52 Weeks to College — Week 12: Really Short Answers


This week we're sharing tips and tricks specifically around the questions on the Common Application (or any other college application) that require really short answers. We're defining that as an answer not much longer than a text message, tweet, or Facebook post. You should be able to own these — they are tailor-made for your generation!

But approaching these questions can feel tricky for many applicants. Are admissions officers trying to trap you when they ask about your favorite author, what historical moment you wish you'd witnessed, or your nutty idea for a gadget? Do they really care that Toy Story is your favorite movie? YES, because that gives them a window into your genuine personality. If you're answering these questions correctly, you are not too focused on what you think an admissions officer wants to hear (which rarely ends well), but rather you're focused on having an authentic answer, because that's the answer they're really looking for here. That's how you "think like an admissions officer."

Week 12 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 3rd application.
  • Revise your 4th application.
  • Draft your 5th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, and exercise judgment about whether to include them at all. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Draft your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)
  • Take the ACT.

Tips & Tricks

1. Link to your story. So how do you "be yourself" in the context of really short answers? As always, go back to your story from Week 3. Use your really short answers to emphasize or reinforce a particular theme about yourself in your application, or to bring out a side of yourself that hasn't yet made it into your application but that needs to be there.

2. Personalize the clichés. Do you think you're the only applicant naming blue as your favorite color? Not a chance. But that's perfectly OK, as long as you personalize your answer. Examples:

  • "My favorite color is the blue of my mother's eyes."
  • "My favorite color is royal blue."
  • "My favorite color is blue because I am red-green color blind, and blue is the only color that I see as others see it."

There are infinite ways to personalize your answers. You can check out some other techniques in chapter 9 of our book.

3. Watch your tone. Tone can be problematic with really short answers. What might strike you as sophistication or dry wit might strike an admissions officer as arrogance or negativity. You don't want the admissions officer to draw the wrong inferences about you just because of tone. The best way to check your tone is to ask someone who knows you well to read all of your really short answers together. You've struck the right tone if that person starts smiling and responds, "That's so you!"— in a good way.

4. Revisit your essay. Now that you've finalized three applications, consider whether you want to revisit your essay in order to realign it. All the pieces of each application should fit together to tell your story. Is there anything you could be tweaking in your essay to make the parts of the application fit together better?

5. Sleep. That's right. Sleep! Sleep is the secret weapon for performing better on standardized tests.


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.