This is a form letter that a college applicant might dream of sending out:
I have received your acceptance for admission, and I regret to inform you that I will not be attending your college in the coming years. As a senior in high school, I have applied to many other fine institutions to further my education, and, although yours ranks high among them, I’m afraid that you failed to qualify. Elimination under my system doesn’t mean that you are not qualified to educate other fine young men and women. It merely reflects the high caliber of colleges and universities competing for my attendance.Best wishes for your future.
Alas, that’s not how it works. Colleges make the decisions and send out the letters.
The decisions that colleges make are based on the applications they receive, the great majority of which are on the Common Application platform, known informally as the Common App. The main exceptions are in California, where students who aspire to attend a branch of the University of California or California State University need to submit a UC or CSU Application form.
All college applications collect the following standard information:
- Personal information (name, address, DOB, family, etc.)
- Demographic data
- Educational background (name of high school and current classes)
- Transcripts (with courses taken and grades, GPA, and class rank if available)
- SAT/ACT scores (required or optional)
- Extracurricular activities
- Letters of Recommendation
The most important factor in a college’s admission decision is the academic record. This consists of the student’s GPA and strength of curriculum in the context of the high school they attended. It may also include SAT/ACT scores and, in some cases, class rank.
Using the transcript, a college will calculate the student’s position on its Academic Index. If an applicant’s position on the Academic Index is above a certain point, they’re considered eligible for admission. Whether they’re actually offered admission depends on other factors.
The advice in this post on applications and essays is not meant for transfer students, who have a different set of prompts and deadlines to accommodate. These will be covered in a future post.
The Essay Is the Heart of the Application
Most students apply to college as a high school senior, so their academic record for admission purposes is set at the end of junior year. Extracurricular activities, for the most part, are also conducted prior to senior year. There’s only one component of their application that a student can still impact during the application process itself — the essay!
The essay is the best way for an applicant to convey how their experience, talents, and passions have shaped their personality and motivation. The applicant has a limited number of words to reveal something personal and intriguing about themselves. If the core message of the essay forms a gut-level connection with the person on other end — the admissions reader — the applicant will have a huge advantage over the competition.
The Common App
The Common App is a standard undergraduate application that a student can use to apply to any of the 950 colleges that accept it, which includes the most elite colleges in the country. The Common App is administered by The Common Application, Inc., a not-for-profit member association based in Arlington, Virginia.
The Common App went online in 1998, which made it simple and easy for applicants to apply to multiple colleges. Last year, just over 1 million students used the Common App to submit 6 million applications, indicating that each student applied to an average of 6 colleges with the Common App.
Increased application volume enables colleges to be more selective in admissions. Colleges at which the Common App has boosted both the volume and the quality of applicants have a greater need to rely on essays to differentiate among very well-qualified applicants who are all above the school’s Academic Index threshold.
Common App essays are written in response to prompts, which are questions designed to spark thinking. Prompts are open-ended so applicants can actually write about anything they wish. Rather than act as constraints, prompts serve as guides to writing an essay that will present an applicant as an individual rather than a number.
How an applicant frames their essay can vary, but the subject matter must be about the student — their community, environment, family, or culture; what makes them proud; the people and experiences that have shaped their lives; what they’re deeply curious about; how they spend their time, or a similar theme. Personal knowledge of the applicant helps colleges assess how well a student will fit in at their institution.
Common App Essays
In releasing the prompts for 2022-23, Scott Anderson, the Senior Director of Common App, stated that:
“This announcement is not an invitation to juniors to start writing. And it’s definitely not a signal that they start thinking about applying. Those things will come in time. We share this news in January because it’s when some schools begin conversations about college options. It’s a time for learning, reflecting, and planning. That’s where the prompts can be useful: in helping students understand the aspects of their lives that colleges are curious about.”
The Common App essay must be between 250 and 650 words in length. The essay prompts for 2022-23 are the same as 2021-22, as follows:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The University of California Application
Students seeking admission to a college in the UC system must use the UC Application, which has its own web portal and platform. A student’s UC Application will automatically be submitted to the campuses of the UC system indicated by the student. The Common App is not accepted.
SAT/ACT are not accepted by UC, which is test blind in the sense that they don’t consider test scores even if submitted. However, students are advised to prepare for and take one of the tests if they plan to apply to colleges other than UC or CSU.
The UC Application’s submission schedule is earlier than the Common App. A UC Application can only be submitted between October 1 and November 31. There is no early admissions cycle.
Although much of the same information is collected, the UCA differs from the Common App in that there isn’t only one essay. The UCA asks applicants to respond to four short Personal Insight Questions (PIQ’s) from a list of eight, with a 350-word limit on each answer.
The UCA instructions inform applicants that admissions readers seek focus and clarity in the answers to the PIQ’s. Unlike the Common App essay, writing style and grammar aren’t evaluated, although answers should be clearly written. Applicants should stress the matter of most concern to UCA admissions, which is, essentially, how the applicant plans to be successful in college and beyond.
The UCA PIQ’s for 2022-23 are as follows:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem-solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
The California State University Application
Like UC, the Cal State system uses their own application platform. Students must submit the CSU Application to be accepted at any of the Cal State campuses. The Common App is not accepted.
The CSA has a priority application filing period from October 1 to November 31 of 2022 for admission for fall semester of 2023. The term “priority” may be misleading. At Cal State campuses, the available freshman seats are filled on a first-come-first-served basis and the more popular campuses fill up fast. Applying early is advised.
Cal State does not require an essay as part of the application process. Like UC, SAT/ACT scores are not accepted by Cal State.
The Coalition Application
The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success was launched with much fanfare in 2016 by a group of colleges that included some of the country’s most elite institutions. Their purpose was to offer a better alternative to the Common App, which was perceived by administrators of the colleges to be deficient. However, due to a negative reaction from much of the college admissions community and its lackluster performance as an alternative, the Coalition App is now of secondary importance to colleges and applicants.
All colleges that accept the Coalition App also accept the Common App. The University of Washington in Seattle was the last institution to accept only the Coalition Application. They recently announced that they will no longer accept it, but have not yet announced which application platform they will accept in its place.
An applicant may prefer to use the Coalition App if they’re more comfortable with it than the Common App, but there’s no advantage in using one or the other. Colleges have no preference because the information that they receive is the same and the rules regarding essays are similar.
There are colleges that accept only their own application in order to weed out students who are not genuinely interested in their college. Georgetown is the most highly ranked example. Other colleges accept the Common App in addition to their own application. For example, Tulane used accepted only their own application form from 1834 until a few years ago when they also began to accept the Common App.
The Universal College Application is another shared application platform, but the 23 schools that use the platform also accept the Common App.
There are state university systems that use a general application form for admission to all schools in the system. An example is the State University of New York (SUNY), which has one form that allows students to apply to multiple schools. However, unlike the California systems, SUNY also accepts the Common App.
The Common App is for undergraduate and transfer admissions at 4-year institutions, so students applying to a community college will need to use the application that the school designates.
Admit you to College Essay Assistance Services
Admit you to College professional counselors are experts in assisting students in the development of college essays. Our essay services include setting college-specific strategies and brainstorming to expand on ideas. We offer workshops to give form to an essay and guide its drafting. Our consultancy offers revision and editing support with an Admit you to College Essay Specialist, who can also assist by being a project manager in the preparation and submission of essays.
We also assist is the development ofresumes for students. Although it’s not an essential part of an application, we advise students that submission of a strong resume has a positive impact on admissions decisions.