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Allen Grove

The Common Application Essay Requirements for 2012 - 2013

By May 15, 2012

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The Common Application gained 37 new members for the 2012-13 application cycle. That means that there are now 488 colleges and universities that accept the Common Application. A growing number are public institutions. Most of the country's top universities and top liberal arts colleges accept the Common Application.

The Common Application evolves from year to year in an effort to best meet the admissions needs of member institutions. For the 2012 - 2013 application cycle, however, the changes are minor. Like last year, the essay needs to be in the 250 to 500 word range. The 500 word maximum was a change that has many critics -- 500 words isn't much space in which to present a fleshed-out idea -- but the hope is that admissions officers won't have to slog through so many long, rambling, poorly edited essays (learn more in this article on essay length).

The Common Application went live late on July 31st, and now is a good time to start working on your essay. The actual essay options have not changed since last year. In 250 to 500 words, students should respond to one of these prompts:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

You can sign up to use the Common Application on the Common Application website.

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July 5, 2011 at 9:11 am
(1) Robert Schwartz says:

Great article, Allen! I look forward to your opinion on the changes to the College App. My phone is already ringing with parents wondering how they will navigate these changes, especially the ones happening to the essay portion of the app.

As the owner of a company that assists applicants with their essays, I know all too well how important those 500 words are. Although some argue grades are test scores are given greater weight, those essays can really make a difference.

Looking forward to your future articles on these and other subjects.

Robert Schwartz
Pres, yourbestcollegeessay.com

August 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm
(2) Mary says:


Criminey!!! If this is the way you edit essays for your clients, they are in a much bigger trouble than if they did it themselves …
“Although some argue grades ARE test scores are given greater weight …….”

October 5, 2011 at 10:44 am
(3) Josh says:

Hey Mary!

Holy smokes!!!! If this is the way you post comments for random people who are just trying to leave an informative and supportive comment, perhaps you shouldn’t be on the internet!
And also, if that is the way YOU speak, perhaps you shouldn’t act high-and-mighty about other people’s grammar, hmmmm?
(‘They are in A much bigger trouble?’ Nice.)

October 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm
(4) Matt says:

Haha good stuff ^ Love to see people sticking up for people.

October 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm
(5) Fyodor Dostoevsky says:

What’s coming for 2012? The common app essay is reduced to a choice between a Haiku poem, a list of your five favorite songs, or a grocery shopping list you found in your Mom’s purse?

500 word limit is ridiculous. A better plan by the college admissions folks is to still allow 750-1000 words, but have the discipline to simply toss any essay at whatever point it stops holding your attention. Some applicants will doubtless create riveting prose that even after 1000 words you wish would continue. Others fall flat on the opening sentence.

Inevitably, the colleges that want to truly see writing samples will now either start accepting the SAT writing test, or will simply add in a supplemental essay of 1000 words. Either way, it stinks.

July 22, 2012 at 6:39 am
(6) abuffl says:

I disagree with “Fyodor”. Editing and being concise is such a valuable skill – limiting to 500 words increases the difficulty of the task and proves a better read. Editing down to 500 words, and saying it all in that short space, forces students to really focus and write well. Can you imagine reading the crummy ramblings and repetitive statements otherwise? It’s not like English, it is like social studies. Just the facts m’am, just the facts.

October 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm
(7) fredric williams says:

Admissions officers are looking for a cookie-cutter that will produce diversity from people of almost identical intelligence, skills, age, and education. The essay, like the SAT, is 500-words, not because Montaigne or Bacon or a hundred other more recent essayists wrote brilliant 500-word essays, but because teachers like formulaic essays and are comfortable teaching simple structures.

As my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher told her, all essays should have five paragraphs. He had been teaching for 20 years and perhaps never bothered to read an essay outside of his classes.

Real writers are capable of producing essays of any length — and the great ones from Charles Dickens on — can fit great essays into a box of a specific size. A real college, however, would not create a set of boxes and then judge candidates by their ability to fit into a box. We have no real colleges these days — just diploma mills.

December 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm
(8) Admissions Advice Online says:

As a former admissions officer, I can confidently say that essays are 500 words for several reasons. 1) Time constraints. Many colleges receive thousands of applications each cycle. More than 50% of our time is spent reading applications and group discussions about applications. 2) Structure – Students want structure. If essays were allowed to be any length, which some schools permit, you will have some students submitting hundreds of pages of writing. Furthermore, we would receive thousands of emails asking us if something was too long or not. 500 words works well because it is enough for anyone to get a point across to let us know something else about themselves that is not conveyed elsewhere in the application. Expert Admissions Advice From Former Admissions Officers

August 8, 2013 at 6:28 am
(9) hashmat says:

Which is the last date for common application

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