Common Application Short Answer Essay on Entrepreneurship

Doug's Supplemental Essay Response has Problems—Read the Response and Critique

Young Man Riding Lawn Mower At Grassy Field
Doug's lawn care business is impressive, but his short answer essay needs work. Jaak Nilson / EyeEm / Getty Images

At selective colleges that use the Common Application, you'll often find a supplemental essay that asks something like this: "Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences." A college that asks this type of question has holistic admissions; that is, the college wants to get to know you as a whole person, not just as a list of grades and test scores.

By asking you about one of your extracurricular activities, the college is giving you an opportunity to highlight a passion of yours that you didn't explore in your main Common Application essay The length limit for the essay will vary from school to school, but something in the 100- to 250-word range is typical.

A Sample Short Answer Essay with Some Problems

When you consider which extracurricular activity to explore in your response, keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a school-related activity. Doug chose to write about a lawn-mowing business that he founded. Here's his essay: 

My freshman year I founded Beat the Joneses, a lawn care company. I was a kid with a hand-pushed mower, a second-hand weed whacker, and a desire to build a successful and profitable company. Three years later, my company has four employees and I've used the profits to buy a riding mower, two trimmers, two hand mowers and a trailer. This kind of success comes naturally to me. I'm good at advertising locally and convincing my customers of the value of my services. I hope to use these skills in college as I earn my business degree. Business is my passion, and I hope to be even more financially successful after college.

Critique of Doug's Short Answer Response

What Doug has accomplished is impressive. Most college applicants haven't started their own business and hired employees. Doug does seem to have a true knack for business as he grew his company and reinvested in his lawn care equipment. A college business program would probably have a favorable impression Doug's accomplishments.

Doug's short answer response, however, has makes some common short answer mistakes. The most significant issue is that Doug comes off sounding like a braggart and an egotist. The phrase "this kind of success comes naturally to me" is likely to rub the admissions officers the wrong way. Doug sounds full of himself. While a college wants confident students, it doesn't want obnoxious ones. The tone of the essay would be much more effective if Doug let his accomplishments speak for themselves rather than showering himself with self-praise.

Also, presumably students go to business school in order to develop their knowledge base and skill set. Doug, however, comes across as someone who doesn't think he has much to learn in college. Why exactly does he want to go to college if he already thinks he has all the skills he needs to run a business? Here again, Doug's tone is off. Rather than looking forward to expanding his education to make him a better business owner, Doug sounds as if he already knows everything, and he's simply looking for a diploma to increase his marketability. 

The overall message that we get from Doug's essay is that the writer is someone who thinks very highly of himself and likes to make money. If Doug has any ambitions more noble than "profit," he hasn't made those goals clear in his supplemental short answer response.

Put yourself in the shoes of the folks working in the admissions office. You want to admit students who will make campus a better place. You want students who will be enriched by their college experience, flourish in the classroom, and contribute to campus life in positive ways. Doug does not sound like someone who will be a charitable and contributing member of a campus community.

Colleges hear all too frequently that students want to attend so that they can get a great job and make money. However, if students have no passion for learning and participating in college life, the road to that degree will be fraught with problems. Doug's short answer doesn't succeed in explaining the connection between his lawn care company and his desire to spend four years of his life studying business.

A Final Word About Short Answer Supplemental Essays

Doug's short essay could be excellent with some revision and a shift in the tone. A winning short answer essay will reveal a bit more humility, generosity of spirit, and self-awareness. Whether you're writing an essay about your love of running or your job at Burger King, you need to keep your audience in mind and remember the purpose of the essay: you want to show that you've participated in a meaningful extracurricular activity or work experience that has made you grow and mature.