How to Tackle Short Answer Questions on College Applications

Aug 6, 2021 

Don’t let the word limit fool you. Although shortest among the written responses colleges request on their applications—typically 250 words or fewer—short answers have the potential to  increase your appeal to a college. However, they can also be a challenge to write. Think of them as the “lightning round” of the college application process. With the right care and creativity, your answers to these questions can show off your personality and reveal unique details not covered in other areas of the application. Keep reading to learn more about short answer types, the qualities of good answers, and how A+ Test Prep and Tutoring can assist you in the writing process.

Overview of Short Answer Questions

In general, short answer questions fit into two categories: those asking for more than a 100 word response; and those asking for fewer than 100 words. These questions, which are seen less often, are attempts to get to know you by asking about your favorite things or about your personality.  Longer response questions typically ask about your place within the college’s academic and campus community in order to assess whether you are a good fit for the college and the college is a good fit for you. Regardless of their length and purpose, short answer questions deserve as much care and attention as other parts of the application. 

Recommendations and Advice

The key to successfully answering any short answer question is to understand that less is more. Responses most likely to make a good impression are those that avoid redundancy and clichés and instead provide clear and concise answers that are candid, creative, and even humorous. It might seem unnecessary, but it’s always a good idea to brainstorm responses to a short answer question. Brainstorming will help you narrow down which topics highlight the range of your personality and interests outside of information that you have already presented in other parts of your application. It is also important to keep in mind that unlike academic essays and the longer admissions essay, short answers don’t need fancy introductions with hooks or anecdotes. A short answer response should follow this basic structure: a topic sentence that answers the question, evidence to support your answer, and a sentence or two of introspection.

Here are some additional short answer do’s and don’ts:

  • Do your homework. Some of the more common short answer questions ask applicants to explain some version of “Why us?” So know your audience. Go beyond citing a school’s elite engineering program or its wide range of extracurricular offerings. Mention if you visited the campus, spoke with admissions counselors, or met with professors, current students, or alumni. Help admissions see your genuine interest in the school. Show them how you will fit into the school and how the school complements your unique goals and talents.
  • Do embrace variety and creativity. You have interests or experiences that are unique to you, so use them to stand out from the crowd. For example, if asked about how you use free time, instead of writing about community service work that you have already cited, share a quirky hobby like knitting. To describe yourself, avoid generic adjectives likely to appear on most applications or already appear on yours somewhere already (e.g. responsible, passionate, empathetic), and don’t repeat adjectives using synonyms (e.g. kind and considerate). 
  • Do try to be as authentic as possible. While there are some things you may not want to share with admissions officers, it’s in your best interest to be candid about your struggles or any unique circumstances that have shaped you. When an answer sounds like someone crafting the persona of a “cool” or “perfect” candidate, the result is often cliché and bland. Likewise, avoid using pretentious vocabulary. Be yourself as much as possible or risk not making an impression.
  • Do answer the question and be specific. Make sure your answers describe your personal growth or illustrate the “Why?” behind your choices and preferences. Use vivid details and examples to support your answers.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. Whenever possible, do not answer a short answer question with information that can be found somewhere else in your application, including any anecdotes.
  • Don’t forget the small stuff. Some schools may ask students to answer questions that require fewer than ten word responses (e.g. What 3-5 words best describe you? List five books you have read that intrigued you.). Most of the same advice applies to these questions, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind. The tiny word limit means your answers have to be even more bold and idiosyncratic. Don’t worry about sounding silly or perhaps even ruffling some feathers. The rest of your application should demonstrate your academic achievements and personal accomplishments, so see this as an opportunity to have some fun!

Looking Ahead

With so many aspects to the college application—especially written components like personal statements, supplements, and short answers—it can be so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to come up with and organize ideas or to know if what you have written hits the mark. This guide shares useful tips, but help from a tutor at A+ Test Prep and Tutoring can provide even more assistance. Take advantage of its editing and essay services, including two different packages designed to help students as they brainstorm, compose, and edit their college application written requirements. That way, you can make sure you have given your best answers to even the shortest of questions and have fully taken advantage of another opportunity to stand out from other applicants.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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