What’s New in CA4? Expert Tips for Navigating the 2013-14 Common App

Lisa Mader_sm
The Common Application is a not-for-profit group that offers print and online versions of one college admission application that students can submit to any of the organization’s 488 member institutions.

The Common App is currently undergoing major changes and getting a fresh new look for the 2013-14 admissions season. I recently attended a webinar on the changes and I wanted to highlight those that will have great impact on students.

The Essay.

This pressure-packed word alone can strike fear into the hearts of applicants. I encourage students to look at the essay as an opportunity to set yourself apart from the numbers that define you (GPA, class rank, test scores, etc.). Here’s what’s new for the 2013-14 essay:
Higher (but stricter) word counts. Essays now carry a 250-word minimum and a 650-word maximum, an increase of 500 from last year. Additionally, where in the past students would aim for somewhere around 500 words, the 650-word maximum is now enforced. The essay box will keep a running tally and cut off at the maximum. As a result, word choice and concision will be essential.
New prompts. CA4 is limited to only five prompts. Gone is the “topic of your choosing” option; however, there are a number of great options, which students can craft their essay to fit. Check out the new prompts here.
Copy and paste option. Previously, students crafted their essay in a Word document and uploaded it to the application. Now students can copy and paste their essay, adding bold, italic, or underlining for emphasis. (A note about uploading: In previous versions of the Common App, students could use the upload feature to add their résumé. Now they must copy and paste text versions of their documents while adhering to the strict 650-word limit.)

Activity Essay.

As in years past, the new application lets students list and rank their activities in order of importance. Up until last year, students were then asked to write approximately 250 words describing one of their activities. This is no longer part of the main application shared by all colleges. If a college still desires to have the activity essay, it will now be found on the college’s supplemental application.

Test Scores.

The Common App asks for self-reported scores, however most schools require scores to also be reported directly from the testing agency. In the past, students reported their highest individual scores across ACT, SAT and SAT Subject Tests. You now have the ability to customize which scores are reported to which schools based on that school’s requirements. For example, if a college doesn’t require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, the student would not have to provide that information to all schools.

The 2013-14 Common App will be released on August 1st. In the meantime, get started on those essays!


This article was written by Lisa Mader

Lisa Mader relies on extensive teaching experience, a master's-level education, and affiliation with some of the industry's most important accreditation boards to help college-bound students maximize their performance and find their best-fit college. Through her company LEAP, Lisa has helped countless families in the areas of test preparation, college selection/application, choosing a major and future career, and much more.


  1. *m*

    You say students can no longer upload a resume. Is there a specific spot where students can cut-and-paste one in?

  2. Henry

    So then, the “prompts” are simply questions from which the applicant chooses 1 to respond to, is that right? And, are these the choices that will be on the Common App being released on August 1?

  3. Parent 2014

    The essay questions this year are dreadful. They are blatantly geared towards students from unusual backgrounds or cultures. An average American kid who has suffered little hardship might not have a lot to say with these. That doesn’t mean the student is boring. She could have amazing ideas . . but no room to write them in these essays.

  4. Andrea

    The old activity essay was capped at 150 words. It actually cut students off these past two years. It will be interesting to see how many want it.

  5. Linda

    So glad the stupid diversity questions are gone….so over it!

  6. Karen

    The article states, “Check out the new prompts here,” but I don’t see any essay prompts listed???

  7. Peggy Manley

    In the Essay section, Copy and Paste the reference to the resume is not clear to me. Does the 650 word count now include the resume, in addition to the essay?
    Thank you.

  8. AM

    While the ‘choose your own topic’ essay is gone, the ‘write about a story which defines you’ is pretty much the same, as any experience or topic can be crafted into a story format. In fact the benefit here is that it forces applicants to provide a coherent message about themselves.

  9. Melissa Fasolino

    Great information for my incoming seniors! I teach AP English IV, and the college application essay is one of their first assignments. Thank you for sharing your insight and expertise.

  10. Kathi Lumpkin

    Hi – under the Esssay section you say to check out the new prompts here, but there is no link. Is there somewhere we can see what the prompts are? Thank you.

  11. Kathi Lumpkin

    Just tried reclicking on the here and the link worked – I think it was my curser – thanks! Great info in article.

  12. TB

    This confused me for about 5 minutes straight. Should be “an increase *from 500 words”.

  13. Eileen Orgo

    Why can’t student cut and paste resume in last section called additional information?

  14. CP

    I would like to understand why the essay of your own choice was dropped. I think the college admissions staff are in for a lot of repetitive essays given the list of topics.

  15. Amy

    Is there a place to submit a resume? The essay area does not have an upload option?

  16. AR

    Please pay more attention to your writing or you will confuse people. The essay is an increase FROM last year’s 500 words, and not an increase OF 500 words. Your lack of attention to this detail also undermines your credibility.

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