The New (and improved?) 2013-14 Common College Application: What do all the changes mean?

Part 1 of Katrina Oko-Odoi‘s Guest Blog Series: Writing your College Admissions Essay for the New Common Application

College admissions season is now in full swing! As some of you may already know, there are some changes this year that every applicant should be aware of. The majority of students applying for undergraduate admissions will be using the Common Application for at least some of the schools they’re applying to, and there have been major changes to this year’s version. It’s important to not only know about these changes, but to understand how they might impact you.

So, let’s review the changes…

1.     Elimination of the free topic essay: This is perhaps the most controversial change made to the Common App this year. Applicants no longer have the option to write about a topic of their choice. Some say this means that you will no longer be able to write about a truly original topic, but is that really true? In a recent Washington Post article, Doris Davis, the former board president of the Common Application, acknowledged that the elimination of the free topic could potentially “suppress creativity,” but, she stressed, “It is quite possible that students may be able to show their individuality within a structured framework.”

What does this mean for you?

  • This is the first time that college admissions officers will read responses to the new topics (and not read any free topic essays), so your essay is likely to read as fresh and original. This could potentially be a huge benefit for you!
  • You’ll be spared from the time-consuming process of brainstorming original topic ideas. Instead, you can focus on the quality of your writing.
  • Perhaps you like to plan ahead and you already drafted the perfect essay, or you have the perfect free topic idea ready to go. If this is the case, there may be a way that you can shape your essay idea to fit within the context of one of the new topics.
  • Your creativity will be challenged by the need to conform to the limitations of a focused essay topic. However, this challenge can be incredibly fruitful –sometimes having less freedom enables you to think more innovatively about the topic at hand. Yes, other applicants might be answering the same question, but will they take the same approach? That’s up to you. The best advice is to be original and think outside the box.

2.     College-specific supplementary essay questions: Replacing the “favorite activity essay” (yes, they eliminated that essay too) is an area where supplementary questions for the specific institution to which you’re applying are listed. Colleges now have the option to insert their own supplemental essay topics specific to their institution – these are required in addition to the longer Common App essay. Brown University, for example, has 5 short answer questions listed in this category, while Columbia has 4. Most colleges require brief 100-200 word answers for each question in this section.

What does this mean for you?

  • The good news is that not every college or university requires supplemental writing. This allows you more time to focus on your longer essay – extra time that, let’s admit, you just might need!
  • Those schools that do require supplementary essays are giving you an additional opportunity to not only tell them about yourself, but to explain why you’re a good fit for their school. This is where you’ll want to demonstrate your knowledge about any unique programs or opportunities that they offer. If there is something special about the specific program/department you’re interested in, it’s a good place to mention that also.
  • For those schools that don’t accept supplemental writing, it is even more important that your long Common App essay is well-written and specifically addresses your chosen topic. Devote sufficient time to the composition and revision process to ensure that you are completely satisfied with your essay by the time you press that “Submit” button.

3.     Changes in word count and upload limits: The word limit for the long essay has been increased from 500 to 650 words this year. That allows you a precious extra 150 words to explain why you’re the perfect candidate for a particular school! Keep in mind, though, that you can only upload your essay three times during the Common App process.

What does this mean for you?

  • For those of you who tend to be more longwinded, the additional words will provide you with some breathing room when writing your essay.
  • The increased word count allows you to develop your ideas further and include more details. Remember that personal examples are an important element of the essay, so add in one last anecdote if you have room.
  • You may write with the longer word count in mind only to discover that you’ve gone over the new limit. Don’t let the extra space fool you—150 words is nothing—the equivalent of an extra paragraph or two. Make sure to write concisely and not lose yourself in wordiness or overly detailed description. If your essay is way too long, you might be faced with the tough task of deciding what to cut.
  • A good approach would be to aim for 500 words, trying to be as concise and straightforward as possible. Chances are that you’ll go over your target word count slightly, which will still get you in under the 650 word limit. It also gives you a little room to play around with rewording and short additions to your essay during the revision process.

In regards to the upload limit:

  • No need to stress over customizing your essay for each school. The institutions to which you are applying will expect a standard essay, and won’t penalize you for it.
  • The upload limit means that even your first uploaded document should be a final, polished product. So reread, revise, and reread again before uploading it even the first time. A new set of eyes to look things over doesn’t hurt either, so enlist the help of a friend or family member. Chances are that even when you think you have a final, final draft, you might think of an important revision you need to make prior to submission. This will leave you with enough uploads to accommodate any last-minute changes.

No matter which topic you choose, make the most of the Common Application changes. Use the new restrictions to your benefit by focusing on crafting an application in a way that best represents you. Remember, you are a unique and talented individual; make sure to demonstrate that to the admissions committee!

Read more about the Common Application, its changes and the five new essay topics:


Katrina Oko-Odoi is the Founder and Chief Editor of, a writing and editing company specializing in academic writing. For more insight into college essay editing and more, check out her blog:

Bobby Touran is the founder and CEO of ApplyKit. ApplyKit helps students manage their entire college application process and also provides key resources to help them excel every step of the way.

  • Susie Watts

    It doesn’t appear to be these changes that are causing all the problems. It seems to be
    All of the kinks and questions that have yet to be worked out. And they paid 6 million dollars to create this nightmare for students, families, counselors and college consultants?

  • David

    And the most awful thing that you can do is bore the admissions panel. Be smart but also stay clean without any off color humor or bad puns.