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Topic [NOT] of Your Choice: Common App to Drop Open-Ended Essay Option

Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
edited June 2013 in College Essays
Starting next year, college applicants will not be able to elect the "Topic of Your Choice" for the Common Application essay.

Some admission insiders are lamenting the end of this catch-all option, and The Chronicle of Higher Education claims that the change was "met with gasps" when announced at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling earlier this month.

My own preference, however, would be to scrap application essays entirely and rely instead on the timed, proctored SAT or ACT writing samples. Critics of this alternative claim that good writing requires careful editing, which can't be done with a ticking clock. While I can't argue with that, I think the pros would still outweigh the cons. I've become disgusted by all the stress that college essays impose on teenagers, and I'm especially irked by how many students rely on others--parents, teachers, "a family writer friend" (as someone said to me last night), etc.--to whitewash their initial drafts nearly beyond recognition. Thus many student voices are unheard in their not-so-personal personal statements, anyway.

If I really thought that the "Topic of Your Choice" allowed admission folks to peek through a window into a student's soul, I'd be mad about the termination of this option. But since I'm so fed up over the essay assignment anyway--or at least what it's become in recent years--I merely shrugged when I heard the news.

How do other CC members feel about the demise of the Topic of Your Choice?
edited June 2013
42 replies
Post edited by Sally_Rubenstone on
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Replies to: Topic [NOT] of Your Choice: Common App to Drop Open-Ended Essay Option

  • coolpillowcoolpillow 285 replies38 posts- Member
    I agree. There is really no point in personal essays. It's designed to be more favorable to kids with money! Just like the SAT is. Too many of my richer friends are getting counseling from "experts" and paying hundreds of dollars.

    I agree with getting rid of the "topic of your choice" part though. I like having a confined number of choices, otherwise it seems like possibilities are infinite.
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  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
    I don't mean to sound TOO cynical. I've read some truly wonderful essays over three decades that were definitely the work of their purported student authors and that did what they were intended to do ... they showed a side of the applicant that nothing else in the application folder revealed.

    But, even so, the coaching and cheating have spiraled out of hand, so I don't think it would be throwing the baby out with the bath water to get rid of application essays and to rely instead on the standardized test writing sample, as imperfect as that approach would be.

    I did find that the "Topic of Your Choice" was a small bright spot in this crazy process, but the whole process has become so blighted that I won't miss it.
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  • PhilovitistPhilovitist 2695 replies44 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Sorry, but that is bull. If you really want a sense of someone's writing skills, you do not sit him in a room and tell him to write for thirty minutes. That's not how writing works in real life, anyway.
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  • Ferrari353Ferrari353 10 replies3 postsRegistered User New Member
    ^So you're saying that if you want to get a sense of someone's writing style, you should have other people fix it and improve on it? An essay where you can't get help from others, such as in the SAT or ACT, shows your real writing style because it's your voice and not that of the proofreader's.
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  • SansSerifSansSerif 771 replies43 postsRegistered User Member
    I get what everyone is saying, but I agree about the SAT essay. I have been a marketing writer for almost 30 years and that's not how writing works. If I had to write in 30 minutes - with no opportunity to do some research, reconsider an approach, edit and refine - my writing would be nowhere near what my final draft actually turns out to be. Often, it would be outright lousy. Anyone ever hear of Anne Lamott's theory of "****ty first drafts"? Any writer would recognize the trip a piece of writing makes from first to final version. And using the "****ty first draft" as the way to judge writing ability is useless.
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  • PhilovitistPhilovitist 2695 replies44 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    ^So you're saying that if you want to get a sense of someone's writing style, you should have other people fix it and improve on it? An essay where you can't get help from others, such as in the SAT or ACT, shows your real writing style because it's your voice and not that of the proofreader's.

    It's unethical to overuse someone else as a proofreader. But don't punish me for it. I'd prefer this condition over the crappy alternative you present.
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  • coolpillowcoolpillow 285 replies38 posts- Member
    What the SAT essay is testing is essentially your ability to develop your mind (opinion and position) in a confined amount of time, in addition to your ability to express clearly. Even in real life, you sometimes don't have hours to come up with a winning argument.

    You don't need to research to develop a good answer to SAT essays. I personally think SAT essays are far more efficient in assessing one's writing and thinking abilities than college essays are...
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  • daisychaindaisychain 202 replies3 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    This is crap. You don't abolish tests because some people cheat. And you shouldn't abolish essays because some people cheat. A good reader can tell if something was written by a 17 year old or by committee, anyway. And the formulaic, 5 paragraph essays students are trained to churn out on the SAT, spewing as many facts and examples as possible at top speed, do not show colleges whether or not students are capable of thoughtful, polished prose or higher level thinking. And IMO, based on the admittedly small sample of my D and her friends, there was very little correlation between those who managed 12s on the SAT essay, and those who are phenomenal writers.
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  • SerenityJadeSerenityJade 1204 replies22 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    The SAT/ACT essays don't take into account a student's writing style and personality. That's what a personal statement is about, yes? First off, it's whatever. The application wants to make it easier for schools to use by having defined topics. Schools can see how a student writes on topic. If a school wants a topic of the student's choice, they'll put it on the supplement like W&M does. But these essays are what students need to stand out. To say, "I am NOT a number. I am NOT a test score. I am a person and I am unique and this is why I should be at your school." So SAT/ACT writing should not be used. They are worthless in getting to know a person. All you learn from an SAT writing score is how well a person conforms to what scorers like. And the samples are how someone writes under pressure and time constraints. Not their best work.
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  • clienkclienk 234 replies9 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    "My own preference, however, would be to scrap application essays entirely and rely instead on the timed, proctored SAT or ACT writing samples. Critics of this alternative claim that good writing requires careful editing, which can't be done with a ticking clock."

    No. Just no. SAT prompts are horrible, first of all. But even if you give the common app prompts as timed, proctored essays, and have them graded as they are now, not by length and use of fancy words, it would be awful. A person's first impulse on what makes a good college essay does not make a good college essay. The essay isn't a test of writing style, it is, as many say, a window to the personality. A way to see beyond test scores, not another test score. Proof of maturity, that someone can be introspective and really know themselves.

    Do people overuse professional proofreaders? Yeah. But people also take SAT prep courses. These favor those with more money as well. I don't want to abolish the SAT just because I didn't have time or money for a prep course.

    I mean, I'm stressed out as well. I hate writing, usually. But I feel that, after I am done with all of this, colleges really will get a stronger impression of me from a real, take home essay. In my case, this should help my application, as I have good material and am a decent writer, when I put a lot of time into it. Of course, I only got an 8 on the SAT essay...
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  • LizzyandgangLizzyandgang 4 replies1 postsRegistered User New Member
    As a suggestion, I think it would be helpful to have to sign a statement which lists the people that coached or proof-read your essay. Having an English teacher or a parent or a friend proof your essay to see if it sounds like you, or is funny or interesting or sad or whatever you are going for seems fair. It it "unfair" if someone is changing your message or editing you in such a way that it becomes someone else's essay entirely.

    If people have to list on their applications who/what company coached them on essays and SATs that would be very enlightening. Yes, people could lie about it but you can lie about a lot of stuff and it can come back to haunt you!!

    Ex) We borrowed an SAT book from the library this summer and that is the extent of our sons SAT prepping (we live in the boonies - 70 miles to nearest SAT tutor). No college coaching at all except for reading this site! Same with essays - some students get tons of help and some very little. I do not say that as a complaint just as a fact. I think the top colleges DO and SHOULD take that into consideration.
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  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
    Yes, people could lie about it

    And indeed they will! Every private college counselor can tell you stories about students and parents who try to hire them to write the actual essay. And if the counselor says, "No, I only EDIT an essay that was written by the student," the family vanishes and presumably looks elsewhere for their ghost-writer.

    So only the most scrupulous students will own up to any sort of assistance received ... and the greater the assistance, the less likely the chance that it will be listed on an application.
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  • ccuser95ccuser95 536 replies24 postsRegistered User Member
    New Suggestion: A 2 hour essay section instead of the 30 min section?
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  • LizzyandgangLizzyandgang 4 replies1 postsRegistered User New Member
    "So only the most scrupulous students will own up to any sort of assistance received ... and the greater the assistance, the less likely the chance that it will be listed on an application"

    That is sad that people would try to cheat and lie etc to get into a certain school. Not to be naive, how do they plan to take difficult classes if they are not prepared?? Do these kids plan to have tutors for every class they take?
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  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
    Not to be naive, how do they plan to take difficult classes if they are not prepared?? Do these kids plan to have tutors for every class they take?

    It is a lot harder to get into a hyper-selective college than it is to STAY in one. So some families will go to extreme (and unscrupulous) measures to boost admission odds but, if the student is admitted, it may not be a struggle to succeed there. Look at all the amazing applicants you see on College Confidential who are turned down by their top-choice colleges every year but who would surely thrive if accepted.

    Yes, of course, I do hear stories of students who were accepted to highly competitive colleges due to certain "hooks" (that had nothing to do with academics) and who got eaten alive academically once they arrived there. But for each one of those, there are countless others who are turned away from colleges where they could certainly succeed. So it's no wonder that some families rationalize dishonesty by saying, "If Junior submits a slam-dunk essay, he can get into the college that he deserves to attend."

    (I'm not saying any of this to justify dishonesty but am just pointing out that students who submit essays written by others don't necessarily have trouble with the workload if admitted to top colleges.)
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  • HuntHunt 26787 replies131 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    A good reader can tell if something was written by a 17 year old or by committee, anyway.
    I think a lot depends on whether the above statement is true or not. Personally, I very much doubt if it's true. Even if it is true for extreme cases, it certainly must be the case that you can't tell if a student got suggestions on topics to avoid, had a proofreader, etc. I think I agree with Sally--if I were a college admissions rep, I'd be likely to discount essays heavily--I might pay attention to actual information they convey, but writing style, "voice," etc.--how do I know who's responsible for that?

    I don't know about using the SAT writing section--I guess it would give you some idea of the student's ability to write comprehensible English sentences. But schools already have the score, which is probably good enough for that. You're not likely to pick up that unique "voice" in that kind of pressured writing situation.
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  • JuvenisJuvenis 638 replies215 postsRegistered User Member
    ^EXACTLY! And if you think people might lose their "style" in writing, I have yet to see that happen. I don't know how 30 minutes is enough to develop a voice. If you've read any SAT prep books or even hired a tutor or have gone to any prep classes, they all give you formulas for writing the essay. How in the world does that justify lack of style?
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  • tPzd3RXxtPzd3RXx 8 replies3 postsRegistered User New Member
    Writing doesn't just express ideas; it helps you come up with ideas. A huge (and arguably fundamental) part of writing is rewriting. When I write, I generally write a quick version 1 in 20-30 minutes, then spend weeks editing it. Judging someone's writing based on a 25-minute version 1 is hardly fair to those who understand the importance of rewriting. My final versions are entire paragraphs better than my initial versions.

    Also, the SAT essay is probably one of the worst things to use to gauge someone's writing ability, considering that the SAT essay is (a) graded objectively and (b) a beatable essay that doesn't give you points for actual writing ability.
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  • nothingto1nothingto1 140 replies17 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    This is bull. The college essay is to determine your VOICE. Your writing ABILITY is secondary to that. Whether you'd want to put a topic of your choice, you should be allowed to do it. The College essay is about whether or not your personality is what they like.

    Now college applicants (such as me for next year) are going to be handi-capped. My essay plan was specifically taking advantage of that section. Good way to put a brother down....

    Either way i'm outraged. Stifles creativity and bored admissions officers.
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  • mmmgirlmmmgirl 880 replies53 postsRegistered User Member
    I'm surprised to hear they're eliminating "topic of your choice", but I agree with what a lot of people are saying about essays in general. Essays are treated as sacred in the college admissions process, but they're frankly somewhat ridiculous. It seems like rather than producing an interesting essay that describes who the student is, the focus has become all about being "unique" and "avoiding cliches". Hey, University of Chicago wants 500 words about the taste of salmon? Can I relate this to the time I thought about a bird while tutoring inner-city schoolchildren? They've become pretty pointless and just another source of stress.

    I don't really like the idea of using SAT or ACT essays, though. I did badly on the SAT essay even though I'm a very good writer and have gotten As on all my papers and did very well on the AP essays. To me, the SAT essay doesn't really test your ability to write, but your ability to provide a good answer to an SAT essay prompt. How about if colleges required a writing sample that a student did for one of their classes, with the grade? It would show how well a student could write, and each student could choose a piece that reflects their personality and their particular academic passions. It would show actual writing ability and allow the admissions office to compare the language skills of students from different schools.
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