Step Into The Light: The Extra-Short College Essay Question

“What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?” Hmm. Well, I’d like to go for a trail run, get a mani-pedi and take a nap. But what I’ll probably do is laundry, register kids for winter classes, potchky around the house and write this blog. Given such an auspicious gift, what would you do? Please be brief, tell me in 25 words or less.

Since my response is 35 words, I have some slicing to do, but I get kudos for honesty, detail, and using my own voice. If you think there was some entertainment value in the response, then good for me too. And I’m pretty sure I’m not trying to impress anyone with my answer. Check, Check, Check. Check, Check.

This prompt from Yale, and others like it, are college’s and university’s attempts at breaking through the cumbersome tone of the application process and, by firmly restricting word count, force students to get specific about themselves. I think they hope students will even have some fun with them; revealing personal or quirky details that didn’t show up in their essays or interviews. Unfortunately, the effort students have exerted thus far to formulate application worthy essays has just plain worn them out. So when faced with extra-short answer questions, they are out of steam and out of humor.

I am reminded of an Oprah’s Life Lessons episode in which she shares Maya Angelou’s plea that “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Students, take note. The extra-short questions are not a trick. Admissions officers have been telling you from the beginning that they want to get to know the real you who will join a community of other real people — please believe them. Don’t reach for the “right” answer. Be yourself, be honest, and be precise in all of your responses. Resist the urge to wax abstract or to use big, vacant words that dull you down. Don’t waste your 25 words or less trying too hard.

Try this instead. Put all of your short answers in a list. Time yourself to go through them. No more than five seconds a question at first go-around. Just jot down what comes to mind immediately without editing yourself. If you find yourself stuck, quickly move on to the next question and come back to the blank spots later.

Here is a short list that has been circulating in the news from Yale, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brown University and University of Maryland:

1. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come?
2. If you could witness one moment in history, what would it be and why?
3. What do you wish you were better at being or doing?
4. If you were choosing students to form a [substitute school] class, what question would you ask here that we have not?
5. Dream Job.
6. Most overrated superhero.
7. Most underrated superhero.
8. Former kindergarten fear.
9. Gadget that needs inventing.
10. Advice for adults.
11. I felt like I truly belonged when…
12. If I could do something with no risk of failing, I would….
13. Tell us your favorite thing about last Tuesday.

Here are my stream of consciousness responses:
1. “You should teach.” Graduate professor.
2. My grandfather’s childhood on the lower east side, 1917.
3. Yoga — being bendy. Being present.
4. What three things do you value most? Make up new words for them.
5. Professional salsa dancer.
6. The Hulk.
7. Underdog.
8. BLANK (Not being able to suck my thumb in class.)
9. Mom-magnetron: Everything you need when you leave the house gets sucked onto the magnetron and it marches out the door with you.
10. Take care of yourself. Have fun.
11. BLANK (I’m with my kids crazy dancing in the living room.)
12. Sing in public. Enjoy eating a box of Oreos.
13. Hot tea, in bed, writing.

It’s a start. I have room to develop each extra-short answer, and I had fun doing it because I told one simple truth without worrying about making writerly sense. The bottom line is that if the prompt asks “What place has the most meaning for you?” don’t answer the Place de la Concorde if the truth is your couch on Sunday night with your mom, dad and two brothers, eating wings and watching a game. (And don’t use the 25 words if 1 or 5 will do. Choose the essential detail; it will communicate more of who you are than anything you will tell us in words.) Admissions readers don’t want you to agonize over your answers, and they don’t want you to hide behind them either. Start believing, and shed some light on yourself!

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