Tackling the UT Austin Short Answer Application Prompts

When UT Austin introduced three short answer essays to their application in 2017, many students felt panicked. Applications are already writing-intensive, so adding even more required writing was an overwhelming prospect. But when it comes down to it, these questions are intended to help students. How? By giving them more opportunity to showcase their fit for UT and their first-choice major.

A student's expanded resume provides the “data” on their achievements and experiences. Their essay and short answers, in contrast, show that they're a living, thinking, feeling human being, someone who cares about what they do and has big dreams for their future. No admissions committee expects a student to have their life 100% planned out right now—the whole point of college is to give students time, space, and resources to learn and explore. But they do want to know that if they admit someone, that student is going to take advantage of everything they offer.

Read on for a series of tips about how to make the most of these short answer prompts, including specific advice for answering each one.

General Tips For The Short Answer Prompts

  • Just answer the question. Seems simple, but it's important to keep in mind: these are not trick questions. UT Admissions is asking students exactly what they want to know. Students should read the question carefully and be sure they're addressing it directly.

  • Be succinct. Students should absolutely use illustrative examples where appropriate, but they can save their creative juices for Essay A. The short answers are more about providing extra information to the admissions committee.

  • Always keep first-choice major in mind. The short answers are a great place to provide additional evidence for why a student is a good fit for their first-choice major.

The short answers on the UT application fit together to create the perfect opportunity for a student showcase themselves as an active, engaged future member of the UT community. Here, we'll walk you through each short answer question and offer some tips on how to tackle them.

REQUIRED SHORT ANSWER 1: First-Choice Major

Short Answer Prompt

Why are you interested in the major you indicated as your first-choice major?

How to approach this question

In this short answer response, students need to communicate to the admissions committee what they personally find engaging and exciting about their proposed field of study. The admissions committee does not expect student to already be an expert in their field or to have their future career in this field planned out. But they do want to know that the student didn't just open the course catalog and pick a major at random.

Remember, the student should demonstrate how they specifically—not just a generic studentwill take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

So rather than writing a dry sentence like “I plan to apply for Department X's summer research grant,” a student should write a sentence or two describing a burning question they hope to answer through their research: “With the support of Department X's summer research grants, I could deepen my understanding of [insert specific topic you're passionate about] and finally discover an answer to [burning question]—something I've been fascinated by since my sophomore year internship at [relevant workplace].” The first sentence could just as easily apply to a thousand different applicants. The second is focused, detailed, and could only have been written by—and about—one student.

Students' responses to this question should demonstrate the following:

  1. They have already begun exploring this subject on their own, independently and/or through organized opportunities (e.g., classes, summer programs, internships).

  2. They have a sense of how this major fits into their long-term goals.

  3. They have thought about why UT would be an excellent place to study this subject.

Questions for reflection and freewriting

Students should be careful not to simply relist classes, activities, and awards from their resume. Instead, they can highlight two or three experiences they found especially meaningful, and reflect on how those experiences shaped their interest in their major. Here are some questions they can ask themselves as they brainstorm:

  • How did this learning experience change the way you understand the world? Did you learn about new problems you hadn't been aware of? Gain a new perspective on your own life, culture, or community? Learn new skills or methods for solving problems?

  • How did you grow from this learning experience? Did it spark new realizations or spark you to take action in some way? Give you new creative outlets for expressing yourself? Open doors to careers or fields of study you hadn't previously considered?

Personalizing the answer

If a student hasn't had the opportunity to participate in summer programs or take coursework directly related to their first-choice major, they might need to get a little more creative here. Remember: learning experiences don't have to be formally organized. Taking the initiative to explore a topic independently can demonstrate to colleges that a student is self-motivated and intellectually curious. Here are some ways students might independently explore their interests:

  • Reading books and other publications related to their interests

  • Watching relevant lectures on YouTube or listening to podcasts

  • Starting conversations with friends, family, or classmates about what they're learning

  • Finding ways to incorporate interests into assignments (e.g., researching famous social psychology experiments for an AP U.S. History project)

  • Talking with a teacher or reaching out to a professional in their field to learn more

  • Gathering information from real world experiences, even if they don't seem directly connected to the major. (For example, if a student is an aspiring accounting major who currently works a retail job, they might pay close attention to how a small business handles expenses compared to a large chain. Or, if they're an aspiring education major who cares for younger siblings, they might help their siblings with their homework assignments and come up with creative ideas to teach them difficult concepts.)

Bottom line: Students should be sure that their answer to this question doesn't regurgitate information from their resume and instead offers new insight into their personal connection with their first-choice major.

REQUIRED SHORT ANSWER 2: Leadership

Short Answer Prompt

Leadership can be demonstrated in many ways. Please share how you have demonstrated leadership in either your school, job, community, and/or within your family responsibilities.

How to approach this question

The trick to answering this question: Don't get too hung up on conventional definitions of “leadership.” American popular culture tends to define leaders as people who have official titles, including class president or varsity captain. We associate leadership with particular character traits, like self-confidence or charisma. And we may expect leaders to feel comfortable doing things like giving orders, delivering speeches, and making high-stakes decisions.

But there are only so many official titles to go around—and, the truth is, many of us have talents and temperaments that are better suited to different (though equally important) social roles. A community or team requires many kinds of people and many varied skill sets to function effectively.

Think of it this way: if a varsity football team had 20 captains, or a senior class had 400 class presidents, it would be utter chaos. Nothing would ever get accomplished because there would be no one to fill other important roles that are vital to the group's functioning.

A university community is the same way. UT doesn't want to admit thousands of leaders who are all carbon copies. They want to create a heterogeneous community whose members contribute different strengths, experiences, and perspectives. So, if the traditional definition of leadership doesn't resonate with a student, they shouldn't try to fit their experiences into that mold. If they do, they'll likely wind up with a response that is vague on details and padded with generic statements. At best, they'll come off as a somewhat mediocre leader by traditional standards; at worst, they risk distorting or misrepresenting what they have actually achieved.

Instead, students should use this short answer response to explore what they personally contribute to the communities they belong to. They can create their own definition of leadership—one that is unique to their values, their experiences, and their way of walking in the world. Then, using examples drawn from their life, they can help the admissions committee understand why their brand of leadership is so important to the communities they belong to.

Questions for reflection and freewriting

By thinking about the different communities they belong to—school groups, clubs, teams, religious communities, family, or even a group of friends—students can get a big picture of how they might express leadership in various roles.

  • Within the communities you belong to, do you find yourself gravitating towards a particular social role? For instance, are you typically the peacemaker or mediator when there are conflicts? The funny, spontaneous one who makes everybody laugh? A good listener who people always seem to confide in? A highly organized person who keeps track of deadlines and coordinates schedules? A calm, level-headed person who takes charge in a crisis? An empathetic person who always tries to understand where other people are coming from? (If you get stuck here, ask your friends or family to help you brainstorm ideas. As outside observers, they may have a better sense of your strengths than you do.)

  • What would happen if you suddenly stopped playing this role? How would it affect the social dynamic or mood of the group? What would happen to the team's cohesiveness or the group's productivity? What kinds of conflicts or challenges might arise if nobody stepped up to play this role?

Thinking about character traits that a student values can help them better understand their position in a community. As they brainstorm and reflect on these questions, they might discover that certain significant moments or interactions come to mind that help them better formulate their version of leadership.

  • What character traits or behaviors are especially valued within your culture, community, or family? Things like listening, mediating conflict, helping others feel welcome, or patiently teaching others.

  • Where do those traits come from? Perhaps they're rooted in your family's experiences, in your religious beliefs, or in an example set by an older peer.

  • Do you find yourself drawing on these skills or emulating these behaviors in other areas of your life (e.g., in class discussions, at work, or on the field)?

Similarly, getting clearer about what a student thinks of as bad or unproductive group membership can help them better understand what they personally value or contribute to their communities.

  • Are there character traits or behaviors that irritate you in group settings? Maybe you find it challenging working with people who speak over others in meetings or unreliable people who show up late to meetings, miss deadlines, or fail to honor their commitments.

  • Why do you find these behaviors frustrating or challenging? How do they affect the social dynamic of the group or community? How do they affect the group's ability to achieve their goals?

  • Do you see yourself embodying the opposite of these characteristics?

Personalizing the answer

Remember that leadership does not have to be assertive, confrontational, or even especially vocal. Yes, it can be difficult to quantify quieter, less showy forms of leadership on a resume (there's no “Presidential Gold Award for Listening”). But if you've ever been in a meeting where everyone constantly interrupts each other or started a job where nobody has bothered to explain to you what you're supposed to be doing, you'll understand just how vital these skills are.

Students may not be able to quantify these skills or experiences on their resume, but their short answer can help the admissions committee understand what their version of leadership looks like and how it positively impacts the communities they belong to.

Note: If your student is still stuck or having a hard time describing their own leadership style, taking the Belbin Team Roles Test can be a good starting place.

If a student's version of leadership does match up with traditional definitions of leadership, that's great. In that case, their short answer response should highlight moments in their leadership career that were especially significant or meaningful to them. These might be challenges or setbacks they had to tackle, conflicts they had to resolve, or opportunities they embraced even if it meant stepping out of their comfort zone.

Remember, the goal here isn't for students to rattle off a list of achievements from their resume. What they want to demonstrate is that they have thoughtfully reflected on their past experiences, and that they have learned something from those experiences that will help them be a good member of the UT community.

REQUIRED SHORT ANSWER 3: Experiences, Perspectives, Talents

Short Answer Prompt

Please share how you believe your experiences, perspectives, and/or talents have shaped your ability to contribute to and enrich the learning environment at UT Austin, both in and out of the classroom.

How to approach this question

Like the first two short answers, this prompt asks students to share something about themselves that they feel is crucial to understanding who they are and what makes them tick. What's new here is the last part of the prompt, where they are explicitly asked to explain how their unique perspective will enrich the “learning environment” at UT Austin.

If students have completed the reflection questions for Short Answer 2, they've already spent a fair amount of time thinking about the role they play in the various communities or groups they belong to. Much of that thinking will be useful here, as they continue to explore how those communities and environments have shaped their identity and core beliefs. (In fact, they may even find they can adapt unused freewriting or examples from Short Answer 2 to respond to this question.)

The leadership question is primarily focused on external events, decisions, and relationships; it asks students to explain how they act in group settings and to reflect on what this reveals about their strengths as a leader. This final short answer prompt invites a slightly more introspective, even philosophical, approach to thinking about the student's worldview. It also offers them one last chance to convey something about themselves or about their inner world that the committee wouldn't be able to glean from their resume.

Questions for reflection and freewriting

Here are some questions meant to spur further reflection. Students might find it helpful to use these questions as prompts for freewriting or simply for conversations with friends and family. Remember: freewriting and talking aloud both activate different parts of the brain than silent reflection, meaning that these strategies can often help unlock ideas or spark new connections.

  • What has shaped your sense of who you are and what matters to you? Think about your interactions with people—family, peer groups, and cultural communities—as well as your encounters with ideas—things you've read, watched, listened to, or engaged with online.

  • What experiences, encounters, or environments have been especially significant in shaping your sense of self? What values or core beliefs have these experiences instilled in you? How have they shaped your sense of who you are? Some examples might be family traditions, significant setbacks you've faced, encounters with different cultures or worldviews, or perspectives shaped by race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, or religion.

Note: We generally don't recommend writing about mission trips. Although these experiences are deeply meaningful, 250 words isn't enough space for you to communicate a nuanced understanding with cultural or socioeconomic context.

  • How do your values or core beliefs shape the way you walk in the world? In other words, how do they guide the choices you make, in everyday situations or in more difficult moments of crisis or setback? How do your values influence the way that you perceive and treat those around you? How do they affect the way you engage with new ideas or experiences—including ideas that might unsettle or challenge your preexisting beliefs?

  • Why would UT Austin want to invite someone who holds these values to be part of their community? Remember: the prompt asks you to explore what you could contribute to the learning environment at UT Austin both inside and outside of the classroom.

  • How will your values and experiences influence the way you interact with your peers in academic environments, such as a seminar discussion or a study group? How will they influence the way you navigate conflicts or develop strong relationships in a nonacademic social setting like a dormitory?

  • How will your experiences and values influence your approach to learning new things or taking advantage of new opportunities? How have your experiences prepared you to handle new social, emotional, or academic challenges? How might those experiences help you help others as they navigate those challenges?

Personalizing the answer

As students think about the questions above, they should be sure to focus on very specific moments and experiences. For example, if they say that they've learned a lot from their family or that their religion has shaped who they are, there's no way for admissions officers to distinguish them from the thousands of other students who could say the same thing.

Instead, they should share particular moments, remarkable experiences, or unique worldviews. They want the reader to remember them, and it's that specificity that will help them stand out from the crowd.

OPTIONAL SHORT ANSWER: Academics

Short Answer Prompt

Please share background on events or special circumstances that may have impacted your high school academic performance.

How to approach this question

This question provides students with the opportunity to explain any academic missteps, family circumstances, or medical issues that may have impacted them during high school. Students should only answer this question if they had a truly significant event that affected high school performance. A medical issue that made them miss two months of school is a prime example. On the other hand, receiving a B+ in AP U.S. History because the teacher didn't like them isn't worthy of this question.

The student shouldn't go into every detail of what happened. Instead, they should state the basic facts—just enough to convey the circumstances—and then explain the impact and what they learned from the experience. In general, shorter is better here, and at least half of the answer should be about what the student learned.

The most important thing to remember: no matter the situation, frame the answer in a positive way.

Questions for reflection and freewriting

Describing the event will likely be easier than explaining the effect that it had. Students should focus their energies reflecting on what they learned from the experience and how they grew from it.

  • How did you overcome this challenge?

  • What insights did you gain from the situation?

  • What impact did this have on you as a student, and how did you grow from this experience?

Personalizing the answer

A student's answer to this question will likely already be pretty personal—it is, after all, describing a unique event or set of circumstances. But students shouldn't let the unique experience be the "personal" part of the answer. It's important to personalize the lessons learned as well.

For example, an extended illness is likely to give someone insight into the value of living life to the fullest. But what did the student do with that new value? How did they live life to the fullest after their illness? This question lends itself to lots of cliches, so it's important to stand out with unique learnings and takeaways.
 

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