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.

Dealing with “Why us” questions

When the romantic partner of your rosiest and most far-fetched fantasies finally calls, you may be tempted to ask, “Why me?” just so you can hear how wonderfully attractive you are. (I know, I know. In the real world the answer to “Why me?” is “because everyone else will probably turn me down,” but that’s not a suitable response for a college application.) The application version of the romantic “Why me?” is “Why us?” and resembles the following:

  • What first made you think of our college?
  • What aspects of this school influenced your decision to apply?
  • What experiences in your life prompted you to apply here?
  • Why are you a good match with our institution?
  • Discuss your reasons for applying to our school.
  • What characteristics of our school do you find most appealing?

You may imagine that the institution you’re applying to has a collective ego and that this sort of question requires you to stroke that ego a little. Well, you’re probably right! Institutions are made up of human beings, and human beings (you may have noticed) like to be appreciated. But rather than meaningless flattery, the admissions committee asks “Why us?” because they really want to know the answer. Keep these points in mind as you reply to the “Why us?” question:

  • In any sort of writing, specifics are better than generalities, but details are absolutely crucial in a “Why us?” response. A canned, vague statement such as “I want to learn and your school will help me do so” tells the admissions committee one of two things: a) you don’t know much about their college or b) you have put very little thought into your choice. Remember, admissions committees want to admit students who will stay at their college through graduation, and applicants who actually know something about the place they’re applying to are a better bet. If you give the impression that you stabbed a pin randomly into a college list in order to come up with a selection, the committee will not be pleased. They may rightly assume that you’re too lazy to think carefully about your future and to check up on the place where you want to spend the next chunk of your life.
  • If you’ve actually visited the campus, refer to that experience, citing buildings and activities by name. If you sat in on a class, explain why the teacher or students impressed you. Once again, be specific.
  • If relatives or friends attended the university you’re applying to or the university representative visited your high school for an information session, you may cite their comments, explaining what impressed you.
  • Mention your own educational or career plans in relation to the college. (I’d like to study Egyptian pyramids with Professor Tomb of your archeology department and then excavate in conjunction with the Ministry of Antiquities, for example.) At the risk of annoying you I’ll say it again: Be specific!

Time for some examples. Here is an example of a short-answer response for an application to an institution I’m calling “Freedom University,” which is not the college’s real name. The student who wrote the “Freedom U” selection had visited the college and interacted with current students, as the essay makes quite evident. The student’s response shows that she understands the college’s self image and its pride in an “anything goes” attitude.

Now run your eyeballs over this short-answer example. The student author was not able to visit the school personally, but she did attend an information session held at her high school and speak with alumni and current students. Her answer focuses on the college’s location and her perception of its quality of life. (Note: The name of the university and its representative have been altered.)

One last example: The writer who composed this short-answer essay also relates to campus atmosphere (once again I’ve changed the name of the school) and includes information about specific areas of study in which the college is particularly strong.

The answer to “Why us?” may be placed in more than one spot in the application. Check out this essay example, a student’s answer to a question inquiring about a book that had a significant effect on his thinking. The student chose a book written by a professor at the college and indicated his desire to take a course with that individual. Note: This student was sincere and honest in his reply; he really did like the book. Don’t choose a book you haven’t read just to impress the admissions committee. What will you do if the admissions interviewer wants to discuss the book with you?

Moving on: The transfer question

A variation of the “Why us?” question is aimed at applicants who already attend a university or graduate school and want to pull up stakes and transfer to another. This sort of “Why us?” question may call for a full-length essay or a shorter response. Either way, the content is the same:

  • Discuss what is lacking in your current school. Don’t trash the place; simply state what you need that your current college cannot provide — a larger student body, more activities, smaller classes, whatever.
  • Explain how the college you want to transfer to can fill the gaps in your educational experience. For example, if you’ve expressed a desire for a career in international diplomacy, mention the Foreign Affairs major of the school you’re applying to.

Do your homework and be sure that the school you want to transfer to actually offers what you say you want. In other words, don’t tell a college with an average class size of 3,498 that you’re seeking intimate seminarstyle learning with plenty of professorial attention. You’ll look like a fool and, more importantly, you’ll end up dissatisfied even if they do admit you.

  • Discuss the primary attractions of the new school, including as many specific details as possible: I want to attend Anhedonia State because of its scholarly collection of depressive literature and its campus-wide ban on keg parties, for example.

Here is a full-length transfer essay adapted from one written by a student dissatisfied with his freshman year at a major university, whose name I changed for privacy. This is the short-answer version shows you how this response may be shortened for a school that places this question in the short-answer section. In both versions, the author states what’s good about his current school, which I’ve called “Central State,” and what is lacking. He identifies factors that will be different in his hoped-for new school, the name-changed-for-privacy “Northern State.”


Fitting it in the blanks

You’ve got the perfect short answer, and it looks like the perfect length. But when you write it on the application form, you end up with 15 words that won’t fit anywhere. You consider — and reject — curving up into the margin in order to include that last crucial idea. Sound like your worst nightmare? Not to worry. Before you type or handwrite your answer, photocopy the form. Use the photocopies to practice writing or typing your answer in the space provided. If it doesn’t fit, trim it and check the fit on another photocopy. When you’re sure that you have room for everything, fill in the answer on the actual application blank.