Wednesday, February 17, 2016

This admissions round was a frenetic one for me, and likely frenetic for admissions officers too, given the increase in numbers of apps at most schools. NACAC reports that more than three-quarters of American colleges and universities, and almost all of the 100 schools with the lowest admit rates, reported a marked increase in applications over the past five years. This can affect who is admitted in more than the obvious ways; deferrals of highly qualified candidates, many admitted but just a little later in the admissions round, are commonplace, more so far this year than in recent years.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, it's time to start thinking about the Class of 2017! The Common App admins recently made their annual pronouncement regarding the essay prompts for the 2016-17 admissions round. I also have some thoughts about the report released a few weeks ago by Harvard's Graduate School of Education regarding how admissions officers should be evaluating applicants in the future. I will address that topic and the related interest in the idea of having students build an application portfolio next week.

The Common App admins have decided to keep all the prompts from last year's round. Almost 50% of those who submitted a Common App selected the first prompt: "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story." 22% chose the 5th prompt: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family" and less than 5% chose the third: "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"

While I am glad the admins have elected to keep the prompts from last season, I think the reason the first prompt is the most frequently chosen is that some students feel compelled to use the essay to provide more information about a specific accomplishment because there is inadequate space elsewhere in the app, especially in the extracurricular section. Forced brevity in the EC list section requires students to leave out what might be compelling details. A student who participated in a science research project and wishes to share details about that work but also unwinds at the end of a stressful day by constructing buildings with Legos will have to choose one to write about. I think bringing back the 250 word essay on the most meaningful extracurricular activity would free up students to write about something a bit more personal in the main essay. The essay is not meant to regurgitate elements found elsewhere on the app. Rather, it is meant to give students a chance to share something that sets them apart from the other thousands of applicants with the same scores, rigor and GPA.

Students need to stop thinking of themselves as "boring", or that they "haven't really done anything interesting." Everyone has a story to tell. It's just a matter of finding it. So, I am happy to have the same familiar prompts with which to work this next round but if I could change the Common App in another way, I think it would help students enormously with showing all their facets. I wish the Common App didn't require students to try and capture 17 years of life in such a limited space. There's always next year...