Sample College Application Short Answer Essay

Laura's short answer essay presents her love of horseback riding

Teenager grooming horse, in front of barn.
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Many college applications, including those with supplemental essays on the Common Application, include a short answer section that asks a question along these lines: "Please elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences." The question provides an opportunity for you to tell the admissions folks a little more about something that you truly care about, or an activity that has had a meaningful impact on your life.

As Laura's short answer illustrates, the focus of the essay doesn't have to be a formal school activity or a competitive sport. Laura simply writes about something she loves, and in the process provides a window into her personality and passions.

Laura's Short Answer Essay

In response to her college application's short answer question on an extracurricular activity, Laura wrote about her love of horseback riding:

I don't ride for blue ribbons or Olympic golds, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don't ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don't ride because I have anything to prove, although I've proven a lot to myself along the way.
I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it's impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn't easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.

Critique of Laura's Short Answer Essay

It's important to note what Laura's short answer does and does not do. It does not tout a major accomplishment. Her first sentence, in fact, explicitly tells us that this is not going to be an essay about winning blue ribbons. The short answer certainly is a place where you can elaborate on your accomplishments as an athlete, but Laura has taken a different approach to the task at hand.

What clearly comes across in Laura's short essay is her love of horseback riding. Laura isn't someone who rides horses in an effort to build up her extracurricular activity resume. She rides horses because she loves riding horses. Her passion for her favorite activity is unquestionable.

Another positive feature of Laura's short answer is the writing itself. The tone is understated, not boastful. The repetition of sentence structure ("I don't ride.." in the first paragraph and "I ride..." in the second), creates a rhythmic feel to the essay much like the riding of a horse itself. This type of repetition wouldn't hold up for a longer essay, but for the short answer it can create a type of prose poem.

The college is asking for this short answer and the longer personal essay because the school has holistic admissions. The admissions counselors want to get to know you as a person, to see the unique individual behind the grades and standardized test scores. Laura's short answer does well on this front; she comes across as an observant, passionate, and compassionate woman. In short, she sounds like the type of student who would be a welcome addition to a campus community.

As far as length goes, Laura's essay comes in at just under 1,000 characters, and this tends to be right around the ideal short answer length. That said, be sure to read the guidelines carefully—the length guidelines can vary from 100 to 250 words (or even more) for this type of essay, and you'll want to follow the college's guidelines carefully.

Laura's essay, like all essays, isn't perfect. When she states that she has "proven a lot to [her]self along the way," she doesn't develop this point. What exactly has she learned from her experience with horseback riding? How exactly has horseback riding changed her as a person? In such a limited space, however, the admissions folks won't be looking for too much depth and introspection.

More Short Answer Resources

By following a few guidelines for writing a winning short answer, you can assure that your little essay strengthens your application. Be sure to pick an activity that is truly important to you, not one that you think will impress the admissions folks. Also make sure every word counts—there's absolutely no room for wordiness in such a short piece. Finally, be careful to avoid some of the most common short answer mistakes.

Realize that even a short answer on working at Burger King can be effective if it reveals the value of the work experience. On the flip side, a short answer on starting your own business can weaken your application if the focus and tone are off. How you write your short answer is in many ways more important than what you write about.

A Final Word

It's easy to pay so much attention to the primary application essay that you rush off responses to the shorter supplemental essays. Don't make this mistake. Each essay gives you an opportunity to showcase a side of your personality and passions that isn't readily visible elsewhere in your application. Indeed, if horseback riding was the focus of Laura's main essay, the topic would be a poor choice for her short answer. If her primary essay has a different focus, then her short answer does an excellent job showing that she is a well-rounded student with a wide range of interests.