How The College Essay Has Changed With The Digital Age

Sep 16, 2013

A lot rides on a college application essay. Admissions officers look for honest, true and thoughtful stories.

School just started, but already high school seniors are focused on college. With early admission deadlines looming, students are beginning a new rite of passage: conquering the college application and, with it, the dreaded college application essay.

As competition for acceptance to top schools increases, students began applying to more and more schools.  So many now turn to the Common Application, a not-for-profit organization, developed in 1975 to help cut down on the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete. This one application is accepted at nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country. 

So when something changes on the application, it’s big news; it affects thousands of students, all hoping and competing for their dream school. But changes to the application may also indicate a changing tide, on college campuses and perhaps in society.

This year’s biggest change is to the essay. Despite the rapid increase in abbreviations, emoticons and whole stories told in 140 characters or less, this year’s Common Application has increased its word limit from 500 words to 650. In other words, colleges want to know more about their applicants.  And not more details, but rather a narrative with depth, insight, profundity.

And therein lays the conflict. Students know what is at stake. They need to be memorable but honest; smart but not pretentious; funny but not silly. And the indecision and insecurity can lead to bad essays.  Too often, applicants make the mistake of trying to write about every accomplishment – every medal, trophy and extra credit point they ever earned – settle for a cliché topic, avoid expressing an opinion or neglect to take a stand.

Admissions officers read essays for up to twelve hours a day. They are looking, and probably wishing for, essays that are different, essays that stay with them.  So really, the best advice for someone sitting at a blank screen, suffering paralyzing self-doubt and writer’s block, is to relax and tell a story.

A Personal Story

Traditionally, admission officers want to know who you are, how you think and what you can bring to their school. But this year’s essay topics are more personal, more probing and more direct. Among the questions, the Common Application asks students to write how experiencing failure shaped them, about a moment that symbolized the beginning of adulthood, or a time that they challenged a belief or idea.

In other words, colleges and universities want to hear about a pivotal moment; they want to read about applicants' personal, psychological and/or moral growth.  They want to know that the applicants themselves know that they are different. Because in the paradoxical era of oversharing – photos, intimate details, our whereabouts, etc. – while undercommunicating, we actually know less about who we are and what we think. 

We spend a lot of time documenting our experiences and very little time considering how they shape us.  Perhaps the Common Application will help change that, if only for college application season.