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Filling Out the Application Form

A lot of attention is given to certain parts of the graduate school application. The essays, recommendations, and resume carry the brunt of that, both online and off, from applicants and schools alike. And there's a good reason for that. But what about the rest of the application? The non-essay data portion and short answer questions that make up the actual application form can play a major role in your acceptance. Read on to find out how…

Non-Essay Data Portion

The non-essay data portion is rarely addressed in application advice, because there’s little you can do to change who you are and what you’ve done in life. The dates, numbers, and facts you’ll enter about yourself here are almost entirely objective (and they can be double checked). For this reason, the advice we’ll give on this topic is short: be honest. Your goal for the non-essay data portion should be to make sure the information is as accurate as possible. 

Everything you put in your application is subject to review. Sometimes students are rejected because of inconsistencies in their application. But there are also cases where applicants were accepted, paid their tuition, and even began taking classes before the school realized something was wrong. For those ill-advised and unlucky students, enrollment is revoked. You can imagine the kind of personal and emotional turmoil this creates. Just don’t do it.

As an example of how this happens, almost all schools will eventually request an official transcript from your undergraduate institution to confirm your self reported diploma, credits, and grades. You should be extremely careful in entering these numbers and facts so as to avoid any unfortunate confusion.

What about race, ethnicity, and gender questions?

These concepts can be controversial, but they’re important to address. We recommend identifying with whatever makes you most comfortable. It is highly unorthodox for a school to perform any kind of “check” regarding race, ethnicity, or gender status, and these questions are optional 99% of the time. While none of these disclosures should affect your admittance, they might make you eligible for certain grants, which may sway you one way or the other in regards to disclosure.

What if they ask about coaches or consultants?

A small number of graduate schools collect information about the use of coaches, consultants, and other admissions help on their applications. Generally, your answer to this question will not affect your chances of getting in; mostly schools are looking to gather demographic data.

However, it is important to contrast two types of questions here. First is a polling question about the general use of admissions coaches. Second is a question about whether the work you’ve submitted in the application is your own, authentic work. No coach or consultant should ever write your essays for you or allow you to submit their work in any form, so your answer to this question should be an emphatic, “Yes! It’s all my work.”

Short Answer Questions

With multiple lengthy essays to worry about, the short answer section is often treated as an afterthought. Unfortunately for those who disregard it, this section is actually one of the first that the admissions committee sees, along with the resume. For this reason, you should put as much thought into your short answers as you do your essays.

Which questions do I answer if given a choice?

Just as with longer essay questions, some schools provide multiple short answer prompts and allow you to choose between them (like Michigan’s Ross School of Business is doing). How you choose between them should be the same as it is for longer essays. That is, choose prompts that align best with your brand and for which your answers will be complementary (not repetitive).

What are schools looking for?

Generally, the role of the short answer essay is to find out unique information about a candidate that may not be captured in their long-form essays. It’s also an opportunity for the admissions committee to assess your self-awareness. Schools will be looking for why you’re applying, what you hope to accomplish, and how they might be able to help. Lastly, schools will be looking for succinct and effective communication. This is especially true for MBA programs, which will evaluate your ability to convey complex information in a shortened business format.

How long are short answer questions?

Most short answer questions are very short. They can range from as few as 100 characters (about 20 words!) up to 350 words, but generally stay within the range of 100-200 words. While short answers are, by definition, shorter than essays, they won’t take less time. At least, they shouldn’t take less time to plan. You’re writing and editing time will be shorter by default, but don’t think you can get away with putting any less thought into these mini essay questions.

How should I answer them?

First, review your prompt(s). You probably won’t be able to separate these concise prompts into different questions as with a longer essay prompt, but you should still think hard about what’s behind the question and what the school is really asking. Short answer prompts often seem simple at first. However, if you just scroll through them at the end of your application and answer them as you would in a conversation, you will undoubtedly miss something important. Whether that ends up being a lost opportunity to showcase your brand, using the wrong tone to answer a complex question, or missing a grammar or spelling error, you’ll regret your haste.

Second, free write. The word free here is critical. Resist the urge to look at the word count as you type. Write down all of your thoughts. Keep writing until you think you’ve gotten down every last piece of information you might want to convey. Once you’ve done this and let the writing sit for a while (between an hour and a few days depending on how long it takes to clear your head), go back and edit.

Third, trim. Now it’s finally time to cut down. This is where you dissect what you’ve written so far and turn it into something good. Hone your answer until you only have left what you actually want to say to the admissions committee. Then, you can use any or all of these tactics to dwindle your answer’s word count:

  • Don't repeat the question. Toss this middle school precept out the window. The school knows the question; just give them the answer.
  • Remove repeat information. That is, don’t include in your short answers any information that is already covered in your longer essays, recommendations, etc. Save your short answers for information that cannot possibly go anywhere else.
  • Remove words like “could,” “might,” and “may.” This is good for space-saving, and it will also make your statements sound stronger.
  • Remove adverbs that do not add value. This can include words like “rather,” “very,” “fairly,” and “usually.”
  • Use two sentences where you have a conjunction. Instead of using an “and,” or “but,” simply turn one sentence into two with a period.
  • Use contractions. (Duh.)

Sample Questions

Here are seven example questions that will give you an idea of what to expect from the short answer section:

  • Why is this graduate degree the right move for you?
  • What aspects of our program, community, or environment catch your attention?
  • What are your immediate post-graduate school career goals? Share with us your first choice career plan and your alternate plan.
  • How will you make a positive impact during the next three years of your education and career?
  • Why is pursuing a graduate degree the right next step for you at this point in your career?
  • What do you hope to pursue 5-10 years after your graduate education?
  • How will our school help you achieve your career goals?

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