52 Weeks to College: Week 13 — Short Answer Questions

A typical short answer question looks something like this:

Please briefly tell us more about one of your extracurricular activities or a volunteer or work experience. (1,000 characters or less)

We define a short answer question as any question that you are asked to answer in 100-300 words or up to 1,000 characters. Often it's the answers to the short questions that separate the true standout applicants from the LMOs ("Like Many Others"), so you need to give these short answers just as much weight as you do the full-length essay. (And yes, we really are dinstinguishing between "short answer questions" and "really short answer questions.")

The Common Application 4.0 has eliminated its short answer question, but on many college-specific supplements to the Common Application, there is at least one short answer question. And MIT, which does not use the Common Application, has nothing but short answer questions on its application. (MIT's advice for the short-answer questions: "These are the places in the application where we look for your voice - who you are, what drives you, what's important to you, what makes you tick.")

 For the typical applicant who applies to ten selective colleges, you can assume that you will have to write anywhere from two to fifteen short answers. Whew. Answering these kinds of questions will be much easier if you did your "pre-work" in Week 3 to create your story and your resume, so if you haven't done that pre-work yet, go back and get caught up. The best topics for any short answer question are those that will punch up one of the themes of your story, and some of the questions will expressly ask about your activities.

Week 13 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 4th application.
  • Revise 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.
  • Revise your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)

Tips & Tricks

1. Answer the question. Colleges spend a lot of time deciding which questions to ask. Read the question carefully and make sure you answer the question that is asked. If they ask you to elaborate on two activities, don't write about one or three; write about two. If they ask you to address what appeals to you about their academic program, then write about the great major they offer, not about how much you love the location.

2. Make one well-developed point only. There are really two tips here. First, make only one point (you don't have room for more than one). Second, develop the one point you make well. For any question that relates to extracurricular activities or work experience, your well developed point is all about demonstrating the "core four"—passion, talent, initiative, and impact. The core four should form the foundation of your activities list and resume. You can read more about the core four in Week 3 and in chapter 8 of our book.

3. Be specific. Details distinguish you from everyone else, and they make your answer come alive. As you are composing your short answer, look for details that don't show up elsewhere on your application. Do not waste your precious wordcount in the short answer restating what you've already said.

4. Observe the rules for formal writing.  Short answers are not text messages or Facebook posts. They are not outlines or lists. They are full-fledged sentences and paragraphs and should observe the formal rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

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 Application52 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.