52 Weeks to College: Week 38

How to Tackle the Short Answer Questions in Your College Applications
September 27, 2021

Short answer questions are those that ask for an answer of 250 words or less.

Some colleges historically have only short answer questions (the University of California and MIT among them), and others use them as supplemental questions in addition to one or two essays. For those colleges, besides the Why College X or Why Major X questions (covered in Week 36), the most common short answer question is this one:

Please briefly tell us more about one of your extracurricular activities or a volunteer or work experience. (150 words)

Believe it or not, it is often these short answer questions that separate the true standout applicants from the LMOs ("Like Many Others"), so you need to give these short answers just as much effort as you do the full-length essay.



  • Review your Writing Map and draft your answers to 2-3 short answer questions. Need to get caught up with your Writing Map? You can do so here.

  • Finalize your answers to the really short answer questions on all of your college applications. You don’t really need a revision week for these, but you can absolutely take one if you are reconsidering some of your answers as you work through the other writing components of a particular application.

  • Continue working on your essays. If you’ve been on the three-week writing cycle, you should be really cranking them out and should have no problem finishing them all well before the deadlines.

  • Finalize your first set of Why College X/Why Major X answers, revise your second set and draft your third set. If your template is working well, you should be able to get them all done in three sets. If you need to tweak your template, go back to Week 36 for tips.

  • Keep checking for virtual college events hosted by the colleges on your list and prepare for and attend those on your calendar. See our tips and tricks in Week 31 for why we recommend that you make it a priority to attend these events.

  • Finalize your second scholarship application and revise your third scholarship application. Most applicants will not complete more than three scholarship applications, so we’re winding down the writing cycle as you close in on finishing three. If you have more to complete, just keep going with the three-week writing cycle!  


1. 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.

2. 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 describe a notable quirk you have, that’s what you should address. It is as simple as that.

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 25.

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. It is much better to add an enriching detail than to try and sneak in another more generalized idea. And definitely do not waste your precious word count in the short answer restating what you've already said elsewhere in that application.

4. Observe the rules for formal writing.  Short answers are not text 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.

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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 college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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