Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
The widely-used common application for college admissions updated its essay questions for the first time in more than five years, with an eye to leveling the playing field for all students, and will be updated every year going forward.
According to the application's authors, the non-profit group Common Application, the new questions are meant to make the process fairer and more accessible to all applicants so they have a "chance to tell their unique stories."
Previously, high school students answered essay prompts such as these: "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence" or "Discuss some issue of local, national, or international concern and its importance to you." Students could also write their own question and answer it.
The new prompts, released Tuesday, are more direct in trying to elicit a student's character, like these:
-Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
"The old questions I think required a lot more interpretation," said Carol Barash, the founder and C.E.O. of the organization Story to College, which teaches high school students how to write about their own experiences in the college admissions process.
The new essay prompts are more straightforward questions about everyday experiences. "I think they're much more accessible," said Barash.
Veronica Aguilar Hornig, who counsels high school seniors on college applications through the organization The Opportunity Network, said she thinks more pointed questions will particularly benefit the lower-income students with whom she works -- many of them either immigrants or first-generation college applicants.
"I think the struggle before was sometimes our students maybe didn't completely understand what made them so unique," such as coming to the United States as a refugee, said Hornig. The new prompts, she said, could help bring out these students' unique backgrounds.
Nearly 500 colleges and universities accept the common application for admissions. Some of those schools still develop their own applications, but about a third of them use the common application exclusively, according to the organization's website. So, a shift in the common application signals a shift in the industry, said Barash.
"It's the 800-pound-gorilla in college applications," she said.
Barash added that even larger university systems that develop their own application materials still align their questions to the common application.
The full common application program, the fourth online version, will become available Aug. 1.