Changes to The Common Application Could Improve Access for Students

Dear Common Application CEO Jenny Rickard:

In advising transfer students, I discovered several incongruencies which, although did not prevent a student from submitting his applications on time, created undue stress and confusion in the hours before the deadline expired. 

I offer the following feedback for you and your colleagues to consider, as a means of continuous improvement to provide the widest access for all students who seek a college education. 

Character Count vs. Word Limits

The word limits listed in the essay prompts and the character count which includes spaces in the text box where a student includes their written response, does not always match. So, upon copying and pasting a well-crafted, thoughtful written response, the final sentences were simply cut off, as while written within the word limit, were greater than the character limit.  

While students were able to edit their submissions to meet the required character counts and still submit by the deadline, the confusion created undue stress at the last moment. Having advised students for twenty years in the college and transfer admissions process, a last minute submission is par for the course, so aligning the prompts and character limits would be worthwhile if it could reduce the stress from an already inherently stressful process.

Inconsistency in Essay Responses

There is no consistency in how and where and what written responses each campus requires, confusing students and thus potentially stymying their admissions plans if a written response is not crafted, having overlooked a text box or essay prompt.  

For example, while both Emerson College and Sarah Lawrence College require a personal statement, Emerson’s application included the response on the “Questions” section, which displayed a radial button to select a prompt from The Common Application’s standard seven different prompts, and a text box where to copy and paste their essay. 

However, for Sarah Lawrence College, the required personal statement was to be uploaded in the “Documents” section as a separate document, no prompt was listed, instead directions were stated on the Sarah Lawrence College Admissions website for which students must cross-reference. 

Adding confusion, in the “Questions” section for Sarah Lawrence, the “Optional” written response and prompts, plus a text box, are included. 

No Text Box

As is standard practice for The Common Application, often text boxes for a written response appear only after a particular radial button is selected. For a seasoned consultant like myself, I can caution clients to prepare accordingly, yet for a novice applicant, who’s never before used The Common Application for transfer admissions, they may unwittingly discover, at the last minute, an extra written response to craft

In the first screenshot, no radial button is checked, so this is how the questions appear on The Common Application. 

For example, on the Emerson College application, students were required to submit a personal statement, choosing one of the seven standard Common Application prompts. However, no text box for the response was automatically included. Yet, a text box for another question was placed right below the seven prompts, leading applicants to believe the text box was provided for the seven prompts above

Once the radial button was clicked to choose a prompt, a second text box appears, making clear an additional question, addressing the following prompt: “Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve” must be included. 

Although above the #2 text box was a question with an * indicating a required response, the arrangement in the design did not readily indicate a second question

As more colleges join The Common Application, 40 for the Fall 2021 application cycle and another 30 more will be added for the Fall 2022 applications, an evolved design can increase access for the broadest range of students possible. 

I appreciate your attention to these matters. 


Jill Yoshikawa, EdM

Partner, Creative Marbles Consultancy

To learn more about Creative Marbles Consultancy’s collaborative college admissions essay editorial advising, contact us at

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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