College Admissions Essays:

How to Answer the Supplemental “Short Answer” Prompt

The Common Application requires one long college admissions essay.

But it also has a short essay, a supplemental question that asks students to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”

And they mean brief, no more than 1, 000 characters (about 150 words).

That’s really short, about one long paragraph.

The tendency is to simply describe an activity or experience.

Trouble is that this description often ends up as a broad overview–BORING!

But how the heck do you give details when you can only use a few words? Here’s the trick: You have to pick something within that activity or work experience and focus on that.

Let’s say you want to pick your cross country running as the activity.

My advice is to pick something within cross country that means a lot to you, such as a quality you have learned. How about endurance? Or mental discipline.

Now just zero in on how you learned that quality while running cross country, and then give an example. The example is key. It will be like a little piece of a story or a specific moment.

“I developed mental discipline from the times I had to run when I had a cold, or when the last 500 feet of the race was straight uphill…I learned to use little mental games to distract myself from the physical pain and fight back the voice that told me to quit…” This will make your answer feel real and specific (and interesting), instead of general and vague (and boring.)

You can apply this approach to any activity, or work experience.

If it’s football, try to pick a quality that you developed: leadership, aggressiveness, finesse, timing, whatever set you apart in that activity.

If you did volunteer work, mention the organization, but quickly go into one specific task that you did and what quality you learned while doing it.

If you volunteered with seniors, for example, talk about how you learned how to run the Bingo game at the senior center, and had to deal with grumpy old people, and what you learned about them and yourself in the process.

(The quality you are talking about it patience, and overall social skills. I stole this example from one of my current tutoring clients who wrote a brilliant little piece about this exact topic. She threw in how they would shout at her to talk louder, “Speak up, young lady!” And even rudely questioned why she brought in a Starbucks coffee.)

As far as work experiences, same thing.

What quality did you learn while serving donuts,  washing dishes, scooping gelato, bagging groceries, or babysitting? Patience? Dealing with weird people?

Finding ways to make a boring job interesting? Learning new skills?

Just talk about that quality you learned, and give a specific example or two.

That’s it. Short and sweet.

Still want more help on this short answer? Here are a couple links with some more tips: and

If you need help on the core admissions essay for your Common App, also known as a personal statement, try my super helpful Jumpstart Guide to get you going.