Just over forty years ago, a handful of college admissions teams got together and decided to simplify the college application process. Their goal was to streamline applications by creating a single application for admission that they would all accept. They didn’t then know that their creation would ultimately be used by millions of college applicants each year and accepted by more than 700 institutions of higher learning.

 

The Common Application, which started in 1975 with just 15 schools, is now the most utilized college application form in the country. Last year, more than 3.5 million students used the application to apply for college.

 

Part of what has made the Common Application such a successful and widely accepted college admissions tool is the way that it has adapted over time to reflect changing standards and values in college admissions. Though many of the fine details or specifics have shifted, the Common Application itself remains wholly the same in its intent and spirit. At its core, the Common Application continues to reflect students as individuals, in and out of the classroom, offering the opportunity to highlight achievements and accomplishments, both traditional and less conventional.

 

How Has the Common Application Impacted College Admissions Overall?

Although the intent of the Common Application was to make applying to college a little easier, it also had another, unintended effect. As applying to college has become more streamlined due to the number of schools accepting a single application, the number of college applications received by many schools has skyrocketed.

 

A 2015 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling revealed that while only 9% of college applicants applied to seven or more schools in 1990, that number climbed to 36% by 2015. So, while the Common Application has indeed simplified the college application process, some worry that it’s become too simple, unintentionally encouraging students to apply to far more schools than they would otherwise.

 

Not to worry, though. While the increased number of applications does result in increased selectivity at some top schools, overall, the average acceptance rate for first-time freshmen has remained roughly the same. In fact, it has increased several percentage points since 2012, reaching an overall acceptance rate of 65.8% in fall of 2014. Though selective colleges may seem even more selective with the increased volume of college applications, the odds of getting into college as a first-time freshman are still largely in your favor.    

 

How Has the Common Application Changed Over Time?

In this post, in honor of Throwback Thursday, we’re taking it back—back to 2007. It’s ten years ago. Do you remember?

 

The housing bubble has finally burst. Potter-mania has crested with the debut of the seventh and final book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. Steve Jobs, in typical dramatic fashion, has unveiled the very first iPhone, and Barack Obama has officially announced his candidacy for president.

 

And, as continues to be the case to this day, the annual Common Application was rolled out in August, available online to students everywhere. In many ways, it was no different than it is today.  It still asked about high school course load, required the typical teacher recommendations, and collected information about test scores and class rank.

 

There are some subtle differences, though, that reflect both societal changes and some shifts in the specific values of college admissions. Here, we’ll break down a few of the most telling changes since 2007, and we’ll delve into how the essay prompts have changed over the past decade.

 

To learn more about how the Common Application has changed in the past ten years, keep reading.

 

Subtle Changes to Reflect a Changing America

Some of the smallest changes since the 2007 Common Application have the biggest impact for the students they affect. Making the Common Application more open has allowed it to better reflect students of all backgrounds and orientations. 

 

One of the most telling changes since 2007 is the gender field. Back in 2007, students simply checked off Male or Female in this field, and those who weren’t so sure were left with no other option. Now in 2017, the gender field is worded as “Gender Assigned at Birth” and later, students have the opportunity to provide more information in a short answer format, if they should choose to do so. This shift towards acknowledging that gender isn’t always so simple reflects a greater cultural approach to its fluidity.

 

Another subtle change on the Common Application comes in the citizenship section.  Back in 2007, students had to select their citizenship status and indicate which kind of visa they held, if they were not a U.S. citizen. Now, in 2017, students are given the option to select “U.S. Refugee or Asylee”. Further, the option “I do not know which visa I will hold” is available under the visa selections. These changes are clear responses to the current political climate and societal makeup of modern America, in which some residents are undocumented or have recently arrived as refugees or asylum seekers.

 

While these small changes reflect a changing America, some of the changes to the essay prompts reflect changing college admissions. Next, we take a closer look at these to get a better idea of how standards and priorities have shifted over the past decade.



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Changes to the Common Application Essay Prompts

The changes to the Common Application essay prompts are fairly subtle. Many prompts seem mostly the same, with only small changes in wording or focus. By looking closely at how these prompts have evolved, we can learn more about how the focus of college admissions has also shifted. Here, we compare three sets of essay prompts and how they have changed in the past ten years.

 

2007 Prompt: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2017 Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

 

Both of these prompts essentially ask the same thing. Here, you have the opportunity to reflect on your experiences and to expand on how one of them has changed you. In the 2007 prompt, you will notice that you are asked a more general question. You are asked to “evaluate . . . its impact on you.” This is a fairly broad prompt and could be spun in many different directions. You could choose to discuss how this experience made you feel, how you acted in response to it, or what you learned from it.

 

On the other hand, the 2017 prompt is more specific. It asks you to “discuss [something] that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” Here, while you’re still essentially asked to describe the same type of experience, your focus is slightly different. Now, you are asked to focus on how this event inspired personal growth and new understanding.

 

This more specific direction for your response is reflective of the current college admissions emphasis on how you have grown as a person and the insights you’ve been afforded through this growth. In short, colleges are generally less interested in your experiences themselves and more interested in how these experiences have motivated you to make positive changes in your life.

 

2007 Prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.   

2017 Prompt: 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? 

 

Here again you have two similar prompts. Both ask you to think of something that interests you and explain its importance. By looking at them a little more closely, though, you’ll find that the 2017 prompt offers a somewhat more holistic approach.

 

The 2007 prompt asks a fairly straightforward question. Essentially, you are to discuss any “issue” that is important to you. The 2017 prompt, though, is a little more inspiring. It specifically asks you to identify “a topic, idea, or concept” that engages you so deeply you lose track of time. Then, you are asked to describe why it is so captivating and how you pursue it. Further, it takes away the emphasis on an issue of “concern” and replaces it with an issue that “captivates”. This opens the doors for you to really explore any issue or interest that inspires or fascinates you, whether it’s generally considered an issue of concern or not. This means that your response isn’t limited to current events or world issues. Instead, your topic could be something as simple as your love for pizza or as complex as your pursuit of perfection in the 3-D printing of artificial limbs.   

 

Rather than focusing on what the issue is and why it is important, as the 2007 prompt does, the 2017 prompt emphasizes why you find it interesting and how you pursue that fascination independently. Essentially, instead of just getting a sense for the types of issues that matter to you, the college admissions team gets a sense for how you pursue knowledge. You get to share about your love of learning and how you take ownership of your own educational journey.

 

2007 Prompt: A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life’s experiences adds much to the educational mix. Give 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.

2017 Prompt: 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.

 

In these prompts, we see that students are invited to share something about themselves that might be of value to the greater college community.

 

In the 2007 prompt, the emphasis is clearly placed on diversity. While there is no specific definition of diversity provided, the assumption is that this particular quality is something that sets you apart from others in some way, whether that be through race, religion, sexual orientation, or simply a highly unique interest or experience.

 

The 2017 prompt takes away the emphasis on setting yourself apart and replaces it with an emphasis on individuality. This is a subtle shift away from comparing your experiences to others and towards a focus on who you are, regardless of who others are. Essentially, you are given the opportunity to describe anything that is integral to your individuality, whether or not it might be considered unique or diverse. Here, you describe what makes you, you. This shift towards individuality is a clear indication of the changing college admissions focus.

 

While much of the Common Application has remained the same over time, it has adapted to reflect our changing society and some subtle shifts in the focus of college admissions. Comparing it to iterations from years past reveals the 2017 Common Application as a socially progressive reflection of open-mindedness and individuality. Here, you are invited to emphasize your unique interests, quirks, and pursuit of knowledge.

 

If you’re getting ready to apply to colleges, but you’d like some help focusing your applications, consider the benefits CollegeVine’s Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to perfect your approach to the personal essay.

 

For more about creating a college list and writing application essays, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist