26 Weeks to College: Week 11

Often it's the answers to the short questions that separate the true standout applicants from the LMOs ("Like Many Others")
October 19, 2019

A typical short answer question looks something like this:

Please briefly tell us more about one of your extracurricular activities or a volunteer or work experience. (1,000 characters or less)

We define a short answer question as any question that you are asked to answer in 100-300 words or up to 1,000 characters. Often it's the answers to the short questions that separate the true standout applicants from the LMOs ("Like Many Others"), so you need to give these short answers just as much weight as you do the full-length essay. (And yes, we really are distinguishing between "short answer questions" and "really short answer questions.")

The Common Application 4.0 has eliminated its short answer question, but on many college-specific supplements to the Common Application, there is at least one short answer question. And MIT, which does not use the Common Application, has nothing but short answer questions on its application. (MIT's advice for the short-answer questions: "These are the places in the application where we look for your voice - who you are, what drives you, what's important to you, what makes you tick.")

For the typical applicant who applies to ten selective colleges, you can assume that you will have to write anywhere from two to fifteen short answers. Whew. Answering these kinds of questions will be much easier if you did your "pre-work" in Week 2 to create your story and your resume, so if you haven't done that pre-work yet, go back and get caught up. The best topics for any short answer question are those that will punch up one of the themes of your story, and some of the questions will expressly ask about your activities.



  • Finalize your 4th application.
  • Revise your 5th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, and exercise judgment about whether to include them at all. (See Week 3.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Revise your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 5.)


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


1. Answer the question. Colleges spend a lot of time deciding which questions to ask. Read the question carefully and make sure you answer the question that is asked. If they ask you to elaborate on two activities, don't write about one or three; write about two. If they ask you to address what appeals to you about their academic program, then write about the great major they offer, not about how much you love the location.

2. Make one well-developed point only. There are really two tips here. First, make only one point (you don't have room for more than one). Second, develop the one point you make well. For any question that relates to extracurricular activities or work experience, your well developed point is all about demonstrating the "Core Four"—passion, talent, initiative, and impact. The Core Four should form the foundation of your activities list and resume. You can read more about the Core Four in Week 2, in your free copy of Inline, and in chapter 8 of our book.

3. Be specific. Details distinguish you from everyone else, and they make your answer come alive. As you are composing your short answer, look for details that don't show up elsewhere on your application. Do not waste your precious word count in the short answer restating what you've already said.

4. Observe the rules for formal writing.  Short answers are not text messages or Snapchat messages. They are not outlines or lists. They are full-fledged sentences and paragraphs and should observe the formal rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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