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College Admission Essays: Answering the Most Common Short-Answer Question

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

To get the most out of the short answer section of your college application, you need to get the most information into the space or word limit provided. You can’t ramble on philosophically about your favorite extracurricular activity or meander through a long explanation of why the college you’re addressing is an absolute perfect match for your talents. You’ve got to make your point fast.

When I say, “short answer,” I refer to brief statements (usually 200-300 words or less) that you write to interpret some aspect of your school record or experiences, not to the no-brainer lists and factual data that are, of course, also short and also answers. A question about your “most meaningful activity” and a “Why us?” query appear on many applications. You may also be asked to write a few sentences about your favorite books, community service experiences, and other topics. Transfer applicants are always required to write about their reasons for seeking a change. Short answer questions (sigh) don’t normally take the place of the full-length essay or essays required on most applications. These little guys are an extra added attraction, guaranteed to soak up all those pesky free minutes you’re stuck with after completing the rest of the application.

In this article I show you how to squeeze the maximum benefit from the lines allowed you in the short-answer section. I also provide helpful hints and examples of the most common brief responses.

Your transcript and other sections of the application have already listed all your clubs, honors, courses, jobs, and service projects. The preceding questions give you a chance to shine a spotlight on one element. But which one? Don’t look for the club/course/job/whatever that you think is the most impressive. Instead, go for the experience that truly has extraordinary significance for you. In other words, answer the question honestly!

Ask yourself why this particular activity/class/teacher impressed you so much. What did you learn? How did you change as a person or as a student as a result of your participation? Identify the message you want to convey (I learned how to deal with people who are different from myself, I never before understood the horror of income tax, whatever). Search your memory bank for a moment when that message is obvious or look for examples illustrating the main idea of your answer.

Suppose you’re writing about a summer job with the town’s police department. The point you want to get across is that riding around with a cop for two months made you appreciate a society governed by law. Your answer briefly describes an encounter between feuding neighbors and the officer’s even-handed enforcement of the law, even though one party to the dispute was the officer’s own cousin. You set the scene in two sentences and then in a couple of additional sentences go on to make your point about a just society.

Although you’re working with a tight word limit, don’t skimp on details. Specific is always preferable to vague. Also, because including every detail is not an option, look for representative moments or examples rather than a general summary.

Check out this a “favorite activity” short answer that focuses on the author’s volunteer work at a local hospital. The author’s main idea is the satisfaction he gets from distracting children from their pain and illness. Notice the specifics, including:

board games such as Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, and Candyland

teaching reading and math

playing the saxophone

name of the hospital (changed here for privacy)

connection to high school community service projects in peer tutoring and teaching 7th graders

mention of other work as an EMT and in the dialysis unit

Here is another “favorite activity” answer, in which the author describes an unpaid work experience that was anything but his favorite. The annoyance factor in his summer job taught him something about life and was, in his view, ultimately positive. (Note: The names have been changed to protect the innocent!) Once again, pay attention to the number of specific details:

father’s view that author should learn “the value of hard work”

father/son disagreement

duties of the job (deliveries, computer data entry)

boss’s attitude

desire to quit

positive assessment of the experience

One more example: Read this -  a “favorite class” description I adapted from a student’s essay. The description zeroes in on the teaching methods in an art history class. The student includes lots of specifics — names of paintings and artists, the use of stories, and the topic of a paper she wrote. Her enthusiasm shines through clearly.

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