common app

A Brief 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, 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. 


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. 

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:


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!


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


How to Write your Extracurricular Essay without Rockstar Achievements

How to Write your Extracurricular Essay without Rockstar Achievements

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).

Tip #3. Mention opportunities even if you were unable to attend due to financial, health, or other reasons

For example:

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.

Chuck Norris – How to Write Your Extracurricular Essay

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.




How to Write the Common App “Additional Information” Section: A Brief Guide - College Essay Guy

Guidelines and tips for how to write your common app additional information section, analysis of a few additional information examples, and answers to whether you should include a resume and if you should write about issues related to low grades or low GPA.

The Ten Types of Movie (and Personal Statement) Plots

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In Save the Cat, the very excellent screenwriting book by the late Blake Snyder, Mr. Snyder claims there are ten basic movie plots. It’s a rad concept and it just may help you figure out the plot (aka story) for your college essay.

Note: big props to Nived Ravikumar, the Statement Guru, for dreaming this post up with me. For his graduate school essay version, click here. (Also, Nived is awesome.)

Here are all 10 plots, with examples from both movies and college essays:


What it is: Our hero (male or female) is in a serious situation and needs to find a solution RIGHT. NOW.

Movie examples: From Brave to Braveheart, Finding Nemo to Finding Forrester, almost every film you’ve ever seen involves a hero trying solving a problem. In fact, try to name a major movie in which the main character does NOT have a problem to solve. (Spoiler: you can’t.)

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: make sure The Problem—whatever it is—is clearly established by the end of the first paragraph. And make sure the problem is super clear. While your ending can have an element of ambiguity (i.e. - you choose not to clearly spell out whether the problem was ultimately solved or not), your set-up has to be crystal clear. Otherwise you may lose your audience.

For an example essay of a dude with a problem, check out the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" Essay. For an example of a non-dude with a problem, check out the “On Debate” or “Porcelain God” essays.


What it is: Our hero is on a quest to find or do something (aka a “golden fleece”). And note that the golden fleece can be either:

a. something specific and tangible (like the pirate treasure in Goonies)

b. something abstract (like Carl’s dream of fulfilling his promise to Ellie in Up), or

c. BOTH specific AND abstract (like Indiana Jones’s search for the Holy Grail, an object that is both a tangible thing and something that grants eternal life)

Also note that the “golden fleece” could either be ancient and epic (like Frodo’s journey across Middle Earth to destroy the ring and thereby destroy the forces of Evil) or more contemporary and mundane (like the four guys in American Pie who vow to lose their virginity by prom night).

Movie examples: All the ones I just mentioned.

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: again, it’s important that the “golden fleece”—whatever it is in your story—is clearly set up by the end of the first paragraph.

Advanced tip: if you choose to have an ambiguous or what I like to call a “poetic” ending—in which you don’t clearly spell out whether you got what you were aiming for or not—make sure you give the reader a limited number of options. In other words, make sure the reader can guess—and even debate!—how things turned out once the credits were rolling. At the end of Inception, for example, the coin either stopped spinning or it didn’t.

For an example essay with a poetic ending, check out the “Dead Bird” essay, and note how this author weaves together not one by two “golden fleeces.” (See if you can spot them.)

Spoiler Alert: He finds the fleece.

Spoiler Alert: He finds the fleece.


What it is: any film that’s primarily about a relationship, including romantic comedies.

Movie examples: Monsters Inc., Ice Age, Shrek--and note that Shrek is both a romantic comedy AND a buddy movie. #AndinthemorningI'mmakin’WAFFLES!

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: take the term “buddy” broadly—your essay could be about anyone you’ve connected with deeply or learned from. But make sure the essay is about YOU, and not the other person. After all, your grandmother isn’t the one applying to college. You are.

For an example essay, click the “Grandma’s Kimchi” essay.

Best buds.

Best buds.


What it is: a story about how a place, group or community has a huge impact on an individual, and how membership in that group benefits or costs that person.

Movie examples: Monsters Inc., GoodFellas, The Lego Movie

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: you can write about a club, volunteer experience, or most any other community, but make sure the essay is less about the institution/community itself, and more about you, in particular what the costs and benefits of being in/out of that community have been.

For an example essay, click the “East Meets West” or the extracurricular “Yearbook” essay below.

Bam! Institutionalized.

Bam! Institutionalized.


What it is: our main character goes through a crucible to discover something really valuable about him or herself.

Movie examples: Star Wars, The Matrix, Stand By Me

Two tips for using this plot for your personal statement:

1.  Often the main character (in your essay that’s you) will work for the first half of the story to solve the problem in the wrong way (based on what s/he wants), at some point make an important realization, and then begin to do things in a better way (based on what s/he needs).

2. The “crucible” can be many things--a divorce, moving to a new country, or giving something up--but I’d recommend keeping it to major life changes and not small ones (like passing an academic test or making a sports team--unless of course you can explain why making the team was a rite of passage). Bonus tip: make sure the crucible is clearly set up early in the essay.

For an example essay, click the “Letting Go of Grandma” essay.

I'd say this counts as a "crucible" moment.

I'd say this counts as a "crucible" moment.


What it is: Whereas “Dude with a Problem” is about an ordinary person people in an extraordinary situation, “Superhero” films tend to be about extraordinary people coping with ordinary situations.  

Movie examples: Frozen, Twilight, Spiderman

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: if you happen to be inordinately good at something, or several things, one way to bring up your “superpower(s)” in a way that won’t sound like you’re bragging is to use your accomplishments as a kind of straw man, essentially saying “I may be X, Y and Z, but all those things don’t truly describe who I am,” and then let the reader know who you are beyond the accomplishments.

Caution: this can feel gimmicky if not done with care.

For a great example, check out the “Punk Rock Philosopher” Essay.

Coping with an extraordinary situation.

Coping with an extraordinary situation.


What it is: someone makes a wish and ends up getting much more than s/he bargained for.

Movie examples: Aladdin, Groundhog Day, The Nutty Professor

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: it’s important to note that this doesn’t have to be a “magical” something, but simply a catalyst. Think about it: was there a time when you wished for X, thinking it would solve your problems, but once you got X you realized that the problem wasn’t that you needed X, but actually you needed to realize Y (something completely different)? Or was there perhaps a time you embarked on an adventure thinking it would end up being kind of magical and fun, but ended up finding experiencing something completely unexpected?

For a college essay example of someone (in this case, a chicken) who wishes for one thing and ends up getting much more than he bargained for, check out one of my favorite essays, the “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road” essay.

If you haven't yet seen Groundhog Day, please do so as soon as possible. And don't drive angry.

If you haven't yet seen Groundhog Day, please do so as soon as possible. And don't drive angry.


What it is: A mystery needs to be unraveled, but in this case the WHY is more important than the WHO. In other words the criminal’s motives are more important than his/her identity.

Movie examples: The Maze Runner Series (Why are we here?), The Harry Potter Series (Why did he do it?), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Why did he do it?)

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: consider setting up and even solving the mystery as your hook, to grab your reader’s attention. Then immediately after that raise a question about why it happened, as a kind of double-hook. This one’s tricky, and I’ve only seen it done once in college essay, but it just so happens to be my favorite essay ever.

To read that essay, click here.

Um, why are we here?

Um, why are we here?


What it is: there’s a “monster” (an evil someone or something) and a “house” (a confined space) and the main characters have to escape from or kill the monster, either literally or metaphorically.

Movie examples: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Goonies

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: Broaden the notions of “monster” and “house” in your essay. For example:

  1. The “monster” in your essay could be a particularly undesirable trait (such as laziness, self-doubt or X), that the main character (you) discovered and then had to overcome.

  2. The “house” (or confined space) could be a time constraint. In other words, you had to “kill the monster” (find the “treasure” or overcome the obstacle) by a certain deadline. Note that in Goonies the “deadline” is the bad guys finding the kids. (Bonus tip: in screenwriting parlance, the technique of introducing a deadline is called a “ticking clock,” and raises the stakes.)

Here’s an example:

The FIRST Robotics Competition design deadline was two weeks away when my Chilean cousins came to visit me in St. Louis. I hadn’t seen Carmen or Alexia in three years, but they understood I was busy: spending afternoons with my team and nights in my room doing homework. I could hear them laughing downstairs, playing Monopoly late into the night, drinking leche con platano and eating empanadas. It wasn’t until Carmen’s mom got sick and they had to go back a week early that I started to feel very anxious. Was I nervous about our submission or feeling guilty? When we were dropping my cousins off at the airport, Alexia gave me a hug, a big smile, and genuinely wished me good luck, not once mentioning my absence. I wanted to cry. I chose my work over my family and blew off my cousins completely. On the car ride home, I begged my mom to let me go visit them during Spring Break, not caring about my previous plans to visit Silicon Valley. Not only did we become best friends that week, but I practically talk to them every week, thankful they forgave my selfishness.

Kill the monster.

Kill the monster.


What it is: the “unlikely hero” story in which a normal (or unqualified) person gets in over his or her head and ends up achieving something awesome.

Movie examples: Lego Movie, Elf, Wreck-it Ralph, Kung Fu Panda

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: establish early in the essay how unqualified or underprepared you were for whatever you ended up ultimately achieving.

Examples: I’ve never actually had a student use this structure! Be the first, and email it to us.

Here's video that features Five College Essay Questions Counselors Should Be Able to Help Their Students Answer.  

Short attention span like Dory? 

Here's a YouTube playlist with 1-minute answers to questions I get asked all the time


CHECK OUT my course BELOW.