Sample Common Application Short Answer

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

Teenager grooming horse, in front of barn.
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Up until 2013, the Common Application included a short answer section that asked, "Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below (1000 character maximum)."

Although the question is no longer a required part of the Common Application, many colleges and universities still ask a similar question, so the sample response and critique below may be of use to some applicants. And if you're working on your main Common Application essay, be sure to check out the tips and strategies for the seven essay options.

Laura's Short Answer Essay

In response to the Common Application short answer question, 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 purpose of both the short answer and the personal essay is to help the admissions counselors know you as a person, to allow them to see the unique individual behind the grades and 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, so she is at the upper end of the ideal short answer length.

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?

More Short Answer Resources

  • 6 Tips for a Winning Short Answer: Whatever topic you choose to cover in your short answer essays, these tips can help you make a strong impression with a short essay
  • 5 Common Short Answer Mistakes: The admissions folks see these blunders all too frequently. Here's how to steer clear of common missteps when writing a short essay.
  • Sample Short Answer on a Job: While working at Burger King may not seem like an impressive accomplishment, Joel shows the value of his work experiences in this sample short answer essay.
  • Weak Short Answer on Entrepreneurship: The author of this essay has some impressive accomplishments, but he presents them in a manner that is likely to make a negative impression on his readers.

A Final Word

It's easy to pay so much attention to the primary Common 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 aren'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.