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December 06, 2012 10:00 AM The Common, and Now Standardized, Application

By Daniel Luzer

The Common Application, the standard form that high school students use to apply to more than 400 American colleges, is making changes to standardize the way students can apply. Many people turn out to be pretty unhappy with these changes.

The most significant revision has to do with the essay question. Before 2011 the essay section of the application allowed students to write about whatever they wanted, and make it as long as they wanted. Changes made last year told students “the essay must be 250 to 500 words.” Because the program converted the essay to a pdf file, however, the form didn’t enforce an actual word limit and students could submit longer pieces if they were so inclined (though colleges probably wouldn’t be too happy about a 3,000 word essay).

Under the new application, students will receive five specific questions to answer and the program will not convert the essay to a pdf, so there will be real word limits; students who go over 500 words will get an error message and won’t be able to submit their application.

According to a statement by the organization, the elimination of the wide open essay “began with an interest in reinforcing the importance of writing, and to provide better guidance to students who don’t have access to good college counseling.” The word limit has come about because “the Common Application serves an increasingly wide range of colleges, secondary schools, and students. There is little consensus among this diverse group about an ideal college essay length.”

Neither of these lines, however, really explains why the changes are any good, particularly for students.

This sort of thing, while defendable (seriously, are students any worse off?) has no benefit whatsoever to applicants, but is very useful for colleges to process as it makes it very easy for schools to determine writing quality based on rules (how well did the student address the topic at hand?) rather than make a determination using a process that required sophisticated, time consuming, and potentially complicated evaluation of original material.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer