In April 2011 I reported on a new 500-word limit for college personal statement, enacted by the Common Application. In that article I wrote, “Students are now requested to write 250-500 words on their chosen topic.” I now realize how loaded two words in that sentence were: requested and chosen.

Come August 13, 2013, two important changes will take effect in the Common Application: (1) The 250-500-word (**UPDATE: Word limit was updated to 650 words for 2013-14 as of September 2013) bookends will be enforced, not requested; and (2) although students will still be able to choose a topic, the topics will be much more constrained—the “Topic of your choice” option is going to be eliminated from the array of essay questions.

The Up Side

I am personally pleased with these changes to the rules. After all, what’s the point of a suggested word limit without any modicum of enforcement? It has bugged me, quite honestly, that even though there is a 650-word requested essay length, students have been writing essays of 750 words or more and getting admitted. Writing a 650-word essay is a challenge and requires students to rise to the occasion. Shorter essays, by their nature, must use more creativity and hold more focus—challenges that can prove the writing prowess of any college applicant.

I have also been bothered by the logic of having several essay topics to choose from, and then a separate question allowing the applicant to write on a topic of his or her choice. Why is there not just one question that asks students to write about a topic of their choice, with some suggestions of topics they might choose? Eliminating the catch-all forces students to be creative and to prove that they are able to answer a specific question posed to them. No one gets off the hook here.

Protests Abound

According to the comments on the NYT blog, I am in the minority. Concerned commenters express their opinion that eliminating the open essay question tamps down on creativity and limits the student’s “voice”; one post suggests that admissions committees will not be able to get to know applicants in a meaningful way without this essay topic. Almost everyone expressed upset at the changes.

On the other end of the spectrum, one person commented, “If a student can’t creatively respond to a prescribed prompt, THAT is the problem—not the prompt.”

I agree. Furthermore, I find that many of my students, given the opportunity to write on a topic of their choice, end up writing an essay that would have been appropriate for one of the other prompts—for instance, a person that influenced you or a topic of importance. One parent observed the same phenomenon with her son.

Here’s the comment I submitted:

… I love this change. From my perspective, the best display of a student’s writing ability is how the student responds to a restricted question. Does she take on the topic in a way no one else did? Can he be creative and focused in a word-limited essay? Does the essay answer the question? It might be worth noting that in many classes, essay and paper topics are prescribed. I don’t remember “topic of your choice” essays in English 101. It’s likely that this Common App change is meant to test applicants’ ability to perform in their college classes. And schools can still request a supplemental essay if they want to see an additional layer of creativity.

Encouraging Challenge and Creativity

And after submitting my topic, I saw this additional comment by someone who agrees with me: “By removing “topic of choice,” the Common App challenges applicants by forcing them to think creatively under constraints. Anyone can ramble on about whatever they want, but a truly successful and creative writer can surprise the reader under tight restrictions. It’s the same as writing under certain poem structures–even though you have to follow the rules, you can still express yourself. This is the same reason I think enforcing the word count is a good idea, because it forces applicants to writes as effectively as possible.”

What do you think about these changes? Do you have a student who will be affected by them (or one who is applying to college this year and thus gets in “under the wire”? Please share your thoughts below.

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