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Common Application Short Answer Tips

Make the Most of Your 1,000-Character Short Answer with These 6 Tips


The prompt for the Short Answer on the Common Application typically states something along these lines: "Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences."

Although short, this little essay is important. It's a place where you can explain why one of your activities is important to you. It provides a small window into your passions and personality. The tips below can help you make the most out of this short paragraph.

1. Pick the Right Activitiy

Freshman Winston Yan enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard is eliminating early admissions beginning next year because of criticism that it favors wealthier students and hinders those seeking financial aid since the deadlines for aid are much later.
Glen Cooper/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It may be tempting to pick an activity because you think it needs further explanation. You may be worried that the one-line description in the extracurricular section of the Common Application isn't clear. However, the Short Answer shouldn't be viewed as a place for clarification. You should focus on a long-term activity that means a lot to you.  Admissions Officers really want to see what makes you tick.  Use this space to elaborate upon your greatest passion whether that be playing chess, swimming, or working at the local bookstore.

2. Explain Why the Activity is Important to You

The prompt uses the word "elaborate."  Be careful how you interpret this word.  You want to do more than describe the activity.  You should analyze the activity.  Why is it important to you?  For example, if you worked on a political campaign, you shouldn't simply describe what your duties were. You should explain why you believed in the campaign. Discuss how the political views of the candidate intersected with your own beliefs and values. The true purpose of the Short Answer isn't for the admissions officers to learn more about the activity; it's for them to learn more about you. As an example, Christie's short answer does a great job showing why running is important to her.

3. Be Precise and Detailed

Whatever activity you chose to elaborate upon, make sure you present it with precise details. If you describe your activity with vague language and generic details, you will fail to capture why you are passionate about the activity. Don't simply say you like an activity because it is "fun." Ask yourself why it is fun--do you like the teamwork, the intellectual challenge, the travel, the feeling of physical exhaustion?

4. Make Every Word Count

The length limit may vary from one school to the next, but 150 words is common. This isn't a lot of space, so you want to choose every word carefully. The short answer needs to be concise and substantive.  You have no space for wordiness, repetition, digression, vague language or flowery language. You should also use most of the space you are given. An 80 word response is failing to take full advantage of this opportunity to tell the admissions folks about one of your passions. To get the most out of your 150 words, check out this article on essay style tips. Also check out Gwen's short answer for an example of a response that is plagued by repetition and vague language.

5. Strike the Right Tone

The tone of your short answer can be serious or playful, but you want to avoid a couple common pitfalls.  If your short answer has a dry, matter-of-fact tone, your passion for the activity will not come across.  Try to write with energy.  Also, watch out for sounding like a braggart or egotist. See Doug's short answer for an example of a problematic tone.

6. Be Sincere

It is often easy to tell if an applicant is creating a false reality in an effort to impress the admissions officers. Don't write about your work at a church fundraiser if your true passion is actually football. A college won't admit someone just because the student is a do-gooder.  They will admit students who reveal motivation, passion, and honesty.

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