Common App forbids freedom of expression

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The 2013-2014 academic year seems to be a year of changes. The fee for Advanced Placement exams has increased, a new culture section has been added to the AP Spanish Exam, and the global history regents might become optional for students to receive their high school diploma. And now, yet another change was just announced – the Common Application is removing the “topic of your choice” essay option.

For years, the Common App has represented a pillar of consistency in its essay topics. The suggested prompts never varied, and there was always the option of “topic of your choice,” which allowed applicants free reign for a maximum of 500 words. Starting this fall, the new Common App will be web-only with a strict 650 word limit (minimum is 250 words) and an entirely different set of essay questions.

The personal statement allows students to differentiate themselves from all the other applicants and allow the admissions officer to see beyond the numbers. A successful essay is one that most effectively captures the student’s voice and works the best when the applicant is given the freedom to speak passionately about what is important to him or her. The most obvious option would then be “topic of your choice.” The elimination of this prompt suppresses creativity as it forces students to develop essays within a limited framework, making student essays more common. Admissions offices will now have to read even more of the same half-dozen topics ad nauseum. Students going through the application process want to portray their individuality. The Common App is continuing to conform to the increasingly omnipresent idea of standardization in all things school related.

The Common App recently released five new essay prompts for the 2013-2014 admissions season. The first prompt, which asks for a story that is so central to the applicant’s identity that their application would be incomplete without it, seems to be the Common App’s compromise with students for the “topic of your choice.” So yes, one of the new questions does provide some flexibility, and yes, it is quite possible that students may be able to show their individuality within a limited framework. The question still remains however: what was the harm in allowing students to check off a box that indicated their essay did not fit the established choices?