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

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You know those Common App short answer questions required by USC, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and a bunch of other schools?

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. 

Consider that each of your short answers, no matter how short, is a tiny window into your soul. Make sure the reader finds something inside that's awesome and different from the window before (like a cool sparkly horse instead of a piece of cheap, melted chocolate). 

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

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

You’re often given space for thirteen words for an answer that could easily be one or two words. So use it up! In other words, answer "Why," even if the prompt doesn't ask you to. Do this because your core values may be hard to express in 1-2 words.

Here’s an example question: What's your favorite food? 

If you just say “tacos,” what does this reveal about you? Maybe that you live in Austin?

A better answer might be:

 My abuela's birria tacos--the recipe has been passed down for generations. 

This answer reveals connections to family, culture, and even goats! (Because that's what birria is: goats. #themoreyouknow)

Here’s another example of a just-okay answer: Who is your role model? Louis Zamperini

The admissions officer might read this and think: “Great, no idea who that is.” Don't make your readers Google your answer. They won't.

Instead, expand just a bit: 

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

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

Bad example: 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: 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, many students write “The Big Bang” for this question.)

Better answer:

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 answer:

Documentaries. They are my favorite source of inspiration.

(Side note: Don’t. Sound. Like. A robot.) (Also: using contractions, in this case “they’re,” is fine)

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. 

Cheesy examples include:

  • "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." (You get the idea.

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).

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.

Examples: motivated, hardworking, determined.

Yup. You and every other student with a great GPA.

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 whom 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 phrases like "pissing people off." 

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.


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

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.

If you love science and wrote a supplemental essay about science, don't answer with 20 journals, websites, or publications you’ve read on... science.

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

Here’s one more great set of short answers (for the Columbia supplemental essays):

List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. (150 words or less): 

  • One that allows me to fearlessly voice my opinions and act on my values with organizations such as Students for Human Rights.

  • A community that encourages me to explore foreign nations and religions through travel programs to foreign nations such as Israel through Columbia Hillel.

  • One that advances research in international medical practice through publications such as the Journal of Global Health.

  • A community where importance is given to the arts, with an entire buffet of dance organizations for me to choose from.

  • One that gives due importance to heartfelt (and cheesy in a good way) traditions such as the Tree Lighting Ceremony.

  • One that would take the care to distract me from an organic chemistry final with a band concert in the library.

  • Most importantly, one that is in extremely close proximity to New York pizza.

List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; Turtles All The Way Down, John Green; Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India, Davesh Soneji; Pachinko, Min Jin Lee; 1984, George Orwell; The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon; Natyasastra and National Unity, Padma Subrahmanyam

In short, use the other parts of your application to show you are hard-working and responsible. Once you’ve done that, you can have a little fun here. 

Another great resource: How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay


CHECK OUT SESSION five IN MY 'HOW TO apply to college' COURSE.