Howdy reader. This is an update for 2015-2016: The Common App has once again changed its prompts, but this time they have largely tinkered with them, and the results are an improvement. To see this year’s prompts, look here: Application prompts 2015-2016.
What follows below remains here as a historical artifact that covers the politics and nature of changes to the Common App between 2012-2013. If that interests you, read on. If not, stick with my posts on this year’s prompts and look at my posts on topics of general interest, like how college applications are evaluated or how to write about a book.
This was my original subtitle for this post: How The Education Wars and Bureaucracy Wrecked a Pretty Good Thing.
The Old Common App prompts weren’t perfect, but they did offer a variety of choices, some of which were meant to look outward as much as inward, and the open choice prompt was a great way to inject some creativity.
But, as Heraclitus said, All is Change. Or Change is All. Either way, it’s time to start dealing with reality: in this post I will review the political forces behind the changes to the Common App essay prompts and begin my examination of the new prompts at the end of this post, with a discussion of the prompt on “a time you challenged a belief or idea,” with links to examples of this kind of essay, both in a long form journalistic style and in a short form, edited example on this topic, in the 500-word range.
I am already finding that my clients tend to dismiss this essay out of hand, because they have an image of people climbing up on the barricades and waving a flag or staging a peaceful takeover of the principal’s office as a protest. Not so, my friends. You don’t have to protest to challenge an idea. Read on through this post, to the end, to see what I mean.
In the natural world, variety is a good thing, generating both complexity and unpredictability. But in the world of the bureaucrat, unpredictability is a curse and monotony is a virtue.
Enter the new Common App prompts, which represent a massive die-off in variety both of subjects and skills explored in college application essays. These prompts are going to drive up the number of memoir-style, Woe is me, Look what I have overcome, My Life Lesson, Aren’t I a moral person kind of essays. At least this is the takeaway that many critics are offering, and I agree with it, for the most part. To understand the criticism, you should turn now to the new Common App Essay prompts, which, if you have not yet seen them, I have posted in this discussion: The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014.
As you can see, the topic choices may be summed up thusly: my identity; I failed (but learned from it); I rebelled (or at least resisted); I’m happy here (or there); I succeeded (and how). There is no more option six, which was basically to make up your own prompt and which, obviously, allowed for a lot of creative license. There is some good news in the midst of this, starting with the increase in word length, to 650, but keep in mind that this is a firm length–the process will be entirely electronic, and if your essay is 651 words, you will have to cut it down to submit it–just like all those corporate autofill forms that give an error message when you go over the character count. In addition, you must write at least 250 words–not much of a problem for most applicants.
Before I examine in more detail the bad aspects of the new Common App prompts, I’d like to put them in perspective and perhaps even offer them a word or two of praise–for their intent. In my view, this change in the prompts is not just to simplify essay evaluations .
Of course, it is a bureaucratic nightmare to evaluate and process anywhere from a few thousand to a couple of hundred thousand essays, and with fewer essay topics, theoretically it will be simpler to process the essays. But this is not the only motivation for the change in prompts. There is a political struggle going on as we speak, over what students should learn and how it should be tested. And the current trend is against both reading fiction and writing autobiography.
The first thing I would say for the Common App is that they do seem to be making a statement about the value of writing on personal experience, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position. We call works like those that will be elicited by the new Common App prompts “autobiography” or “autobiographical incident” or “memoir.”
But these are forms of writing that are held in very low regard by two of the other colossuses of the education landscape: The College Board and the Common Core movement. Or should I say they are held in low regard by the Common Core movement, led by David Coleman, and by the new president of the College Board, who is also David Coleman. Until last year, Coleman was primarily known as an educational consultant and entrepreneur and also as the primary architect of the new Common Core standards. But Coleman’s “reform” efforts denigrate the teaching of fiction in high schools and the writing of 1st person narratives in high schools. His dislike of autobiographical writing and of fiction in our classrooms has a common thread–I will address the value of fiction when I deal with supplemental prompts on books, focusing in this post on writing.
Here is what Coleman himself has said about autobiographical writing in high schools, quoted from an interview here:
David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”
I happen to think this is kind of dumb and reductionist–first of all in assuming that education is purely vocational, and secondly in assuming that everybody is going to be writing reports for a living. I add to that the fact that 1st person writing is a superb and respected way to process and analyze experience, dating all the way back through Augustine’s Meditations to Julius Caesar’s account of his military campaigns, and it can make you both more thoughtful and better at analysis. It can be narcissistic and trite, but that’s where the good teacher should be stepping in.
On the other hand, the Common App’s new and entirely 1st person topics, which are pretty much a rasberry in Coleman’s direction, are also a dumb move, a narrowing of the field that was not necessary and that, rather than making the processing of essays easier, will actually make it harder as so many essays will be both undistinguished and nearly indistinguishable. The trick for you in this situation, Dear Reader, is to avoid the narrow lanes that most application writers will take as they pour out their souls, (or perhaps make something up and pretend to pour out their souls). Try to think outside the cage they have created for you with these prompts.
So in that spirit, let’s start by looking at option three, A time when you challenged a belief or idea. This seems like a topic only suitable for rebels with a cause, but I disagree. As with any kind of essay, it is a good idea to have a look at some examples before attempting to write the essay–so I think we should turn first to an essay I linked last year, about a (mostly internal) dispute with a rabbinical teacher over the meaning and value of cartoon superheroes. It’s clear the author resisted the teacher’s condemnation of comic books and their heroes, but the protest is registered as a thought process. It’s an indirect form of resistance, in which he is showing how his world view was shaped, but he wasn’t standing up and calling somebody out publicly. You can, indeed, show yourself working through an idea and taking a stance against it without having to go out and pick up a protest sign for the sake of an essay (But hey, if you do want to go to a protest in order to write about it, go for it. Hemingway went off to war pretty much for the same reason. Just be sure you do have a preexisting commitment to the cause or it will show in your essay).
Have a look at the essay to see what I mean about indirect resistance. This is far longer than what you would write, but I discuss and analyze this and show how a long essay like this one can be cut down to fit the format you will deal with–See this: Superheroes. (If you can’t open this link it’s because you do not have a subscription to my private blog, which costs 15 bucks for the full application season, from now through April. Splice this address into an e-mail and contact me if you want a subscription and are willing to pay my minimal fee: email@example.com )
Then read my edit of this essay–I cut it down massively as an editing exercise in a way you will need to if you tend to write long essays: An Exercise In Editing. Notice how the author sits through this class, but outside of it dons his batman cape, all the while sharpening his own thoughts and strengthening his own beliefs in a campaign of unspoken resistance to his narrow-minded teacher. No barricade, no protest sign, no organizing. But a wonderful essay.
I will return to the Common App prompts and to this specific prompt again soon, with more advice and examples.