Common App streamlined, limiting creativity

November 18, 2012 — by Sierra Smith and Dylan Jew
Photo by Carol Suh

Most current seniors are familiar—perhaps more than they would like to be—with the Common Application, a universal online application used by over 450 colleges and universities across the nation.

Most current seniors are familiar—perhaps more than they would like to be—with the Common Application, a universal online application used by over 450 colleges and universities across the nation.

The Common Application streamlines the application process by giving students the opportunity to submit their personal information to multiple colleges at once. The application is fairly straightforward, separated into different sections and finalized by an online signature.

One of the most important sections of the Common Application is the writing section. It includes a 1,000-character short response about an extracurricular activity and a 250-500 word essay, which requires students to choose one of six topics, including a topic of their choice.

With each year, more and more colleges and universities are joining the Common Application system, which has forced it to adapt to the influx of applications by streamlining the process.

Their approach? Removing the “topic of your choice” essay option next fall.

However, the “topic of your choice” is very popular, with 36 percent of Common Application users choosing it, according to Common Application Director of Outreach Scott Anderson. The removal of the free choice topic could limit an applicant’s creativity when writing their essays. This topic previously allowed students to combine multiple topics or write about a special personal experience that did not fit into another category.

The removal of this essay choice is unnecessary and will detract from future applications. Because the “topic of your choice” option has the same word limit as the other topics, reading these essays takes no longer than reading that of any other topic. In fact, essays that allow students to be more creative could be more interesting to read than those restricted to a mold. Application processors already have to review a huge volume of similar applications; now they will have to read essays about the same few topics as well.

Along with the universal portion of the Common Application, many colleges have their own unique supplemental section. These usually contain questions only pertinent to that college, which allow colleges to personalize the application and see whether a student is a good fit for the school.

While colleges can use this section to get more creative responses than the new, restricted personal statement, there are so many different supplementals for each college that students are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of essays they are required to write. Most applicants spend the most time on the personal statement, since it affects every college, as opposed to the individual supplement of each college.

The personal statement should be just that—personal. If students are unable to express themselves fully through one of the five restrictive topics, the essay would not be able to represent the student as well as it could.

The Common Application’s attempts to condense the application process are justified, but they could be achieved in a different manner. With the amount of applications filed possibly exceeding 10 million by the end of the decade, according to the New York Times, the application must be as simple as possible. However, a surplus of applications should not cause students to lose opportunities to be creative.

The hope is that by the time the Common Application has to face such a large number of applications, there will be sufficient technology so the system can handle the high volume while giving applicants full liberty in their writing.  In any case, colleges shouldn’t resort to restricting students’ creativity to make the admissions process easier on themselves.

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