How to Answer Short-Answer Questions in College Application

Short-answer questions specified in the Common App or Coalition App are answered with concise and specific responses that tackle the prompts without going beyond the word count limit. They are college-specific questions, which means that students applying to, say, Harvard University cannot provide the same answers to short-answer questions asked by, say, Carnegie Mellon University or Stanford University.

Read on if the colleges you are applying to require applicants to answer some short-answer questions.

In this post, we will talk about the reasons why some college admissions officers ask short-answer questions as well as how you are supposed to answer short-answer questions asked by some of the most popular institutions.

What are Short-Answer Questions?

Short-answer questions are prompts that require responses from college applicants using considerably fewer words than long-form essays, such as personal statements and supplemental essays. Some short answer essays have word limits ranging from 100 to 250, while others may specify exactly the number of words applicants may use, such as only 1 or 3.

Although requiring much fewer words than supplementals, short-answer questions are not any less difficult to answer since you will have to express yourself succinctly given that you have to stay within the word count limit.

What is the Primary Purpose of Short-Answer Questions?

The primary purpose of short-answer questions is for college admissions officers to gain additional insight into an applicant’s personality, experiences, interests and academic and career goals, which may not necessarily be covered by his or her application materials. It also allows them to see an applicant’s communication and writing skills.

In some instances, short-answer questions may serve as a tie-breaker when college admissions officers cannot decide which applicants with the same academic profiles they should admit.

Do All Colleges Require Short-Answer Questions?

Not all colleges and universities require short-answer questions. Some institutions that require them may no longer require long-form supplemental essays, while others may still do. Some schools may make it mandatory for applicants to answer short-answer questions, while others may present them as optional additions to their supplementals.

Here’s a resource by the College Board that provides you with guidance on what sort of writing questions you can expect within individual college questions — just click on the schools you are planning on applying to.

How to Answer Short-Answer Questions

When answering short-answer questions, understand each of the questions very well and determine what college admissions officers are looking for exactly. So, in other words, it’s important that you correctly address each and every prompt. It’s also a must that you answer short-answer questions without going beyond the word count limit.

Let’s talk about how to answer short-answer questions asked by some of the most popular colleges in the country:

Brown University

Brown’s short-answer questions can be very short — answers can range anywhere from a few words to a few sentences. For instance, the question “What 3 words best describe you?” should be answered in 3 words only, while the rest should be answered in no more than 100 words. There’s also a Brown short-answer question that should be answered in just 1 sentence.


The California Institute of Technology applicants are required to answer 3 short-answer questions. Topics range from STEM experiences, creativity and Caltech values that speak to them, and the word limit ranges from 100 to 400. There are 3 optional short-answer questions that let applicants show more of their personality plus 1 optional academic short-answer question.

Carnegie Mellon

Most colleges that accept the Common App and Coalition App require applicants to write a personal statement and some supplemental essays. Instead of writing a college-specific essay, Carnegie applicants are required to answer a series of short-answer questions to give everyone a chance to talk about their talents and interests.

Columbia University

As of this writing, there are 9 Columbia short-answer questions. Word limit can range from 100 to 150. Columbia asks short-answer questions to know about an applicant’s academic, extracurricular and intellectual interests. Of course, the Ivy League school also wants to learn about why an applicant feels that Columbia would be the perfect fit for his or her undergraduate education.

Cornell University

Other than the school-specific short-answer questions specified in the Common App and Coalition App, some applicants to Cornell may be given the opportunity to answer optional short-answer questions, depending on the college or department. The general consensus is that every opportunity for Cornell’s admissions officers to know the applicant more should be grabbed.

Duke University

Duke requires applicants to answer only 1 supplemental essay, which is just 250 words long. But there are 4 optional short-answer questions, whose maximum word count each is similar to that of the mandatory supplemental. Given that Duke has a low acceptance rate of 6%, it’s a good idea for applicants to shine by answering the optional short-answer questions.

Harvard University

Harvard itself says that your application to the Ivy League school isn’t complete without answering a series of short-answer questions. When answering Harvard short-answer questions, stick to the 200-word limit. Harvard advises applicants to reflect on how their experiences and extracurriculars have shaped them and how they will engage with others on campus.


Instead of asking applicants to answer some long-form essays in addition to the personal statement, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology requires them to answer several different short-answer questions. MIT advises applicants to talk about the things that inspire them and demonstrate that they are thoughtful individuals much like the institution’s attendees.

Princeton University

In addition to the 2 supplementals, Princeton applicants must also answer 3 short-answer questions, each with a 50-word limit. There are no wrong and right answers when it comes to short-answer questions. Applicants are also encouraged to be themselves given that short-answer questions are there to provide more insight into those who like to attend the Ivy League.

Rice University

After writing their personal statements, Rice applicants must also write additional school-specific essays — 1 long essay and 2 short-answer questions. The short-answer questions have a 150-word limit, and applicants should grab this opportunity to demonstrate their interest in attending for they are asked about the program of their choosing and the Rice experience they want.

Stanford University

Stanford applicants must answer a total of 5 short-answer questions, each with a 50-word limit. A couple of those ask applicants to specify a date and list 5 things. Rather than just mentioning an event and enumerating things, applicants are encouraged to elaborate to allow Stanford’s admissions officers to see aspects of themselves that their applications may have stifled.

Texas A&M University

It was only in 2020 when Texas A&M started requiring applicants to answer short-answer questions. Some programs, such as engineering, require applicants to answer additional short-answer questions. According to Texas A&M itself, applicants must also apply the same amount of thought and care when answering short-answer questions as supplemental essays.

UC Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley refers to short-answer questions as personal insight questions, and applicants’ answers to them are reviewed by both admissions and scholarships officers. According to UC Berkeley itself, it uses short-answer questions in the admissions process in many ways, including deciding between 2 applicants with very similar academic records.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a unique approach to short-answer questions: instead of the applicants giving complete free-response answers, they are asked to fill in the blanks using 25 words or less. Some examples of these fill-in-the-blank types of short-answer questions include “The quality I most admire in myself” and “One protagonist I identify with”.

Yale University

The number of short-answer questions Yale applicants must answer can vary, depending on the application platform used. For instance, those who are using QuestBridge will have to answer 3, while those who are using the Common App or Coalition App will have to answer 7. All Yale short-answer questions are personal, and applicants are encouraged to reflect deeply.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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