A Brief How-To Guide for the Short Answer Questions for Highly-Selective Colleges

A Brief How-to Guide for the Short Answer Questions on Your Common App

You know those Common App short answer questions required by USC, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, U Chicago, and Yale?

Apparently I’ve got a lot to say about them. How do I know? 

Because, as I was editing a student's short answers this week, I realized that, as with the Activities List and “Why us” essays, I was repeating myself.

Time to create a guide, I thought.

This is that guide. 

With 11 tips. 

In a Dos and Dont’s format.

- - - 

1. DO: Think of your short answers as an advent calendar. 

 
Whose idea was this?
 

Whose idea was this?

Each one is a tiny window into your soul. So make sure when the reader opens each one that there’s something awesome inside. Like a tiny horse with miniature bells that actually jingle. Not like a crappy piece of milk chocolate (you know the kind I’m talking about).

I feel your pain.

I feel your pain.

Can you do that in like fifteen words? You can. How?

2. DO: Use all the space allotted to explain your answer.

Pro-Tip: You’re often given space for thirteen words for a short answer. So use it up!

In other words, answer "Why," even if the prompt doesn't ask you to. Why?

Because each answer is an opportunity to get to know you better and sometimes the takeaway isn’t clear or obvious from the thing itself. Example:

Question: (from USC) What's your favorite food? 
Just-okay answer: “Tacos.”

Your reader might read this and think: Um, great. You... live in California?

Better answer: "My abuela's birria tacos--recipe has been passed down for generations." 

#culture #family #goats (Because that's what birria is: goats. #themoreyouknow)

Another example of a just-okay answer:

Q: Who is your role model?
A: Louis Zamperini

Reader thinks: Great, no idea who that is. 

Don't make the reader Google your answer. She won't.

Instead, write: 

Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, who survived concentration camps and overcame severe alcoholism. 

But...

3. DON’T make the short reason you provide (or any of your answers) super obvious.

Example for USC question: 

Q: What’s your favorite website? 
A: Instagram (social media photo-sharing site)

Yup. That's... pretty much what Instagram is. Thanks for telling me zero about you.

Another bad example (a Stanford admission essay example):

Q: What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
A: The Big Bang. It was the beginning of our universe and it would have been amazing to see that. 

Yup, that’s… what that was. (Also, fyi, pretty much everyone writes “The Big Bang” for this question.)

Better answer (by a student accepted in 2015): 

A: I want to watch George Washington go shopping. I have an obsession with presidential trivia, and the ivory-gummed general is far and away my favorite. Great leaders aren’t necessarily defined by their moments under pressure; sometimes tiny decisions are most telling--like knickers or pantaloons?

Also:

4. DO get specific.

Q: What inspires you?

Non-specific example: Documentaries. They are my favorite source of inspiration

(Side note: Don't sound like a robot.)

Better answer: Documentaries. "Forks Over Knives" made me go vegan; "Born into Brothels" inspired my Gold Award.

Also:

5. DON’T for your favorite quote, say something that you'd find on one of those "Success" posters or a Hallmark card. 

 
                                                                 Mm. Deep.

                                                                 Mm. Deep.

 

Cheesy examples:

  • "Life is what you make of it." (or)
  • "Dreams are X" (or) "Always follow your dreams" (or)
  • "Life is like a dream and dreams are like life are dreams dreams life life dreams." 

Pretty much anything with "life" or "dreams."



6. DON’T use Top 50 adjectives on the "3-5 words to describe you" question.

Why not? Again, they don't tell us much. 

And what are the Top 50 adjectives? You can probably guess them. 
Examples: adventurous, friendly, compassionate, passionate, empathetic, passionate (yeah, I’m making a point here). If you're writing a Uchicago supplement or, Harvard supplement essay, or Yale supplement essay, think beyond the generic adjectives.

In fact, don't use adjectives at all. One of my favorite answers for this was "Mulan."

Yeah, that Mulan.

Yeah, that Mulan.

Oh, and:

7. DON’T use adjectives that repeat info already clear on your application.

Example: motivated, hardworking, determined

Cool. You and every other student with a GPA above 3.5. Particularly if you're writing a Upenn supplement or University of Michigan essay.

Which reminds me: 

8. DO make sure your adjectives are all clearly different and interesting: 

In the example above, they all basically mean the same thing. So make sure they reveal something interesting about you.  Tell me who you’d rather meet:

Someone who is ‘passionate, persistent, and extroverted?’

Or would you rather meet an ‘ardent, panglossian visionary?’

Or maybe the ‘gregarious horse-whispering philosopher queen?’

I have questions for that last girl.

Oh, and hey:

9. DON’T worry so much about pissing people off. 

I'm doing that in this guide, using sarcasm and words like "pissing." 

Let me clarify:

Students often ask me, "Is [this] okay? Is [that] okay? I don't want them to think that I'm too [blank]." 

Oh, you mean you don't want them to think that you have a personality. 

I encourage students to take (calculated) risks on these. To push boundaries. To be, I don't know, funny? Human? Compare, for example, the following answers: 

(Yale) What's something you can't live without? 

Play-it-safe answer: My family.

Me: Zzzzzz.

Better answer: The Tony Stark-made arc reactor in my chest

This is me after reading that answer.

This is me after reading that answer.

Which reminds me: 

10. Don't check your humor at the door. 

If you're funny in life, feel free to be funny in your short answers. If you're not funny, no need to start now. 

Irony is one of the best ways to demonstrate intelligence and sensitivity to nuance.

Check out these just-okay and better examples, all for Yale 2015:

JUST-OKAY ANSWERS:

The two qualities I most admire in other people are… ambition and drive
(SMH. Same thing, bro.)

I am most proud of… my passion.
(There’s that word again. Also, it’s too abstract in this context. Show, don’t tell.)

I couldn't live without… my cell phone.
(Yup, you and everyone else.)

Who or what inspires you… the sunset
(Seriously?)

What do you wish you were better at being or doing? Answering these questions.
(Heads-up: meta answers are pretty common.) 

Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? Good times and great conversation.
(Oh look I'm asleep again.)

BETTER ANSWERS (written by a student who was accepted to Yale in 2015):

The two qualities I most admire in other people are… Spock’s logic & Kirk’s passion

I am most proud of… Only cried once during The Notebook (maybe twice)

I couldn't live without… The Tony Stark-made arc reactor in my chest

Who or what inspires you? Shia LaBeouf yelling “Just Do It”

What do you wish you were better at being or doing? Dancing-especially like Drake, Hotline Bling style

Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? A Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles keyboard songs

You totally want to meet this guy, right?

Make the reader totally want to meet you. 

A few final tips:

11. DO: Offer a variety of things you're interested in.

So if you love science and you wrote a supplemental essay about science, don't tell us about 20 journals/websites/publications you’ve read… on science.

Show not only your interests in astrophysics but also literature, philosophy, Star Trek, programming, and Godfather 1 and 2 (but not 3.)

Got a favorite short answer example? Share in the comments below!



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