The Common Application (aka the “Common App”) streamlines applying to over 900 schools both in and outside of the U.S. and is the most popular platform for college applications in the country. While the process of filling out the application remains fundamentally the same year-to-year, there were some changes to the application made in early 2021 that will take effect on August 1st and influence students in the upcoming cycle. Read below for our insight into what applicants need to know.
Personal Statement Prompts
Below are the prompts for the main essay that is required on the Common App. There is a 650-word limit regardless of the prompt the applicant chooses.
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.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
These have all been on the application before, except for prompt 4. After 5 years of repeating the same 6 prompts, the Common App introduced a new question about a new subject: gratitude. This will replace the prompt that asks students to “describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.”
It’s unclear exactly why this change was made, especially since this prompt tended to be a favorite among STEM students who could describe their research goals, but my guess is that it is reflective of the hardships of the past year and will allow students to write about the support systems they might have had.
There will be a prompt asking students to describe how COVID has impacted students. This change was put in place during the 2020-2021 cycle, but it will still be a part of this year’s application. Although this is not the place to write a brand new personal statement, it is a great chance to explain any declines in academic performance or obstacles you personally have overcome in the past year. Just be careful that you’re not repeating information from your personal statement if you chose to write about COVID (in fact, I’d recommend steering clear of COVID entirely when it comes to choosing a personal statement topic — read more here.)
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces (250 word limit)
Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you. (Students may wish to discuss shifting family obligations, education disruptions, ways they have helped others, or how they have used their time at home to pursue new interests. This question will not replace the preexisting Additional Information essay, which has a 650-word limit.)
Personal Information Questions
The Common App saw more applicants in the past year than ever before. In order to accommodate a growing number of diverse students, they have made changes to the personal information questions. Ideally, these questions will reduce the effect of bias or discrimination against a student and help level the playing field a bit. These changes are consistent for both first-year and transfer applicants.
Citizenship. The Common Application has expanded options for the question regarding a student’s citizenship, replacing the “Other (non-US)” option with more choices for international, undocumented, and DACA students. The question about a student’s alien registration number will be removed as well. While this shouldn’t actually change much for students who fall under these descriptors, it was likely the result of changes in the current political discourse and will hopefully make the process more comfortable.
Religion. They also removed questions about a student’s religious affiliation, but individual colleges have the option to re-add that to their supplemental questions.
Family information and occupations. They made questions about a student’s location and parent’s occupation, education, and employment status optional and removed parent and sibling questions. These questions have caused concern for parents of all different income levels and educational backgrounds since it does affect an admissions officer’s understanding of a student’s available resources. For instance, in the case of higher-net-worth families, admissions officers will be looking to see if the student went above and beyond their comfortable lifestyle to excel in their areas of interest and studies. This section also offers insight into a student’s legacy status at a particular school if immediate family members are alumni, which could give a student a leg up in the process, particularly at elite schools. Still, the more resources a student is able to access, the higher the expectations for their performance — a higher socioeconomic status and family connection to the school does not make up for an average student profile.
Gender and sex. Questions about a student’s gender will also allow them to specify their preferred first name and pronouns to be more inclusive of transgender students. In addition to a text box where students can specify their gender (as opposed to a drop-down list), the wording of the question has been changed from “sex” to “legal sex.”
Disciplinary violations. While it still may be required on school-specific supplements, the Common App has removed the question asking if a student violated a school disciplinary rule or the honor code. Students who answered “yes” were not only less likely to apply to college, but for many admissions officers, this would result in outright rejection.
Military discharge. Military veterans who are applying to college no longer have to answer a question about the nature of their military discharge. There is speculation that schools were using this military discharge to deny a student.
The Common App has added 40 more schools to their roster and included more detail about colleges and the academic programs they offer. There are also more search and filtering options, allowing students to find the schools they want to apply to faster.
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