4 Tips for Answering the Common App Short Answer Question

take control of your application

“Take control of the remaining components of your application”

When the Common Application went live last week, were you there?  Did you create your account, and fill in your biographical information?  After easily completing the first portion of the application, the stakes are higher when it’s time to put your own original thoughts on the page.

The Common Application short answer asks you to briefly elaborate on your extracurricular activities or work experience.  Specifically, briefly means using fewer than 1000 characters, or just more than 150 words.  Your answer will be truncated if it exceeds this limit. As you approach this portion of the application, here are a few things to consider.

Choose your topic wisely.  The correct choice isn’t necessarily the community service project you think the admissions committee would like to read about.  It isn’t always the sport in which you’ve set records or the club in which you were elected president.  Write about an activity (or hobby) that really makes you happy.

Elaborate rather than explain.  There is a key distinction between the two.  Spend some time thinking about WHY you spend time on this activity.  What makes it rewarding to you?  How do you feel when you participate?  Don’t write about the nuts and bolts of the activity, take the space a bit more personally and write about your relationship with your interest.

Avoid redundancy.  Consider your application as a complete entity.  What topics are you covering in your application?  If you’ve written your primary common application essay about an activity or interest, or even a person related to one, branch out for this short answer.  If you cover the same aspect of your life time and again, you’ve missed an opportunity to share something different.

Write and rewrite.  As an admissions officer, I found the short answers to be telling.  What kind of student really wrote this?  Often, they were one-draft wonders, with clear lack of thought, editing, and sometimes (in the paper application era) even mismatched ink.  Be certain that your short answer reflects the same thought and care you give to your personal statement.  Shorter doesn’t mean simpler, or sloppier.

By the time you begin to fill out the common application much of the information upon which you will be evaluated has already been completed:  your courses chosen, grades received, tests taken, and leadership elected.  Take control of the remaining components of your application and ensure that they represent your best work.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to assist you with your college admissions applications.


2013 Common Application Essay Tips

This post about the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you fill out the 2013 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools. Our tips are in blue.

If you are a rising high school senior, there is a good chance that the Common Application website is bookmarked on your web browser, or printed, sitting on your desk.  An ominous reminder of the promise that you made to yourself:  I will write my college essays this summer. 

With more than 400 colleges and universities, including many of the nation’s most selective post-secondary institutions, accepting the Common Application, there’s also a good chance that you’ll be addressing one of its broad ranging essay questions. This year, the recommended length is 250-500 words. While the online format will not cut you off at 500 words, it is easy to lose focus on your essay. Here are a few tips for each of the essay choices.

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

You don’t need to have had a life changing experience to write an outstanding essay in response to this prompt.  In fact, I wouldn’t wish most of the life changing experiences that students use as essay topics on you just so that you have good essay fodder.  Think small and reflect on what you’ve learned.

2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

An effective essay often makes it clear to the reader why this issue is important to the applicant. You’ve missed an opportunity to convey your passion to the admissions committee if you simply write an essay about current newspaper headlines. Look instead to your volunteer experiences or social action clubs in which you’ve been involved and draw upon those encounters.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Many grandparents have had a significant influence on applicants.  Not to belittle writing about a grandparent, or a parent, or a sibling who battles cancer, as there are some powerful stories to be told, but often the reviewer is left knowing much more about the person and less about the applicant.  Thoughtful reflection and word choice will help you to shed light about both parties in an effective response to this prompt.

4.Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

This one seems so easy – simply draw upon a section of your junior year English journal or tap that essay you wrote for art history.    Don’t do it.  If you are a musician, or an avid reader, or a budding scientist, you have a plethora of material from which to draw.  Think not only about the work you choose, but perhaps the learning process that you came through in discovering the work. 

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an
experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

This question isn’t all that different from the first essay, only with a focus on diversity.  In writing about this prompt, think carefully about the diversity experience you had and your role in it. 

6. Topic of your choice.

Again, resist the urge to revisit an English paper.  This is your opportunity to tell the admission committee something.  Use it.  And don’t forget to include a prompt for the question – it serves as a guide for the conclusion you’d like the reader to draw from the essay.

Are you unsure where to start?  If one of the essay choices doesn’t leap off the page, don’t get bogged down. Go ahead, write a paragraph or two about an experience. After you have moved beyond the blank page on your computer screen, it will become clear which essay choice you should address.  You can fine-tune your answer with multiple drafts.

With all of these topics, it is easy to write a basic essay that doesn’t provide more information about the applicant to the admission committee.  Think carefully of the information that you would like the admission committee to carry away from reading your essay. Ensure that your essay stands out by writing in an authentic voice and allowing your story to shed light on your academic interests, extracurricular passions or defining experiences.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.



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For Homeschooled Applicants: Transcripts? What Transcripts?

Dealing with transcripts as a homeschooled college applicant

Dealing with transcripts as a homeschooled college applicant

This is the second post in a series for homeschooled students and their parents.

Attend any college information session, on campus or in your hometown, and you will likely hear about the importance of your high school transcript.  It makes sense that the most important piece of the college admission puzzle is the summary of the work a student has completed over the four years of high school.

For a homeschooler, this might pose a difficulty.  Often homeschooled students have pieced together a curriculum that meets their needs.  It might include any combination of the following:  self-study, online courses, pre-purchased curriculum, and traditional courses in a local high school or community college.  This summary of learning might not provide a GPA, almost always lacks a class rank, and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to looking like the same path a student takes at your local high school.

Is that OK?  Absolutely.  One of the advantages to homeschooling is the flexibility a student often has to pursue his or her own interests.  The choices you have made, in concert with your parents and other guiding adults, are intriguing to the admissions committee. If you try to look like traditional students with traditional transcripts, you are probably selling yourself short.

However, you do want colleges to recognize the breadth and rigor of your studies.  At the most basic level, an admissions committee does want to see that you have met their basic curricular requirements for admission, which in many cases include multiple years of English, math, social studies, science and foreign language.  If you are applying to specialized programs such as engineering, the arts, or nursing you may need to provide evidence of other types of coursework as well.

A transcript-type format does make it easy for colleges to understand that you have pursued a high school education that has prepared you to be successful in college.  If you have taken courses through an online program or in a traditional high school, you will have transcripts from those institutions, and I encourage you to submit an official version of each of these documents with every application, even if you create a single transcript that encompasses your entire high school experience.  As you account for coursework that you have developed on your own, make certain that you have accounted for the relative number of credits – is this the equivalent of a full year course, a semester course, or a trimester?  A full year course is the relative equivalent of 4+ hours a week of instruction, over the course of 36 weeks.

Rigor is more difficult to quantify.  Many homeschooled students sit for AP exams, which do provide a benchmark to the colleges.  For classes below the AP level, the secondary school report, which will be the subject of a future blog post, can best establish rigor.

Developing a transcript for a homeschooled student is paradoxical: It challenges and rewards.   Demonstrating the breadth of your studies and the significance of your  accomplishments is similarly and simultaneously satisfying and daunting.  In a holistic college admissions review, members of the admissions staff take great care to understand a student’s record, regardless of the format – high school transcripts can vary greatly too!  However, given the vast number of applications that many colleges review annually, if you are a home schooled college applicant, make sure you cover the basics so they are easily apparent, and then let the distinctiveness of your record shine through.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.


For Homeschooled College Applicants: An Exception to Every Rule

Tips for nontraditional high school students applying to college

Tips for nontraditional high school students applying to college

This is the first post in a series about homeschooled students and the college admissions process.

In the beginning, college applications seem fairly straightforward:  start by filling in your biographical information, add extracurricular activities, and request a transcript.  Write about yourself; ask others to write about you.  For students following a traditional high school path, this seems to make sense.  Every year, however, I hear variations on the following:

  • Why was a student at my high school accepted at x college with an SAT score 200 points below the average?
  • If the college requires 3 years of foreign language and I took Spanish 1 in 8th grade, have I fulfilled the requirement by 10th grade?
  • Is Art History considered an art course or a history course?
  • Is AP Economics considered as rigorous as AP European History?
  • When the college allows for an optional essay or recommendation, should I submit it?

Very often, the answer I give to each is “it depends.”  It depends on the high school environment, the college in question, and the student.  If you are a homeschooled student, the open-ended variables loom even larger.

Homeschooled students make up only a small percentage of students applying to college in any given year, but that percentage is growing.  Like traditional students, they are applying to highly selective colleges, small liberal arts schools, and flagship state universities.  They are gaining admission and winning merit scholarships.  In most every admissions office, there is someone who can answer questions about homeschooled applicants in great detail.

Homeschooled students have a very different set of concerns when applying to college:  Have I taken the correct classes?  Does my taekwondo class count as a PE credit?  Can I use my research project in immunology as a science class?  Should I prepare for and take AP or additional SAT II exams? How many recommendations should I plan to submit?  Who should write them?

As a student with a self-designed education, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate both your mastery and your passions. Doing this effectively takes considerable thought and time. A complete and thorough application may include additional curricular information, more extensive testing records, extra letters or recommendation and essays.  As you plan your application, give yourself the necessary time to file complete college applications.  Over the next few months, I’ll discuss in future blog posts the primary aspects of the college application with a specific eye to the homeschooled applicant. I’ll reveal the steps and tactics to showcase your distinctive and outstanding qualifications.

However, for now, just know that if you are completing high school in a non-traditional environment, early planning is essential to your college applications.  No doubt, you will identify colleges that you believe are a great match academically and socially, but prepare to spend extra time ensuring the admissions office fully understands your high school experience.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

Early College Prep

Kids in SchoolMy oldest child is in 7th grade.  According to some of the schools profiled in a recent New York Times article, he should be engaged in the college search process.  I recognize that we talk about colleges more in my house than those of his peers, but more often than not, I try to check my inner ‘tiger mother” and downplay the future.

In some environments, it is important to begin talking with students about college from an early age.  If the student group has not been exposed to the benefits of attending college, then early discussions and preparation are key.  For my son and his peer group, college attendance has been the assumption since the day they were born.  So what should we be telling these students about college preparation?

In my house, we talk about keeping options open.  By middle school, students can inadvertently begin to close off some of their future options.  Our family college preparation checklist consists of the following:

  1. Put your best effort forth in school, so that when classes begin to differentiate in level, you can be placed in the most challenging level at which you can be successful.
  2. When you take a standardized test, take it seriously.  It can impact course availability down the line as well.
  3. Read. Quantity, quality, and variety count.
  4. Find activities outside of the classroom that you enjoy and pursue them avidly.
  5. Do something productive with your summer.

For a student whose educational and career goals naturally include college, I hope these guidelines are enough to get us through the beginning of high school.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.