College Application Essay topics for 2013-2014 have been posted, and SURPRISE! Every prompt requires a narrative!
A recent news release by the Common Application, a non-profit widely used for college admissions by high school seniors at nearly 500 colleges and universities, explains the changes in essay prompts for 2013-14. The option to write about a topic of “your choice” has been dropped; the essay topics are:
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
The irony of this decision should not be lost on anyone who remembers a blunt statement made by David Coleman, the current President of the College Board. In April of 2011 at a NY State Department of Education presentation on the Common Core, Coleman said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.”
Well, apparently the College Application Board does care. Their prompts specifically ask college bound students what they feel or what they think. In fact, the College Application Board cares so much that they will allow students to expand their storytelling by an additional 150 words, increasing the word count from 500 to 650.
The decision by the College Application Board really is not that surprising. Leo Widrich on the Buffer blog called attention to research on reaction of the the human brain to stories. He summarized a number of brain studies that indicate that the best learning comes from storytelling. One study by Uri Hasson from Princeton was published in an article titled “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article discussed how subjects under study create empathetic bonds with listeners by using stories:
“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”
College bound seniors should take note of this research when they write; apparently a compelling story can be quite convincing. Luckily, they will have plenty of practice with the narrative writing genre which is now back in favor with the adoption of the Common Core Literacy Standards. Anchor Writing Standard #3 for grades K-12 reads:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
Curiously enough, one of the architects of the Common Core Literacy Standards was David Coleman before he took his position at the College Board.
Now the revised College Application Board form for 2013-14 states: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story”
A word of caution, though. Don’t expect College Board President Coleman to care.
Bravo! David Coleman’s stance against story as irritated me from the beginning. While it may be true that students do need to read more non-fiction, the tradition of story runs too deep to simply toss aside. As the physician Rachel Naomi Remen says, “The most important knowledge is passed through stories. It’s what holds a culture together.” (As heard on Krista Tippet’s On Being–http://www.onbeing.org/program/listening-generously/transcript/845#main_content) Mr. Coleman may be well educated, but he’s ignored the wisdom of the ages.