Unacceptable Changes to the Common Application for College Applicants

Beginning this fall, the Common Application is imposing a strict 500-word limit on the personal statement. While our students have always complied with college essay word limits, many applicants ignore directions and upload longer essays. We at Ivy Coach have no issue with word limits, but we do have an issue with what the Common Application is proposing to do to enforce it.

When students were able to upload either a .doc or a .pdf, they had room for more creativity. Applicants will now have to paste their personal statement into a box. This is an issue because it restricts students from doing fun things with a document. Our students have included photos of their artwork, they’ve used math symbols in explaining a problem, and they’ve drawn pictures. One student wrote an essay about how she re-captions The New Yorker cartoons and included some of her cartoons in her uploaded essay. By “confining students to a box,” we eliminate that originality of thought. So to enforce the word limit, we suggest keeping the upload, but having a warning — maybe something like this: “Please write an essay between 250 and 500 words. If your essay does not adhere to these limits, we will know since our computers are also capable of counting words.”

Another change of even greater importance is the elimination of the question “topic of your choice.” Here is a tremendous opportunity for applicants to demonstrate their creativity. Our student who wrote about re-captioning The New Yorker cartoons could only have submitted this essay for “topic of your choice.” Some of our students’ best essays — college essays that have been complimentarily referred to in “likely letters” — only fit “topic of your choice.” Without this option, universities will be left with more cookie-cutter college essays and a homogenized student body. While there has been an outcry from admissions deans, guidance counselors, and private college counselors to not make these changes, the monopolistic Common Application, Inc., with its 488 subscribers, is not listening.

Yes, there’s another application — the Universal College Application — but this organization is not competitive since it has only 44 member institutions. Furthermore, it’s our understanding that subscribers to the Common Application pay an annual fee plus a per application charge. If a member institution doesn’t subscribe exclusively to the Common Application, they are charged an additional fee. Talk about restraint of trade! Logic dictates that when Ohio State, with its 26,000 applications, and the University of California, with its 150,000 applications, joined the Common Application for next season, the corporation obliged by making modifications that made the Common Application similar to those used by big state universities. Other state universities are now more likely to join.

We urge the Board of Directors of the Common Application to rescind these changes and allow applicants to express the creativity that deans of admission want to see. We urge the Board to read their own website: “The Common Application is a not-for-profit organization that serves students and member institutions…”


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