Short Answer Mistakes

Admissions Officers See These Short Answer Mistakes All Too Frequently

Before 2013, all colleges that used the Common Application had a short answer section. Beginning with CA4 in 2013, the short answer became an option that colleges could choose to use or omit. Thus, if a college is asking you to elaborate on one of your activities or work experiences, the school truly wants this information. The short answer section certainly carries less weight than the personal essay, but it does matter. To make sure your short answer shines, steer clear of these common problems.

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Anxious woman studying
Avoid these short answer mistakes. Blend Images - Mike Kemp / Getty Images

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.

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The short answer on the Common Application 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.