Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Next Year’s Application Season Begins!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The 2014 college application season officially ended this past Tuesday, when the last of the highly selective schools announced their decision at the end of the school day.  This has traditionally given school counselors time to mull over the decisions, support the students who received disappointing news, consider the trends and what they mean for next year’s class, and prepare for the senior awards ceremony in peace.

And then, there’s next year.

The same day the last of the decisions were dropped, Common Application announced changed toothier essay prompts for next year (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Common Application Board of Directors).  The new prompts were expected earlier in this year, but Common Application engaged its members and other in an extensive survey about the current essay prompts, trying to seek direction from those most familiar with them to see what, if anything, needed to be changed.

It turns out the current prompts were doing a pretty good job.  According to a post on the Common App blog, 82% of Members (remember, all members are colleges) thought the current prompts were doing a good job in the application process, and 90% of school counselors and others polled agreed.  That may leave room for growth, but given colleges have the option of adding their own prompts, it’s notably good that 4 out of 5 think the general Common App prompts are doing their job.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth.  Based on survey results and discussions with key focus groups, Common App modified two of the prompts, and replaced the one prompt deemed most ineffective with something a little more precise.  Here are this year’s prompts—changes are in italics:
  1. 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, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?  Would you make the same decision again?
  4.  Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma- anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Early counselor response to the changes has been positive, with particular delight expressed about the new prompt, prompt 4.  Early speculation is that this question will really ring a bell with analytical thinkers and STEM students as the other prompts do not.  The prompt also leaves room for the student-philosophers to provide an answer that takes on a more global, humanitarian perspective.

Both colleges and counselors are expressing relief at the removal of the prompt asking students to describe a place where they are content.  Many colleges felt that prompt didn’t reveal enough about the student, while counselors said there were just too many responses that talked about the student’s bedroom, or in many case, the shower.  Perhaps some students will use the new prompt to solve the problem of making the rest of the world as content a place as their bedroom. 

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