MBA Application: How to Respond to Short Answer Questions

mba applicant writing short answer questions

How do you respond to short answer questions in your MBA application?

If you’ve been applying to MBA programs, you’ve probably spent dozens of hours on your applications. You’ve gathered your references, you’ve prepared for your interview, and you’ve taken your GMAT, but have you given enough thought to your short answer responses? Unlike essay questions, short answers require you to condense all your ideas and experiences into a brief statement that seems to barely touch the surface. It’s not easy, and while you might not think that 200 words can have that big of an impact on your application, you’d be wrong.

What Is the Short Answer Question?

Whether it’s due to the advent of social media or because MBA programs are garnering more and more applications and so have less and less time, short answer questions are here to stay. The goal of the short answer question is to get the facts and just the facts as succinctly as possible. Schools want to see if applicants can cut out the backstory, avoid adornment, and write a response that is short, sweet, and to the point.

For example, Columbia Business School asks a variety of short answer essay questions. They cover everything from a 51-character response to “What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal?” to a 100 to 250-word response to the question, “What will your classmates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?” In both cases, you have little opportunity to explain your reasoning; you just have to provide the required information.

What’s Difficult About the Short Answer

Writing a response in 51-characters means that you have to understand that you can’t convey everything you want. Let’s say your professional goal is to “work for a data-management startup as a product development manager that is on the cutting edge of technology.” That simple explanation is 109-characters, and far too long. So, you have to parse it down to the simple facts.

The struggle most candidates have with short answer questions is figuring out how to say what they want within a limited space. Frankly, it’s hard to provide a compelling snapshot of yourself in just a few sentences. That’s why so many students just copy and paste bullet points from their resume or sentences from their essays, but that’s the wrong approach. Brainstorm and craft your short answer questions with the same attention to detail as the essay. The key is to get rid of all the non-essential information.

So, how do you do it?

7 Tips for Responding to the Short Answer Question

  1. Read the Question

Just like with the longer essay questions, the first key to writing a compelling answer is to understand the question. Make sure you take as long as you need to figure out exactly what the question is asking. In the case of the Columbia “professional goal” question, they want to know your “immediate” goal. That means they want a clear vision statement of your future distilled down into a single sentence. Once you understand the question, you can start compiling the answer. 

  1. Forget the Word Count

Even if you only have 50-characters, don’t just slap down some information and call it good. Every word counts in short answers. Start by answering every short question without worrying about word count. Ask yourself how you would respond to the issue if you had as much room as you wanted? You can always find the brilliant nuggets in a long answer compared to coming up with something from nothing.

  1. Brainstorm

Just like you would on the longer essay topics, really think through all the different ways you can answer the short question. Come up with the theme or main goal that you will use in all of your answers. Your short answers should be able to combine to form one cohesive story.

  1. Watch Your Language

When words limit you, every word counts. That means you need to be aware of how you write as much as what you write. Avoid passive voice as much as you can. That means instead of writing “I was promoted to Lead Strategist at Company A” write “Company A promoted me to Lead Strategist.” Cutting out passive voice cuts out two words. You can also cut back on your word count by choosing more descriptive words. Instead of saying, “I was very busy” you can say, “the work was demanding.”

  1. Avoid Redundancy

If you’ve said something similar in an earlier part of your application, you don’t need to say it again in the short answer. Every short answer should feel like a part of your entire application. For example, if you already talked about how strategy played a key role at Company B don’t talk about it again when asked about your greatest accomplishments at Company B. Remember, the admissions committee is going to read the entire application. There’s no need to repeat yourself.

  1. Pare Down Your Response

After you write up your response, take a minute to pare it down to the essentials. Don’t bother to repeat the question. For example, if the question is about post-MBA goals, there’s no need to start your response with “For my Post-MBA goals I…” Do whatever you can to make sure your answer jumps right into the meat of your reply, and keep it as short as possible.

  1. Use as an Opportunity

Short answer responses are the perfect opportunity for you to fill in any holes in the rest of your application. If you haven’t been able to discuss something in your work history that could be seen as a weakness, figure out how you can explain it in a short answer. If you make every word count, you can find a way to cover everything that needs to be included.

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