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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/10/2010

A head start on college applications for fall 2011?

By Valerie Strauss

I do not advocate using the following information to get your kids to start early on their 2010-11 college applications.

But in the interests of transparency, I will tell you that the people who run the Common Application--a generic application to college accepted at nearly 400 schools--have told guidance counselors that the essay prompts on this year’s application will be carried over for next admissions season.

That means that today’s juniors who will be applying to college for entry in fall 2011, can know now what essays they can write (see below) if they use the Common Application.

The reasons for spending no time on this now are obvious: Juniors have enough to do just being juniors, and their thinking about themselves and their goals is likely to undergo some development as senior year gets closer. But that, no doubt, won't stop some kids from starting early anyway.

It was hoped when the Common Application was developed in 1975 that it would be easier for students to apply to college. Many kids apply to multiple schools, sometimes as may as a dozen, and before the Common App, each school required that students fill out their own applications with their own essays.

Students can fill out the Common App and send it to one of the 391 schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia that use it, including institutions that are small and large, public and private, highly selective and otherwise.

But things are not as simple as they sound.

For one thing, as a result of the rise of the Common App, applications to many schools have skyrocketed, making a lot more work for admissions offices.

The University of Chicago, for example, this past admissions season got 19,306 applications, a 42 percent jump from the year before (and will accept 19 percent of applicants), the Chicago Tribune reported. One of the reasons the school gave for the increase was the fact that the school had started using the Common Application a year before.

With a few thousands colleges and universities in the country, the majority still don’t use it. Not on the list of institutions using the Common App are numerous state schools, including the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan, the University of Colorado at Boulder and any of the schools in the University of Texas system.

Furthermore, even schools that allow students to submit the Common Application also ask for supplemental information, often including additional essays.

For example, the University of Virginia’s Web site says that it accepted the Common App for this fall but also asked students to provide additional information and write separate essays.

Here were the required essays for first-year applicants to U-Va:

1. We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.
College of Arts & Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.
Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?
Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

2. Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:
--What is your favorite word and why?
--Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.
--Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.
--“We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex.” Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s assertion.

The Common Application essay prompts for the current admissions seasons--and now for the next--are:

SHORT ANSWER
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below or on an attached sheet. (150 words or fewer)

PERSONAL ESSAY
This personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. Choose one of the following topics. (250 words minimum)

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 their importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of Choice

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
If there is any additional information you’d like to provide regarding special circumstances, additional qualifications, etc., please do so in the space below of on an attached sheet. (No word count provided)

If any of you or your children have used the Common Application and individual college applications, tell us the difference?

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions, college applications  
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