Hundreds of thousands of students using the Common Application to apply to college in the next school year will be the first to write those so-important personal essays using new questions designed to highlight diverse life stories.
The much-anticipated changes, announced this week by the nonprofit Common Application Inc., are the first in nearly a decade.
The revamped form launches Aug. 1 for the 2013-2014 college admissions season, part of a new, Web-only application. The Common Application, which allows students to apply to many undergraduate institutions simultaneously, is accepted by more than 520 universities and colleges in 46 states and the District of Columbia, as well as by a number of colleges overseas.
Students now will have the option to write on such topics as a time they changed a belief, or a place where they are completely content. Applicants will choose one of five questions upon which to write an essay of up to 650 words.
The previous essay questions asked applicants to write about a significant influence or an issue of local, national or international concern and its importance.
"The mission is still the same. This is just a new lens which students can use to build their essays," said Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application.
In the 2011-12 admissions cycle, 663,000 students worldwide used the Common App, Anderson said, and the group expects that number to rise by 10 percent in the coming admissions cycle.
The new essay questions, also called prompts, were devised after two years of discussion on the important role that writing plays in college admission. It relied heavily on advice from 15 counselors on the group's Outreach Advisory Committee.
In announcing the changes, the group said it "worked diligently to ensure that all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, would have the chance to tell their unique stories."
Carol Barash, a private college essay-writing consultant, said the move "really levels the playing field" for college applicants.
Unlike the old, multilayered questions, the new ones are simpler and direct, and don't require interpretation, said Barash, who began a Manhattan-based company called Story to College after working as a faculty adviser to the admissions office at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
"They're not looking to hear about fancy or expensive service trips here," Barash said. "They really want to know who you are as a person."
Roosevelt High School guidance counselor Sean O'Brien said the new questions offer a framework that focuses on the students' background, giving them more confidence that they have an interesting story no matter where they're from.
"They can express who they are as a whole person, not just a transcript or a piece of paper," O'Brien said. "This is really one of the first opportunities students ever have to market themselves."
Students will be asked to choose among these prompts to write one essay of 650 words or less.