The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success announced last week that Coalition essay questions will not be changing for 2018-19.
“As you introduce the college application process to new students and parents, please know that the Coalition Essay questions will remain the same for next year,” said Annie Reznik, the Coalition’s executive director in a message targeted to college counselors.
This announcement follows a similar one from the Common Application advising that prompts for the Common App personal statement would also remain the same in the fall. Not surprisingly, the decision not to make modifications to either set of prompts was most welcome in an industry that’s become increasingly exhausted by what seems to be continuous change.
In fact, the prompts for the two applications are not terribly different from one another. They seem to be trying to get at the same kinds of responses. AND both sets of prompts provide a “topic of your choice” option—a great fallback position for essays that don’t quite answer one of the questions posed.
But looks can be deceiving. The wise applicant will closely review the two sets of prompts and think about how differences in instructions and allowable format may have an impact on the way an essay appears or presents itself to the reader.
At a minimum, consider the allowable length. The Common App, last year, set essay length at between 250 and 650 words. This restriction was firmly enforced by limiting essay submission to a textbox, maintaining a hard word cutoff as well as inviting a handful of quirks and formatting issues.
The Coalition, on the other hand, allowed colleges to set their own word limits and choose whether to locate the essay in a textbox among college-specific questions or in the upload section of the application.
Note that not everyone is totally sold on the idea of giving colleges so much freedom to structure applications how they wish because it potentially causes confusion and/or may result in extra work for applicants. But others saw the Coalition as providing an opportunity for applicants to think outside the textbox and produce essays with attractive fonts, symbols, links to online media and illustrations.
With an upload, hard word cutoffs don’t really exist. Instead of word or character counts, the essay is generally limited by kilobytes (KB). The essay may be converted to a PDF, thereby guaranteeing that it looks the way the applicant wants it to look and allowing readers to click live links provided within the text.
The Common App used to do it that way, and the Universal College App has always given students the choice of whether to use the textbox or upload their essays. The Cappex Application provides for a similar choice. So while the Common App might be the most visible and familiar of the application providers, it’s clearly in the minority when it comes to flexibility in formatting the personal statement.
During the 2017-18 application cycle, about 55 Coalition members out of 102 with live applications used Coalition prompts and located the essay in the upload section. Only just under 15 members located personal statements in textboxes. A handful slavishly reproduced Common App requirements by not only locating personal statements in textboxes but exactly replicating prompts and word limits. And when asked why, colleges uniformly responded that they thought it was only fair to stick to one set of rules.
Agree or disagree with colleges giving students a choice of applications as well as application formats and requirements, it’s important to be aware of differences—advantages as well as disadvantages. While neither application has so far announced major platform changes for the coming year, it may make sense to begin considering the difference between an essay confined to a textbox vs. one that encourages creativity through an upload.
For the record, the 2018-19 Coalition essay questions are as follows:
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.