application. But it means that the entire application has to be complete before it can be submitted—including the pesky college-specific essays some of which can take lots of time and energy.

Other colleges use a writing supplement, or an entirely separate component of the Common Application, to list their essay prompts.

Submitted after the basic form and payment have been received, the writing supplement allows the applicant to break the process into two parts—the main application and a separate supplement—and to submit one part earlier in the process then the other.

"Last year, we had to chase after the writing supplements and remind students to submit them," said one Virginia-based admissions representative. "By putting our essays in the member pages, we hope to avoid that problem by asking them to submit everything in one document."

Both the member pages and the writing supplement allow colleges to probe deeper into applicant qualifications and interests by providing for the submission of a personal resume or uploads of papers or scientific abstracts. And they can ask the kinds of quirky questions—both short answer and full-on essays—that require an element of self-reflection on the part of the applicant.

Luckily, a number of well-organized colleges have already updated their websites and provided some information on what they will require in advance of the August 1st launch of the Common Application.

And note to admissions offices: this is a good thing. It helps applicants and those who advise them get started. And this is really important if your high school goes back into session sometime in the first or second week of August.

Here are some samples of Uncommon Application questions colleges will ask either on their member pages or on independently-submitted writing supplements (please check directly with the colleges or the Common Application):

Boston College
Boston College Nancy Griesemer

Boston College

Boston College, MA

Boston College
We would like to get a better sense of you. Please select one of the questions below and write an essay of 400 words or less providing your response.

1. What contemporary issues or trend relating to politics, culture and society, or foreign policy particularly concerns you and why?

2. Many human beings throughout history have found inspiration and joy in literature and works of art. Is there a book, play, poem, movie, painting, music selection, or photograph that has been especially meaningful for you?

3. Contemporary higher education reflects a tension between preparing for a meaningful life and preparing for a career. What are you looking for in an undergraduate education? Which emphasis is important to you at this moment and why?

4. "Magis", a Latin word meaning "more," is often cited in reference to the goals of Jesuit education, which seeks to help students become better, do more, and have as much impact on society as possible. How do you hope to achieve the Magis in your life?

Brown University
Brown University Nancy Griesemer

Brown University

Brown University, RI

Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated in our Member Section, earlier in this application? If you are "undecided" or not sure which Brown concentrations match your interests, consider describing more generally the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently. (150 word limit)

Tell us where you have lived - and for how long - since you were born; whether you've always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places. (100 word limit)

We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you. (150 word limit)

Why Brown? (200 word limit)

Duke University
Duke University Nancy Griesemer

Duke University

Duke University, NC

The following question is required for engineering applicants.

• If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words maximum)

The following question is required for Arts & Sciences applicants.

• If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words maximum)

The following questions are optional for all applicants to Duke University.

• Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)

• Duke will learn about your extracurricular involvement through the Activities section of the Common or Universal College Application. If you wish to include a brief resume you may include it here. (500 words maximum)

George Washington University
George Washington University Nancy Griesemer

George Washington University

George Washington University, DC

Please tell us what excites you about being a member of the GW community. (500 word limit)

Please respond to one of the following essays below in 250 words or less:


GW students have the opportunity to make history and create real change -- in the university, in the community, and in the world. As a member of the GW Class of 2019, how would you make your own history?


You have been invited to have dinner with George Washington where you have the opportunity to discuss anything. Summarize your conversation with him. You can include the questions you will ask him and what you hope to learn during your conversation.


You have spent the better part of the last year researching and visiting colleges and universities. Out of the thousands of schools, how did you identify GW as a good fit for your interests, talents, or goals

Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University Nancy Griesemer

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University, MD

Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 on a spirit of exploration and discovery. As a result, students can pursue a multi-dimensional undergraduate experience both in and outside of the classroom. Given the opportunities at Hopkins, please discuss your current interests—academic or extracurricular pursuits, personal passions, summer experiences, etc.—and how you will build upon them here.

Stanford University
Stanford University Nancy Griesemer

Stanford University

Stanford University, CA

Candidates respond to all three essay topics. (250 word limit for each essay.)

  1. Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. What matters to you, and why?
Tufts University
Tufts University Nancy Griesemer

Tufts University

Tufts University, MA

Short Responses (Required of all Applicants)

Think outside the box as you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.

  1. Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: “Why Tufts?” (50–100 words)
  2. There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood or community – and how it influenced the person you are today. (200–250 words)
  3. Now we’d like to know a little bit more about you. Please respond to one of the following six questions (200-250 words):

    A) From Michelangelo to Mother Theresa, from Jackie Robinson to Elizabeth Bennett, the human narrative is populated by a cast of fascinating characters, real and imagined. Share your favorite and explain why that person or character inspires you.

    B) What makes you happy?

    C) Sports, science and society are filled with rules, theories and laws like the Ninth Commandment, PV=nRT, Occam’s Razor, and The Law of Diminishing Returns. Three strikes and you’re out. In English, “I” before “E” except after “C.” Warm air rises. Pick one and explain its significance to you.

    D) Celebrate your nerdy side.

    E) Nelson Mandela believed that "what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead." Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference.

    F) Whether you are goaltending or cheering from the stands, celebrate the role sports plays in your life.

University of Chicago
University of Chicago Nancy Griesemer

University of Chicago

University of Chicago, IL

Essay Option 1.
What's so odd about odd numbers? Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009.

Essay Option 2.
In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness". In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.
Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
Inspired by Zilin Cui, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Essay Option 4.
Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)
Inspired by Joshua Harris, Class of 2016

Essay Option 5.
A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of "here", but we already know you're "here" to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any "here" besides that one).
Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016

Essay Option 6.
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

University Notre Dame
University Notre Dame Nancy Griesemer

University Notre Dame

University Notre Dame, IN

The Writing Supplement for First Year applicants seeking Fall 2015 enrollment will include the following directions:

Your responses will be read by Notre Dame admissions staff as we seek to learn more about you. We encourage you to use personal examples, anecdotes, or anything that helps differentiate you from your peers.

Please provide a response between 150 and 200 words to the following question. (required)

  • Why Notre Dame?

Please select two of the following four prompts and provide a response between 150 and 200 words to each.

  • A good story starts with a good beginning. Get us hooked in the first 150 words.
  • Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, described education as “the art of helping young people to completeness.” How are you incomplete?
  • Notre Dame students are encouraged to learn through discovery by interacting with the world around them. Describe your ideal intellectual field trip.
  • Initiate an in-person conversation with someone whom you've never met but who you think might be interesting. What did you learn about that person or yourself?
University of Virginia
University of Virginia Nancy Griesemer

University of Virginia

University of Virginia, VA

1. We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • College of Arts and Sciences - What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
  • School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - U.Va. engineers are working to solve problems that affect people around the world, from our long-term water purification project in South Africa to continuing to research more efficient applications of solar power. However, most students start small, by using engineering to make a difference in daily life. If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make your everyday life better, what would you do?
  • School of Architecture - Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
  • School of Nursing - Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.
  • Kinesiology Program - Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.

    2. Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • What’s your favorite word and why?
  • We are a community with quirks, both in language (we’ll welcome you to Grounds, not campus) and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
  • Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the U.Va. culture. In her fourth year at U.Va., Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
  • While a student at U.Va., Fulbright Scholar Rowan Sprague conducted groundbreaking research aimed at protecting the complex structure of honeybee hives. We know that colonies include bees acting in a diverse range of roles, all equally important to the success of the hive. What role will you play in the U.Va. hive?
  • To tweet or not to tweet?
Villanova University
Villanova University Nancy Griesemer

Villanova University

In addition to the essay included with the Common Application and as part of Villanova's Member Section of the Common Application, Villanova requires that you submit one Villanova Essay (of approximately one type-written page) from the two choices below. This essay is an important part of your application as it provides us with an opportunity to gain more insights into your candidacy.

Villanova Essay Question-Choice One:

One of the core values of Villanova, as an Augustinian university founded on the teachings of St. Augustine, is that student and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Villanova community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others?

Villanova Essay Question-Choice Two:

Emblazoned on our University Seal is a flaming heart which symbolizes St. Augustine’s passionate search to know God and love others. What sets your heart on fire?

Yale University
Yale University Nancy Griesemer

Yale University

Yale University, CT

The Yale-specific questions will include one additional required essay for all applicants, and one optional essay for prospective engineering majors. The essay prompts for the 2014-2015 Yale Writing Supplement are as follows:

Yale Writing Supplement required for all freshman applicants:

  • In this second essay, please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits.

We ask that you limit your essay to fewer than 500 words. Before you begin, we encourage you to go to, where you will find helpful advice.

Optional essay for prospective engineering majors:

  • If you selected one of the engineering majors, please write a brief third essay telling us what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you.
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