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Changes to the 2011-2012 Common Application and Supplements

The Common Application, referred to by many as the “Common App, allows college-bound students to apply easily to any of 463 currently participating schools using a standardized form and essay questions (some schools do require supplements; read the fine print!). Last year, nearly 2.5 million Common Apps were submitted by students from 205 countries, with the average student applying to more than four schools. With the addition of 49 new schools this coming application season, up from 414 schools last year, we expect to see even more students taking advantage of the Common App. However, be aware, significant changes have been made to this year’s edition. The expert counselors at IvyWise are here to explain these changes and what they mean for your application process.

Diversity
In an attempt to help college admissions officers create a diverse and well-rounded student body, the Common App has changed the layout of its language section to better capture proficiency levels. The new version allows you to list any languages with which you have some level of proficiency, and then indicate that proficiency in terms of speaking, reading, writing, first language, and language spoken at home.

Common App has also added new demographic and background questions. New topics include number of years lived outside the U.S., U.S. Armed Services veteran status, and an added option under parents’ marital status for a Civil Union/Domestic Partners.

Quality Over Quantity.
Though last year’s application saw an increase in the number of extracurricular activities a student could report (from seven to 12), this year those 12 activity spaces have been reduced to 10, with more room to write under each activity.

We do not encourage students to include a separate resume if the resume fits into the ten-grid line. If there are some important activities that get left out or require further explanation, you can add those to the Additional Information section.

“Sometimes students think an admissions officer wants to see lots of different extracurricular activities. But colleges are not looking for a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, Dr. Kat explains. It is better to show consistency and commitment in a few select activities that truly reflect your interests and talents. List these activities in order of their importance to you, and also, make sure to fully and accurately convey your involvement in each activity. In the past, users of the electronic version of the Common Application had to start over if changes needed to be made to the order of the activities list. The 2011-2012 version allows users to enter the information and then prioritize activities by moving them up and down within the list.

Keep It Short.
Instructions for the personal statement request an essay of 250-500 words – a change from the 250 words minimum requested in years past. The counselors at IvyWise advise that the 500-word cap can be dispensed with, but not completely ignored. The Common Application website will not cut you off at 500 words, and if an essay is well written, the application reader probably won’t stop reading. Do not significantly alter a good essay merely to adhere to the 500-word limit. Our counselors agree that in most cases one-page should suffice, but that up to 700 words will be okay.

The idea is to make every word count! The colleges are clearly stating through this implied limit that they don’t want to, or don’t have time to, read much more. Each individual reader will make their own decision, but given the volume of applications that an admissions officer is reading, less is often more. Says one IvyWise advisor, “I have never seen an 800 word essay that wouldn’t be better if shorter.”

With more students applying to more colleges each year, admissions officers may read thousands of applications. It is increasingly important to convey your personality and unique voice in a concise manner so that the reader gets a sense of you are and what you will contribute to a campus community. Choose a single incident or moment that defines who you are and write a focused and creative essay about it. Your essay should present information that cannot be found elsewhere in the application.

Activity Essay
Another change to the 2011-2012 Common Application was to the activity essay. The response area for the essay, which asks students to “please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below,”  had been reduced from allowing 1,000 characters (about 150 words) to 750 characters (about 125 words). Many students were surprised to see this change, as it was not indicated with other updates and changes that were announced in the spring. Realizing the notification error, the Common Application has rescinded the change as of August 21, 2011 and the application again allows for answers of up to 1,000 characters. For those students who have already submitted an application prior to this date, Scott Anderson, Director of Outreach to the Common Application says “once an application has been submitted, it cannot be retrieved for editing. However, the fraction of students who submitted a short answer response using the 750 character constraint can certainly create an alternate version with a new response for subsequent applications.

Supplements
In addition to the information and essays required in the Common App, many schools also require school-specific supplements. These supplements can vary significantly in length and content, but may request additional demographic information, essays, short answers, and more, that are specific to an applicant’s experience with each school. Here is a sampling of schools that have changed their supplement requirements for 2011-2012 admissions. (Note: The questions listed below reflect additions and changes and may not encompass all of the questions that appear on a supplement from one of these schools).

Brown University
Brown University‘s supplement includes several new questions aimed at helping its admissions officers get a sense of an applicant’s personality and goals, including:

  • Tell us where you have lived and for how long, whether you’ve always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places.
  • What is something you created that made you especially proud, and why?
  • We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you.

Brown receives many thousands of applications from students who are academically qualified to succeed as students at the university; Brown’s admission officers also want to know what a student will bring to campus beyond the classroom. These questions are clearly created to give students an opportunity to express themselves as a potential community member, beyond the resume. Judging from the limited amount of space applicants are given to answer each question, the admission officers seem to be looking for succinct responses, but also responses that show them what an applicant would add to the day-to-day campus vibe.

Columbia University
Columbia University has added three new short answer questions to its supplement. The first prompt reinforces Columbia’s focus on an applicant’s reading habits.

  • Please tell us what you found meaningful about one of the above mentioned books, publications, or cultural events.
  • Please tell us what academic class has been your favorite and why.
  • For applicants to Columbia College, please tell us what attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Application Data section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have interest at this time, but have not yet selected as a major interest.

Boston University
Boston University has changed the word limit on its Why BU essay from 500 words to 750 characters. BU has also expanded the choices for the essay question on its Common App supplement, offering four choices instead of one.

  • It is three weeks before the start of your freshman year at BU, and you are talking to your new roommate for the first time. Since you are trying to get to know each other, what are a few things you would want to share about who you are?
  • BU attracts students from more countries than are represented in the United Nations. Our global presence and reputation are important and are reflected in the perspectives, opinions, and experiences of our students. Why is this type of environment important to you?
  • While there is no typical BU student, our students have been described as smart, independent, innovative, and curious. What will you bring to this community?
  • BU has recently been named among the top 300 Green Colleges in the US. How do you see yourself contributing to BU’s sustainability initiative?

New York University
New York University has changed two of the three required short answer prompts on its supplement, which now read:

  • Why NYU?
  • What intrigues you? Tell us about one work of art, scientific achievement, piece of literature, method of communication, or place in the world (a film, book, performance, website, event, location, etc.), and explain its significance to you.

University of Southern California
New to the Common Application, the University of Southern California has adjusted the format and content of its application to fit in with Common App standards, eliminating its previously required essay and activity essay. The school’s supplement asks for students to address the following:

  • Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC. Please feel free to address your first and second choice major selections.
  • Quick Take Questions:
    • Describe yourself in three words?
    • Favorite food?
    • Favorite fictional character?
    • Greatest invention of all time?
    • What do you like to do for fun?
    • Role model?
    • Favorite book?
    • Best movie of all time?
    • Favorite musical performer/band or composer?
    • Dream job?

Remember, while the Common Application is a useful tool for applying to many colleges, it is important to look at each school you are applying to as the unique institution that it is. Know why you are applying to a particular school and focus on conveying that in your application. Put your best foot forward by also carefully following all directions for both the Common Application and each supplement. Best of luck from all of us at IvyWise!

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