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Losing the College Essay

August 1 marked the unofficial opening to the 2015-2016 college application season with the Common Application going live. And there were some big changes this year, including a very big surprise for me: some colleges are no longer requiring an essay.
The college essay was such a big deal when I was applying to schools—and it was completely wide open so you could write about whatever you wanted. It gave the admissions team not only a sample of your writing skills, but also a glimpse into your personality, into what you would bring to their campus as a student. The essay gave you a chance to bolster your application beyond numbers from test scores and GPA—though I realize that more and more schools are making these optional as well.
Despite teachers, guidance counselors, and college prep books stressing the importance of the college essay (and despite the fact that I prided myself on my writing ability), mine unfortunately offered little accurate representation of who I was as a person or as a writer.
My college essay still makes me cringe when I think about it—I wrote about turning 18 and honestly, it was not my best work. Even though in my AP Lit class we had to spend every Friday writing a potential college essay and I had dozens to choose from by the time my Common Application was due, I stubbornly went with a piece that I thought truly pushed the envelope. I asked a bunch of my teachers to read it over and give me feedback, as I was so sure it was the one. And I remember one of them saying that it was good, but really not reflective of my normal work, which I took to mean that I had a winner—a unique piece of writing that really stood out. Now I’m just shaking my head at my 18-year-old self, hearing what I wanted to hear.
And yet, despite my essay’s shortcomings, I had a true opportunity to showcase who I was (and I didn’t totally blow it—I was accepted into schools and attended a college that I loved) with the now-eliminated, completely open-ended “Write about a topic of your choice.”
In addition to the essay being optional, the Common App also changed the essay prompts, adding one new one, altering some language, and tossing out another. And in looking at the prompts, it seems they’re all asking the same type of question. They’re asking for more formulaic responses, and I wonder how admissions offices are able to piece together a complete picture of an applicant without using supplemental essays.
I get that these standardized prompts give students more direction and can alleviate some stress for applicants, but they also must make writing and reviewing the writing dull. There’s something lost, a connection between the right candidate and the right admissions staff. As an applicant, I would be grateful for the opportunity to shine, to write a response to a quirky question (like these or these), and I would LOVE to read some of the responses to the supplemental essays, which perhaps are a little less doctored, more gut-reaction pieces. But, since I am beyond writing essays for college applications as a student and no longer review them as a college counselor, I’ll have to settle for reviewing the 2015 list and dreaming about what I would say in response.