Look Out High School Juniors: Changes Are Coming to the Common App

Look out high school juniors! Starting next fall, applicants to college will face a new version of the Common App, featuring some surprising changes to the required essay rules.

Beginning August 1, 2013, students will no longer be able to select "topic of your choice" for their personal statement. Instead, students will choose from 4-5 new essay prompts that are set to change each year. The Common App will also drop the activities essay -- a short, supplemental paragraph that is required of all applicants -- and enforce strict limits on personal statement length. Students will now be required to write statements between 250-650 words, and any essay that is too long or too short will prompt an error message and will not submit.

For students applying to college next year, this announcement should echo back four resounding words: write less, but better. As I have expressed above, the Common App currently includes two writing assignments: a personal statement and an activities essay. Although most students know to begin the personal statement early and revise it several times, the activities essay -- which is limited to a measly 150 words -- is rarely given a second glance. Too often, it's slapped together in a rush and sits like squirrel guts splayed across a manicured lawn.

The Common App does not want to be sprayed with squirrel guts. It's a waste of everyone's time to read, to write, to submit an activities essay that was written without time and care. By eliminating the activities essay, the Common App is basically saying: "OK, Seniors. Write less, but write better. "

Let me say that one more time: write less, but better. This advice lies at the heart of the Common App's upcoming changes. By eliminating the activities essay, the Common App is essentially asserting that every piece of a student's writing should be thoughtful and polished or not submitted at all.

Similarly, removal of the "topic of your choice" prompt is meant to ensure that all students produce thoughtful, honest essays with a clear narrative and focus. This action, in other words, is NOT meant to curb creative freedom or limit the stories a personal statement can tell. (Want proof? Read through the new prompts, and try to think of a single topic that doesn't work with at least one of them.) New restrictions on personal statement length likewise help guarantee that students will submit writing samples that are both thoroughly developed and well-coiffed.

In 2005, the College Board added a writing section to the SAT. Why? Because succinct and skillful writing is, more and more, a critical skill for success in college and beyond. The upcoming changes to the Common App should serve as a similar reminder that well-developed writing skills will take students far in their quest for admission to selective colleges and universities.