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Changes Coming to Common College Application Next Year

While high school seniors are busy completing The Common Application for college admissions, this time next year the standard online form will look a bit different.

Students will no longer have the option of writing an essay on the topic of their choice. Instead, the application will feature four or five new questions each year.

And no rambling. The system will prevent students from submitting an essay of more than 500 words. Students will cut and paste the text, rather than upload the document to enforce the 250-to-500 word range.

(The Common App, an association that provides online college applications, had experimented for a few years with unlimited essay lengths, but returned to the 500-word max last year.)

The changes were necessary to accommodate the increased volume of the applications, according to Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Arlington, Va.-based organization. The revision process is being guided by a 15-member Outreach Advisory Committee, comprised of school-based and college-access counselors representing students from diverse backgrounds. "These counselors have the goal of identifying at least one new essay prompt that is broad enough to permit students to address situations of personal significance but not so broad as 'Topic of your choice,'" Anderson said in an email response.

Last year The Common App processed 2.8 million online applications from 663,000 applicants — and Anderson expects those numbers to continue to rise (perhaps 15 percent this year) as more institutions join the association. The average student submitted about four applications. Currently, there are 488 colleges and universities participating in The Common Application. Applications processed by The Common App have nearly doubled in the past five years.

About 36 percent of students opted to write about a topic of their choice last year in the essay portion of the form, followed by 33 percent who chose to address a significant experience or ethical dilemma, according to Anderson. Another 17 percent wrote about a person of influence.

The essay length enforcement creates a "level playing field (to the extent that is possible) for all applicants," said Anderson. "An enforced limit is not open to interpretation. Going forward, well-counseled students will be playing by exactly the same rules as their uncounseled or under-counseled peers."

The Common Application is rolling out other changes to its system, marking its first major revisions since 2007. Some modifications will make it easier for students to navigate the form, such as fewer questions per screen, sidebar help for each question, and at-a-glance progress checks. The changes were announced at the annual conference of college admissions counseling professions in October. The complete presentation can be viewed here.

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