Stuck on your short-answer questions in the Common Application? I get it! These were easily the hardest questions for me to answer when applying to colleges, simply because the word limit can feel very limiting, and finding the right words to concisely express your thoughts can feel awkward and unfinished.
However, these prompts are how colleges really get down to the essence of who you are, and see how clearly you can express your thoughts in a very limited amount of space. These short responses test your writing skills and your ability to organize information, so it’s important to give these sentences just as much thought as (if not more than) your longer essay responses. To get you started, here is some advice for centering your thoughts and figuring out how to approach this unusual part of your Common Application:
1. Do not just repeat the question: Throughout your earlier education, you probably learned to start written responses by restating the question to ensure that you answered every component of what was being asked. While this is a good habit for most academic writing in order to be clear and thorough, restating the question for short-answer application questions is rather unproductive: it wastes your word count, fails to “hook” your reader, and ends up sounding unimaginative and uninspired. Keep in mind that these admissions officers will read hundreds, if not thousands, of these short answers, so having to re-read the question in your answer will not be something that excites them. Instead, jump right to your point: don’t waste any time on setting context that is already in the question. Act as if you are in a formal conversation with someone who is asking this prompt, and get right to it!
2. “Show” a story: This is often the trickiest part of perfecting your short-answer response, but is arguably the most important part. When colleges ask for a response to your favorite book, most influential role-model, or most life-changing experience, they are looking for a sentence that paints a picture - one that alludes to a bigger idea and doesn’t just stop with the words on the page. It’s important to brainstorm what your “big idea” is: what message about yourself do you want to get across? This sentence should be treated much like a thesis statement in your essay, where you have a “what,” “how,” and “why” level within your sentence. If your sentence cannot fit all three comfortably (for essays less than 20 or 15 words, stick to the “what” and “why” components in order to both answer the question, and quickly get at “why” this example matters to you. This gives the reader a small window into your soul and your mind and doesn’t just leave it at a simple answer.
3. Keep it simple: This is also one of the most common challenges students have while answering these short-answer prompts. The stress of a strict word limit can cause you to want to fit every bit of information you can into one sentence, and use complex, high-level words to express your ideas. While vivid vocabulary and well-thought out phrases can make for eloquent writing, be careful not to overcomplicate your sentence with big words just because you want to sound more intellectual or cover more topics in a short sentence. Keep your ideas clear and to-the point, and follow the 3-tier system of “what,” “how,” and “why,” and you’ll find that while you may not be able to say everything you ever thought of when you read the prompt, your answer will be more meaningful and easier to follow.
4. Avoid obvious answers or cliché phrases/quotes: Not only are quotes not your own writing, but they show your inability to express an idea on your own without simply quoting someone else. You also want to avoid phrases that are commonly said, and shoot for answers that require a bit more brain power and creativity to write. In addition, make sure that you do not simply answer prompts with words that are mainly spent explaining an obvious answer. For instance, if you are asked about your favorite social media platform and your answer is Facebook, there is no need for you to spend words explaining what Facebook is or how it operates. For this kind of answer, you should spend more time focusing on “why” Facebook is your favorite platform, and what impact it has on you or others around you. In addition, you should avoid using a phrase from Mark Zuckerberg or a commonly-used phrase about the impact of social media on our lives. Be creative and think of a concept on your own that demonstrates your ideas organically.
5. Be professional, but do not be afraid to use humor and personality: Many students get really worried about showing that they have a sense of humor in their essays, simply because they are afraid of sounding unprofessional or rude. While it is important to be mindful of what you say and what words you use, do not get caught up in shielding your true personality because you are afraid of what the admissions officers will think. As long as you avoid slang, dark/risky/offensive jokes, and are very clear with your intention when it comes to your humor, adding a little personality in there is ok! However, I always like to remind people of a few things:
6. Avoid Repetitive Vocabulary: When describing yourself or the topic of your response, try to pick adjectives that are each very distinct and do not overlap in meaning. This makes your writing more efficient, and helps your ideas cover a wider range of points. For instance, using both “passionate” and “dedicated” to describe the same thing isn’t the most efficient use of your words. Both of these words describe someone who dedicates a lot of time to something, is interested in it/cares about it, and shows drive/persistence. Think about other characteristics of that person you could highlight, and choose the best word to encapsulate those distinct features.
7. Introduce New Information: These short-answers are best utilized in your application when they address a new aspect of yourself that is not brought up anywhere else in your essay. If there is something about yourself that you cannot bear to leave out in these essays - go for it, yet be mindful that you don’t want to risk leaving an important part of yourself out of the application just so that you can emphasize a different quality for the second, third, or fourth time. If you discuss your dedication to volunteer work in one of your other personal statements, it is a smart idea to use these short answers to talk about other experiences or passions that make up who you are - not just repeat that same information in a different answer. Think of these supplemental short-answer questions as the last few pieces of the puzzle showing who you are: the admissions officers want to be able to create a holistic image of you as an applicant: even the smallest hobbies, passions, interests, or thoughts that you have. Not everything has to be a heroic or life-changing story: after all, those moments are not the only aspects of who you are.
As you continue working on your Common Application for those later application deadlines, take these tips into account! By spending an adequate amount of time perfecting and polishing these sentences, you can add so much valuable information to your application. Don’t leave them until the last minute! Stay excited about the challenge of writing an informational and engaging sentence that makes an impact, and alludes to the big picture: who you are.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.