Short Answer Mistakes

Admissions Officers See These Short Answer Mistakes All Too Frequently

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Many college applications, including schools that use the Common Application, will ask you to write an essay in which you to elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. These essays are often short—150 words is typical—but you shouldn't underestimate their importance. The short answer essay is your opportunity to single out and discuss something that you love. While brief, the short answer provides the admissions folks with a window into your passions and what it is that makes you tick. The short answer section certainly carries less weight than the main personal essay, but it does matter. To make sure your short answer shines, steer clear of these common problems.

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Vagueness

Unfortunately, it's easy to write a short paragraph that doesn't actually say anything. College applicants often answer the short answer in broad, unfocused terms. "Swimming has made me a better person." "I have taken more of a leadership role in my life because of theater." "Orchestra has impacted me in many positive ways." Phrases such as these really don't say much. How are you a better person? How are you a leader? How exactly has orchestra impacted you?

When you discuss the importance of an activity, do so in concrete and specific terms. Did swimming teach you leadership skills, or did your involvement in a sport make you much better at time management? Has playing a string instrument allowed you to meet different types of people and learn the true importance of collaboration? Make sure it's clear WHY the activity is important to you.

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Repetition

A short answer essay, by definition, is short. There's no room to say the same thing twice. Surprisingly, however, many college applicants do just that. Check out Gwen's short answer to see an example of repetition that weakens the response.

Be careful not to say you love something over and over again. Dig in and provide some self-analysis. WHY do you love the activity? What separates it from other things that you do? In what specific ways have you grown because of the activity?

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Clichés and Predictable Language

A short answer will sound tired and recycled if it begins to talk about the "thrill" of making the winning goal, the "heart and soul" that go into an activity, or the "joy of giving rather than receiving." If you can picture thousands of other college applicants using the same phrases and ideas, you need to sharpen your approach to your topic.

Make the essay personal and introspective, and all of that tired, over-used language should disappear. Remember the purpose of the short answer: the college admissions folks want to get to know you better. If you use generic and cliché language, you will have failed in that task.

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Thesaurus Abuse

If you have a huge vocabulary, demonstrate your skill with your SAT verbal score. The best short answers employ language that is simple, clear, and engaging. Don't test the patience of your reader by bogging down your short answer with excessive and unnecessary multi-syllabic words.

Think about the type of writing you most enjoy to read. Is it filled with obscure and tongue-twisting language, or is the prose clear, engaging, and fluid?

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Egotism

When elaborating on an extracurricular activity, it's tempting to talk about how important you were to the group or team. Be careful. It's easy to sound like a braggart or egotist if you paint yourself as the hero who saved the team from defeat or solved all the personnel problems in the school play. The college admissions officers will be much more impressed with humility than hubris. See Doug's essay for an example of how ego can weaken a short answer.

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Failure to Follow the Directions

An important skill needed for college success is an ability to read and follow instructions. If a college has asked you for a 150-word short answer essay, don't send them a 250-word essay. If the prompt asks you to write about a situation in which you gave back to your community, don't write about your love of softball. And, of course, if the prompt asks you to explain WHY an activity is important to you, do more than just describe the activity. 

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Sloppiness

Just because this is a short supplemental essay doesn't mean you should bang it out quickly without careful proof reading, editing, and revision. Every piece of writing that you submit to a college needs to be polished. Make sure your short answer essay is free of grammatical and punctuation errors, and spend some time improving the essay's style as well.