Responding to Short Answer and Essay Questions
Responding to Short Answer and Essay Questions
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Writing samples are an important part of your application to any college. Your responses show how well you would fit with an institution; your ability to write clearly, concisely, and develop an argument; and your ability to do the work required of you should you be accepted. Use both short answer questions and personal essays to highlight your personality and what makes you unique while also showing off your academic talents.

Short Answer Questions

Short answer questions are almost harder to write than a personal essay, since you usually have a word limit. Often, this may be as short as 150 words (a paragraph). This means that your answers must be clear and concise without being so bare bones that you don’t seem to have a personality. In fact, it’s okay if you answer the question in less than the allotted space. Provided you avoid clichés and sarcasm and answer the question wholly, less can be more. Here are some tips to help you ace your short answers:

  • Don’t repeat the question.
  • Don’t use unnecessarily large words. Not only will you come off as pretentious at best and ignorant at worst, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep the same tone throughout your response. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for you to read a paragraph that addresses “how to write concisely” rather than one about “how to circumvent the superfluous use of language?” Craft your response so that your reader can easily understand your point without resorting to a thesaurus.
  • Answer honestly. If you are asked to discuss one of your favorite things, don’t feel ashamed to tell the truth. Colleges want to get to know you. A “cool” answer isn’t as interesting as your honest, unique one.
  • Supplement your résumé. Talk about things that aren’t mentioned anywhere else in your application to show off a different side of your personality.
  • Always use details to bring even a short story to life.
  • Don’t be afraid of the word limit. Write out your answer without worrying about the length and then go back and delete any unnecessary information. Underline the stand-out points and trim the rest.
  • Describe your personal growth. When discussing an activity or event in your life, ask yourself what you learned or took away from it. Colleges like to understand how you’ve been changed by your experiences and see that you possess self-awareness.
  • Be specific about each institution. If asked why you want to attend a particular school, make sure to reference any times you visited the campus, met with admissions counselors, or spoke with current students or alumni. Talk about programs that interest you and how you think they will benefit you in the future. Tell your readers why the idea of being a student at their institution excites you. College admissions officers can spot generic answers, so do your research if you don’t know a lot about the school. Talk about each school as if it is your top choice, even if it’s not. Under no circumstances should you say that a particular school is your “safety.”

The Personal Essay

The majority of colleges will ask you to submit at least one personal essay as part of your application. (You can find the 2019–2020 application platform personal essay prompts here, but not all schools use an application platform. In such cases, you will find essay prompts on the school’s own application.) By reading your submission, college admissions officers become familiar with your personality and writing proficiency. Your essay, along with your other application materials, helps them determine if you would be a good fit for the school and if you would be able to keep up with the rigor of the course load. A well-written, insightful essay can set you apart from other applicants with identical grades and test scores. Likewise, a poorly constructed essay can be detrimental to your application.

To ensure that your essay is the best it can be, you will need to spend some time reviewing the essay prompt to understand the question. Not only will you need time to become familiar with the directions, but you will also want to take your time when constructing your essay. No one can sit down and write the perfect essay in one shot. These things take effort, brainpower, and a significant amount of patience. Consider these steps for producing a well-written, thoughtful response to any essay prompt:

  • Get moving. The best way to activate your mind is to activate your body. The act of moving forward, whether you are on foot or on a bike, can help you work through the ideas that might feel stuck. Read the prompt thoroughly, and then see what comes to you as your move through your neighborhood.
  • Write down your ideas. When you get home, write down the ideas that stood out. Simply put the pen to paper or your hands to the keys and write without worrying about sentence structure or grammar. There’s plenty of time to edit later on.
  • Rule out ideas that won’t work. Use the resources in the section below to decide if you are being asked to write a personal, school, or creative/intellectual statement and read through the the corresponding tips. If any of your ideas don’t fall within our guidelines, find a different approach to answering the question or rule out the topic altogether.
  • Construct an outline (or two). At most, you will be able to use 650 words to respond to the question, so every statement you make must serve your overall objective. To stay on topic and build your story or argument, it’s helpful to have a map to guide you. Choose a topic or two from you list and give yourself plenty of time to outline each idea. Use bullet points and separate each section by paragraph. You may realize that one topic is too broad and you need to narrow your focus. If you make two outlines, ask a trusted adult to help you decide which one is stronger than the other. Even if you're not a fan of outlines and prefer to write organically, writing down your ideas in a consecutive list and creating a pseudo-outline can still help you maintain organization and flow between ideas when you actually fill in the blanks.
  • Fill in the details with positivity. You are now ready to begin your first draft of your essay. Staying positive in your writing, even if you choose to tackle a hard subject, will endear you to admissions officers while negativity, self-pity, and resentment aren’t going to make your case. Use vivid descriptions when telling your story, but don’t stray too far from your main topic as to become dishonest or exaggerated. Admissions officers are well versed in picking out the real from the fake and aren’t going to be impressed by a made-up story.
  • Walk away. When you’ve finished your first draft, walk away for a while, even a day or two, and clear your mind. You’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes later and make edits to strengthen your argument or main idea.
  • Ask for the appropriate amount of help. While it is okay to have a parent or teacher read over your essay to make sure that the points you want to make are coming through or to offer minor suggestions, it is under no circumstances acceptable to allow anyone else to make significant changes, alter the voice or message, or write the essay for you. A dishonest application will be noticed and dismissed by admissions officers.
  • Edit. For the initial proofreading, read your essay out loud or backwards, sentence by sentence. Reading it in a form that you haven’t gotten used to will make it easier for you to spot grammatical and spelling errors. Then, ask for one family member or friend to read the essay out loud to you. Together, you can listen for things you missed with your eyes.

The Three Types of Essay Questions

There are three types of personal essays: the personal statement, the school statement, and the creative or intellectual statement. These are described below.

The Personal Statement

  • Goal: The personal statement should be a window into your inner life. It is a chance to show schools who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. An honest, thoughtful reflection will help admissions officers understand your passions, goals, and relationships with family, friends, and other communities.
  • Example: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” – Common Application, 2015
  • Tips:
    • Don’t attempt to sum up your life in one statement. Instead, try to pick one significant experience to elaborate on. Use details to paint a picture for the reader. Talk about how you were affected and what changed about your perception of the world. How did the experience bring you to where you are today?
    • Don’t reiterate your résumé. Let your résumé, transcripts, and test scores tell one story about you. Use your essay to tell a different one. Think of it not as a place to impress, but as a place to reflect.
    • Don’t talk about an experience that isn’t unique. While almost anyone could say that they struggled with history in high school, few could describe the influence that their great-grandfather had on their understanding of U.S. history in the context of World War II. Picking an experience or topic that will set you apart from other applicants is key to catching the eye of the admissions team.
    • Don’t write to impress. Schools don’t want you to write about what you think they want to hear. It’s easy for them to tell when you aren’t being genuine. Pick a topic that’s significant and meaningful to you even if it’s not “impressive.” Having personal awareness is impressive on its own.

The School Statement

  • Goal: With your school statement, it should be clear that you have done your research on the school to which you are applying. Admissions counselors use the essay to assess your enthusiasm for the school and your commitment to discovering how the education will benefit you in the future. You want them to understand what you are drawn to so they can begin to envision you as a student on campus.
  • Example: “Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompted your application? In short: Why Tufts?” – Tufts University, 2015
  • Tips:
    • Don’t make general statements. It’s important to cite specifics instead of referencing the obvious. If a school is highly ranked and is known for its strong liberal arts curriculum, that’s dandy, but it’s common knowledge. Instead, talk about the teachers, programs, school traditions, clubs, and activities that put the school at the top of your list. If possible, reference any times you visited the campus, met with admissions counselors, or spoke with current students or alumni. Show them that you cared to do more than just a simple Google search.
    • Don’t use the same essay for every school. It may be tempting to reuse the same essay for every school, but your essay should not be so general that you can sub out each school’s name as if it were a fill-in-the-blank answer. Sure, you may be able to recycle some content that applies to multiple schools on your list, but be sure to round off each essay with tangible information about the institution (references to buildings on campus, your interview, the mascot, an exciting lecture series, etc.). This proves that you aren’t applying to the school on a whim.
    • Don’t overlook the facts. Verifying your statements about a school is essential. If you say that you are excited to become a theater major but the college did away with the program five years ago, admissions counselors may not take you seriously. Do yourself a favor and fact-check.

The Creative/Intellectual Statement

  • Goal: Colleges ask students creative or intellectual questions to assess their ability to think critically, construct a cohesive argument, and use a nontraditional approach to solve a problem. In short, admissions counselors are looking for students who can think for themselves. They want to see that you are open to new ideas and can support your opinions with thoughtful explanations.
  • Example: “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” – University of Chicago, 2014; “Design your own three-and-a-half-week course and describe what you would do.” – Colorado College, 2014
  • Tips:
    • Don’t tackle the world’s problems. There’s no need to impress colleges with your knowledge of Syria or the spread of Zika virus. Keep it simple.  Remember, colleges don’t expect you to be an expert in anything yet.
    • Don’t use too many quotes. Your essay is not a collection of other people’s opinions. Back up your arguments, but be selective when using quotes. If you do paraphrase or quote someone’s work, make sure to cite your sources.
    • Don’t make it abstract. In an attempt to be creative and original, it’s easy to cross over the line into absurdity, but it’s important to stay grounded.

Page last updated: 05/2019