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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?
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?
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.
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.
Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, who survived concentration camps and overcame severe alcoholism.
Understanding your feelings, needs, & values makes your writing more potent and engaging. learn how to identify those things in my brainstorming exercise here.
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?
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.
5. DON’T for your favorite quote, say something that you'd find on one of those "Success" posters or a Hallmark card.
"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."
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.
Better answer: The Tony Stark-made arc reactor in my chest
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:
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.
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!
supplemental essay examples: How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay (Part 1 of 2)
WANT SOME HELP TAKING YOUR short answers TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
CHECK OUT SESSION five IN MY 'HOW TO apply to college' COURSE.
Not everyone has had a chance to speak at a UN conference.
Or play in Carnegie hall.
When your most valuable experiences aren’t tied to big name titles (like State Champion, National Scholar, First Place, Founder and CEO), that doesn’t mean your experiences won’t bring value to a university campus.
This article gives three tips for shedding light on some of the things that are harder to put into words.
But first: These tips piggyback off of one of another article, which offers six techniques for writing your 150-word extracurricular essay, which you should totally check out first.
Ready? Here we go:
Tip #1: Quantify your experience.
This is crucial. While you may not have a job title, a well-recognized company, or dollar signs (like money raised) that can make an activities list pop, quantifying how you spent your unstructured time shows you’ve burned the midnight oil, you’ve put in hard work, in short--you've done great stuff. Here’s an example:
I’ve read every book by Paul Farmer and 50+ books and 20+ films on Global Health and social justice to better understand social health care inequity.
This isn’t just for STEM folks. If you're an artist, consider writing down all the hours spent and projects you’ve worked on, even if you didn’t get a chance to finish all of them. Here’s an example:
I’ve created ten short films, worked as an actor in seven (nominated best actor--see add'l info), and have written over 200+ pages of script.
Only you know how much time and energy you’ve put into your passions. While society values well-recognized names (“Fulbright Scholar”), competition winners, and large numbers (“$5,000 for cancer research”), things that people tend to focus less on are the endless hours of unstructured time, unfinished projects, and unrecognized work required to learn skills, develop yourself, and affect change in your community. Give yourself a chance to be proud of this time well-spent. Here’s one more example:
I’ve spent 80+ hours coding 10K+ lines of code for a natural language processing program that correlates the gender of historical figures with the number of verbs performed by each gender in the text of middle school history books (unpublished study).
Tip #2: Briefly mention what roadblocks stopped you from pursuing a related Rockstar Achievement and then explain what you did instead.
Important: Your extracurricular essay should briefly mention roadblocks only to that extracurricular activity. Don’t use this space to mention roadblocks to your academic career in general (i.e. why you failed a certain semester or didn’t take more AP classes)—that’s for your additional info section.
Admissions officers will understand that some students have not had the same access to resources and opportunities as others (i.e. ten years of piano lessons, started a non-profit, traveled the world before age 10, etc.).
Instead, what readers want to know is that you took full advantage of the opportunities presented to you, and that were specific to your circumstances.
While counselors may have some information about your high school or socio-economic environment, they won’t have all the details. Why not make it easy for them? Example:
Without a means of transportation (in Korea the driving age is 18), I was unable to participate in school-sponsored activities or outside tournaments, so I spent most of my time taking online college courses (MOOCs) and reading books about world health care.
Unfortunately, I had to drop basketball my junior year because practices finished after dark and I had to take public transportation home and it is not safe to walk through my neighborhood late at night. However I still helped fundraise for the team and played basketball on the weekends with my little brother.
Other possible roadblocks:
Did your school lack funding or not even have a particular club?
Was there too much bureaucratic red tape? (Be specific, if so; don’t whine.)
Were you or a family member sick, making it difficult for you to participate in a meaningful event?
Did your family lack the funds to pay for your flight to a conference?
Some ideas for what you did instead:
I started that club myself.
We put together a fundraiser to raise money for the trip.
When I couldn’t take that class, I studied on my own (if it relates to your extracurricular activity).
Related article: How to Improve Your Mediocre Extracurricular Essay in 30 Minutes
Tip #3. Mention opportunities even if you were unable to attend due to financial, health, or other reasons
I was accepted at the Stanford Medical Youth Program (SMYSP) but was unable to attend because my family couldn’t afford the cost of the five-week residency.
This was not a “missed opportunity.” This was a success, even if it didn’t go as far as you wanted or expected it to.
Not only is this an acknowledgment of your partial success, your reader might see accepting you as a chance to finally give you the chance to pursue your dreams.
Feeling inspired yet?
Time to get writing.
Want help on your Common App personal statement?
Check out this Free One-Hour Guide to Writing the Personal Statement.
WANT SOME HELP TAKING YOUR extracurriclar essays TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
CHECK OUT SESSION TWO IN MY 'HOW TO APPLY TO COLLEGE' COURSE.
A step-by-step guide to writing your college transfer essay that includes how to format your essay, how to start a transfer essay, and successful community college transfer essays examples that answer "why I want to transfer."
Here’s one way how to improve your Stanford (or any) roommate essay if you’ve already written a draft:
1. Count how many details in your essay reveal something deep and true about you. (I count 14 good details, in the example essay in Part 1 of this post.)
But which details reveal something deep and true? And what does a “deep and true” detail sound like? You decide.
Take a look at these details:
I don’t snore in my sleep.
I spent last summer at West Point and Annapolis, where I was told I’d be admitted if I applied. I decided not to so I could spend more time with my family.
I went to an LA Galaxy game with my friends two weeks ago.
I competed in rodeos for three years.
I love Justin Timberlake, NCIS, The Walking Dead, Avatar, and The Voice.
I have always been the girl who does the most push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, but that’s probably because I’m usually the tiniest girl and have the least weight to deal with.
Which would you keep? Which could be cut?
Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference, but here are two tips:
Notice when two or three details are communicating the same thing. Example: “Running relaxes me” and “I’m on the track team” aren’t clearly different. Cut one.
Specificity usually wins. Example: “I have a wide collection of crystals, American coins predating the 1940’s, and ammonite fossils in my closet” is better than “I collect things.”
Another great read: Twelve Ways to Get Inspired Right Now
And two personal preferences:
Keep pop culture references to a minimum. One or two is okay. Five is, I think, too many. Mix it up with some old school or classic stuff. Example: Jay-Z and Al Green (or) Wreck-it Ralph and Fellini’s 8 ½.
Maybe don’t use exclamation points more than three times. Unless you’re being ironic.
Now look back at your own essay. Which are the good (keeper) details and which are kind of weak? Cut the weak ones. So much about you is interesting and beautiful and different. Don’t settle for boring details in this essay. Or in any essay. Or in life.
2. Once you’ve identified your specific, unique details, decide if you want to include MORE details and LESS explanation or the opposite.
Example of MORE details and LESS explanation:
In my room, a Korean ballad streams from American-made computer speakers, while a cold December wind wafts the smells of ramen and leftover pizza. On the wall in the far back, a Korean flag hangs besides a Led Zeppelin poster.
The author’s point is pretty clear, and though he doesn’t need to explain it, he does later:
...This mélange of cultures in my East-meets-West room embodies the diversity that characterizes my international student life.”
Those details could stand on their own, though, and the “show” requires little “tell.”
Example of a FEWER details and MORE explanation:
I love playing piano. I play it when I volunteer at the hospital, in senior resident homes, and at my Church. Every time, after I play at the designated location, both the elderly and the children smile contentedly, emanating a happiness that I have never seen elsewhere—a joy that everyone should be able to experience.
Which do you prefer? Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.
For my money, though, “show” is greater than “tell” for this kind of essay.
And most personal essays.
Another great read: Four Qualities of an Amazing College Essay
WANT HELP NAILING YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT?
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Okay, this is not the ONLY way to write your Stanford (or any) roommate essay, but it is a GOOD way and it’s based on an essay that I think is GREAT. First, read the example essay, then we’ll talk about why it’s great and how she did it.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
Everybody has peculiarities that most people don’t know about. For example, I have a habit of pinching ear lobes. I also pour milk into my cereal, only to drain it out after soaking the cereal for a bit. Is that strange? Well, there’s more:
I have -2.75 vision but I hate wearing glasses because I feel confined and limited in my freedom to think. So you’ll see me squint quite often, trying to overcome my astigmatism--it’s not a death glare, I promise.
I’m also extremely tactile. I like to run my fingers over laser printing because I am amazed by my fingers’ ability to detect subtle impressions. This is why I hate wearing socks on carpet: my feet lose sensitivity. So I hope you don’t mind bare feet.
I have a fetish for things that smell nice, so I like to bury myself under fresh laundry just wheeled back from laundry room 8 (the one closest to our unit). I also alternate between three different shampoos just for the smell of it. So don’t be surprised if I ask to share our toiletry items; I’m just looking for variety.
Driving calms my nerves. Sometimes, my family and I go on midnight highway cruises during which we discuss weighty issues such as the reason people in our society can so adamantly advertise items like Snuggies. So I apologize if I keep you up late at night asking you to ponder the complex mysteries of our world.
Also, in my home, we have an open door policy--literally. Every door, excluding those of an occupied bathroom and the fridge, is always open. I hope you and I will be comfortable enough with each other--and with those around us--that we feel no need to hide behind bedroom doors.
Finally, I love shelves. They organize many different items under a unified structure and I find value in this kind of integrated diversity. And I love them as a metaphor: there is a place for everything, including even the quirkiest of our traits. That’s why no one should feel left out no matter how strange or odd they might think they are.
So, what are you like?
Why I like this essay:
I learn so much about the writer. I learn (in order, by paragraph) that she: is confident enough to admit she’s a little weird, values her freedom to think, is observant and sensitive to life’s small details, is great with wordplay, is ironic and self-deprecating even while pondering life’s mysteries, is willing to be emotionally open, values making order from chaos, (AND she’s smart enough to write an essay that actually creates order out of chaos--so her form matches her content).
How she wrote this essay:
1. She began with chaos. She brainstormed a list of 21 random details about herself using this exercise.
2. Then she created order. She organized the details into paragraphs by theme. She found, in other words, a way to connect the random facts--to put them on different “shelves” (each “shelf” = one paragraph).
3. Once she understood what she was doing, she cut some of the details that were less-revealing or extraneous and replaced them with better details that were more synecdochic. What’s a synecdoche? When a small part represents the whole. Kinda’ like an essence object. Look it up.
Remember: I'm not saying this is the only way to write your roommate essay, but it’s a pretty good way.
And if you want to get into Stanford, your roommate essay--like your main Common App essay--should demonstrate these three things:
1. Are you an interesting and intelligent person?
2. Will you bring something of value to the campus?
3. Can you write?
This student showed all three of those things and she got into Stanford.
(That along with her 2300 SAT and perfect grades. Plus she was first generation. #BTW.)
If you’ve already written a draft, read Part 2 of this post for a way to improve it.
Or just read Part 2 because it's smart, funny and well-written--like your essay will be. #thankmygrandmaformyconfidence
another great read: the ten types of movie (and personal statement) plots
WANT SOME HELP TAKING YOUR Stanford roommate essay TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
CHECK OUT MY COURSE.
Writing a "Why Us" essay for a college that you're not super excited about is easier than you might think with this one writing technique.
Afraid that your Why Us essay may hurt your chances? You'll think again after checking out how JFK's awful attempt got him a spot at Harvard.