What to know about this year’s Common Application

Finding an authentic voice is crucial for your college admissions essay, says Story2's Carol Barash.
Finding an authentic voice is crucial for your college admissions essay, says Story2’s Carol Barash. Photo Credit: amNewYork/Jimmy Margulies

The school year hasn’t started yet, but for many rising high school seniors, college may already be on the brain.

This month, the Common Application opened its 2015-2016 application, which is accepted by more than 500 schools.

We chatted with Carol Barash, founder of Story2, an NYC-based ed tech company that helps students and trains educators across the globe on how to write authentic college admission essays, about changes to this year’s application and how to best approach it.

How important is the college essay?

The essay is the most important factor in college admissions after your academic profile and your first-level standardized test — the SAT or ACT. Among the most competitive colleges, the essay is the first or second most important factor because pretty much everyone who applies to those places is academically qualified.

What are admissions officers looking for in the essay?

Admissions officers say there are three things they’re looking for: a unique perspective, strong writing and an authentic voice.

What were the essay prompt changes?

They changed the fourth question from a question about a place you feel safe [content] to a question about a project. The question about place, students couldn’t pull it off successfully. The new question allows students to talk about their grand plans. I think the problem with the new question is most high school students don’t think like that. I think it has this danger of drawing out these adult-sounding essays. The first essay prompt — tell us a story without which we wouldn’t know you — admissions officers say it produces the most solid essays, and I still think that’s the best way to go.

Should students do any optional components?

There is one essay that’s optional that should only be used sparingly, and that’s the additional information on the Common Application itself. That’s just really if you have some anomaly — such as from 10th to 11th grade you switched schools, so your record is a little different, that should explain that. But supplement essays for a specific college — a lot of those are optional, and we advise students to always do them. Whether it’s talking about what community means to you, or an activity that has really helped inform an understanding of some aspect of yourself, any college that asks that on a supplement wants to know.

How many drafts should you expect to write?

Never more than three. There’s the first one — you’re getting it out, and we have students do that by telling the story out loud. Then there’s the big edit to rearrange the pieces so the structure is in place. The third is sentence by sentence going over everything that’s in there — the strongest details, the most specific dialogue. Then have someone who won’t overcook it make sure the spelling is OK and there’s no huge grammar mistake. It shouldn’t be overcooked. It’s better to be a little raw than make it sound like everybody else. I think the danger is a lot of students over-edit their essays and take something that was really interesting and a little edgy and over-edit it to make it safe. Then they just sound like everybody else and the whole purpose of the essay is lost.


The 2015-2016 Common Application Prompts

Students choose one of these essays to respond to:

  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, then 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.