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My Inside Scoop on the Latest Common App Changes

When students, parents, and even college counselors discuss what it takes to get admitted to college, they tend to focus on the big ticket items: transcript, test scores, letters of recommendation, activities/honors, and essays. Don't get me wrong, these pieces of the application matter a whole lot to college admissions officers.

However, before an admissions officer ever evaluates any of these pieces, they look at the student's answers to seemingly innocuous or inconsequential basic biographical information: name, race, religion, parents' education and occupation, etc. As students fill out this seemingly straightforward information, I gently warn them that everything on the application is there for a reason. A student's answers to these questions influence, shape, and sometimes drive how an admissions officer evaluates their application.

Fortunately, The Common Application, the most widely accepted application, has become the de facto leader in ensuring equality and forward-thinking when it comes to what data is captured for colleges. Last week, Common App announced some changes to the 2021-2022 application. As always, these changes will take effect starting August 1, 2021. These changes may appear like minutia or unimportant, but there is more than meets the eye.

Here are the changes, why they are being made, and how this impacts the admissions process:

Change #1: The sex/gender question will be revised to cover gender identity, including adding pronouns and preferred first name options. It will also change the language once used, from "sex" to "legal sex."

These changes about gender identity come at a time when more teenagers than ever before are identifying themselves beyond the once traditionally-held terms of male and female or the legal sex they were born as. For example, in the past, a transgender student would be forced to identify themselves using the traditional sex terms and had to list their preferred first name as a "nickname," thus undercutting their own identity. Admissions officers were often confused unless an explanation was provided somewhere else in the application. This change should help reduce that confusion. In general, college campuses are incredibly welcoming to all types of students. The change for the coming year reflects that openness that is characteristic of higher education.

Change #2: The question on religious affiliation will be dropped from Common App. Some colleges may choose to add it back into their individual college-specific supplement, however.

In recent years, this used to be an optional question. The optional component to this question left many students unsure of what to do. Jewish students, for example, were concerned that by self-identifying as Jewish they would be held to a higher standard or possibly even discriminated against in the admissions process. By dropping this question entirely, students do not have to reveal their religion or lack thereof (Agnostic students were sometimes afraid to share this information as well). Please note, though, admissions officers make assumptions as often as most people check their phones. They look at other pieces of the application to guess what a student's background is. Eliminating the religion question does not necessarily address the ongoing discrimination in the college admissions process.

Change #3: The geography and citizenship questions will be combined. There will be added choices for undocumented and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students. And, the alien registration number question will be removed.

For the most part, this change will mostly affect students who are not documented citizens applying to college. Many colleges have initiatives and financial aid to support these students in the admissions process and during their undergraduate experience. This change reflects the political and social movement going on in the United States.

Change #4: The military discharge question will no longer be asked.

While most of the students I help through the college admissions process are high school students, there is a sizable percentage of older students applying to college after serving in the military due to the GI Bill. Many colleges expressed to Common App that they did not pay attention to the discharge question in the admissions process. However, I suspect that part of the reason for dropping this question is that some colleges were using the military discharge as a reason to not accept a student.

Change #5: The question about whether the student violated a school disciplinary rule or honor code will be removed.

Common App suggests that students who answered "yes" to this question were less likely to apply to college. The reality is that when I was on the college side of the admissions process, a "yes" answer to this question resulted in a swift denial. Please note that many colleges will still require students to answer this question on college-specific supplements, instead.  

Change #6: Parents' birth country question will be dropped. Parents' occupation and employment status will be optional. Siblings' middle initial, relationship, and education will be dropped.

These questions sound harmless, but cause a lot of stress among families. For example, I had a student I worked with this year whose parent was born in one country, but was adopted to a family in another country where he was raised and self-identified as a native. My student self-identified as having roots in his father's adopted land, but he could not properly express that because of the parent birth country question. The parent occupation and employment status questions also cause a lot of concern for students who have a stay-at-home parent, a parent with a high-profile job, a retired parent, or a student who simply does not want to share this information. Students from higher income levels tend to worry about whether this information will raise the bar of expectation. I want to add, though, that if a student does not list parents' occupation or employment status, those inquiring admissions officers may make assumptions about the student and their parents, or question what the student is hiding. And, finally, I cannot tell you how many families worry about sharing where older siblings attend or attended college. There was a concern that an older sibling's college would lead admissions officers to assume the student may want to go there.

Change #7: The old essay prompt about problem solving will be replaced with a prompt about gratitude.

Any student who works with me in Application Nation knows that I encourage students to focus on picking the right topic rather than get overly concerned with the seven essay prompt choices on Common App since the prompts are so open-ended and can literally work for any topic. However, I like this new prompt which encourages students to pay attention and appreciate when someone goes out of their way to be kind. Honestly, though, the longstanding prompt about a "realization," serves as a go-to prompt for a student who wants to write about gratitude as well. It goes to show you that many times a student's essay can fit multiple prompts. As I just told my Application Nation - Class of 2022 group the other night in our Zoom call about college essays, "Admissions officers care about the topic you choose and the essay you write, not the prompt you pick!" 

Read More: Need Help with Your Essay Topic? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

The truth is that admissions officers are some of the nosiest individuals around. They want as much background information as they can get their hands on when it comes to a student. The changes that Common App made for the coming admissions cycle help to reduce unfair discrimination, bias, or unnecessary influence. There is still a lot of progress that needs to happen in college admissions, but the new Common App changes help to address some of the barriers students face in this process.