A crucial step in the college application process is writing essays. This can also be the most stressful part. One of the most nerve-inducing essay questions often comes in the form of, “List your favorite…” or “Describe yourself in five words….” This type of prompt is called the rapid fire essay question because it asks you to “rapid fire” answers. Unlike carefully crafted personal statements, which usually call for a clear answer and outline, these prompts result in a list without much explanation from you. Often the prompts do not detail what a good answer is and colleges do not explain their intent in asking. This might leave you wondering, “What do I do?”
Fortunately, this prompt is not as scary, high-stakes, or unclear as it may seem. This question is best viewed as a personality survey, rather than a question that has a correct or incorrect answer. Because schools are trying to put together a diverse student body, they want to get an idea of who you are across the board through a holistic admissions process. (For more information on what makes an admissions process holistic, check out our CollegeVine guide to the holistic admissions process here.) That includes what you decide is most important to you – your favorite books or movies, quotes that stand out to you, what you pursue in your free time, and so on. Basically, this question helps colleges fill in your personality just a little bit more so that they can be fully informed on who you are, not just as a student but as a person, before they decide whether or not to admit you.
What exactly does the prompt look like? You can categorize a rapid fire essay question as one the does not asks for complete thoughts or sentences, and instead requires only one word or words in a list. This could mean asking for your ten favorite books, movies or quotes, or asking for one word to describe you.
Some notable schools that use the rapid fire essay prompts include the University of Southern California, Columbia University, and Princeton University. Their prompts look like this:
University of Southern California
- Describe yourself in three words.
- What is your favorite snack?
- Favorite app/website:
- Best movie of all time:
- Hashtag to describe yourself:
- Dream job:
- What is your theme song?
- Dream trip:
- What TV show will you binge watch next?
- Place you are most content?
For advice on writing USC’s essays, check out our CollegeVine Essay Breakdown guide here.
- List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or fewer)
- List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or fewer)
- List the titles of the print, electronic publications you read regularly. (150 words or fewer)
- List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or fewer)
For advice on writing Columbia’s essays, check out our CollegeVine Essay Breakdown guide here.
- Your favorite book and its author:
- Your favorite movie:
- Your favorite website:
- Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you:
- Your favorite recording:
- Your favorite keepsake or memento:
- Your favorite source of inspiration:
- Your favorite word:
- Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title:
For advice on writing Princeton’s essays, check out our CollegeVine Essay Breakdown guide here.
Breaking Down the Different Questions Within Rapid Fire Prompts
There are two main types of questions presented within rapid fire prompts: “name your favorite x” and “describe yourself in x words.” At the most basic level, these come from two different perspectives. The first, “name your favorite x,” sheds light on you through what you enjoy or admire. The second, “describe yourself in x words,” illuminate your personality through your own descriptions of yourself. They both call for a similar approach, except for a few minor nuances, explained below.
For “Name Your Favorite X…”
Colleges ask this question to get a better idea of who you are as a person because they want to accept you not just as a student, but as a well-rounded person who will contribute to and be a part of campus life. This question is a chance to show that you have varied interests and scope.
You should respond to these prompts honestly (see the importance of honesty below!). Do not shy away from answers that might not seem cultured or intellectual enough – ”normal” answers can show that you are not only in tune with academic life, but also with popular culture. Additionally, colleges will not base their decisions to admit you on whether or not you answer these sorts of questions “correctly,” so you should not try to craft your answers around what you think they might be expecting.
For “Describe Yourself in X Words….”
When answering this question, remember that colleges are looking for your own opinion of yourself – but not one that is too high or low. You want to avoid sounding arrogant, but also stay away from selling yourself short. In general, however, it is better to be excited about yourself (“I am amazing at geometry!”) than to degrade yourself (“I am pretty good at school”). Excitement is contagious, after all.
But, be sure that the words you choose reflect who you really are, not what you think colleges want to hear. Using buzzwords like “goal-oriented” are more likely to elicit an eye roll from admissions officers than interest. There are plenty of “goal-oriented” students applying. What do you see in yourself that makes you different? Are you logical? Vibrant? Contagious? What words can you choose to show how you are unique?
When answering rapid fire essay questions, give an honest and accurate portrayal of yourself. Avoid answers that are extremely bookish or esoteric, unless you actually like those things. Admissions committees can see through answers that seem too forced. Be genuine! Colleges want to get a better idea of what your interests are both inside and outside of the academic sphere, so show them the variations in your interests. They know that you do not spend your entire life in school; help them understand how you spend the rest of your time.
Also, keep in mind that while you can get a ballpark idea of what schools are looking for in terms of GPA and test scores, you cannot predict what will or will not be a good answer for this kind of question. What is most important is representing who you really are so that admissions committees can determine if you will be a good fit at their school.
Most answers are totally fine. You pretty much cannot go wrong with an answer, unless it is something clearly controversial or inappropriate. As with any other admissions essay, avoid being too divisive and exercise good judgement. Do not talk about illegal or illicit activities. Stay away from anything that could be potentially offensive and do not be too political. There is a time and place to be political and your college essays are not the space to argue your views. Plus, there are more interesting ways to present your ideas to demonstrate your thought and creativity. Try to be innovative with your ideas rather than being overly controversial.
Your Biggest Goal
Your number one goal for this kind of prompt is to avoid clichés without using canned answers, which could make you come across as disingenuous. Admissions committees can usually tell when you are faking it, whether in personal statements (read our CollegeVine guide about how admissions committees know it is not your work here) or in rapid fire essay questions – if your answers seem too carefully chosen to seem intellectual, chances are they are not genuine enough. Think about what makes you special and unique, regardless of what an admissions committee might be looking for, and respond in kind.
Answer genuinely and honestly, and relax – the one, two, or three words you choose ultimately will not have a big impact on the outcome of your application. The rapid fire essay question, used to learn more about your personality aside from academics, does not need to be overly complicated if you just answer truthfully.
For more help on essays, check out our CollegeVine essay breakdowns here, which explain each essay prompt for a broad list of schools. Additionally, our post of three personal essay brainstorming exercises can help you jumpstart your essay writing process. And finally, learn more about our CollegeVine essay review services here. Happy writing!
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
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Hi - Boston University's supplemental essay prompt reads: In an essay of no more than 500 words, please select three words that describe you best and tell us how you will use these qualities/characteristics to contribute fully to the BU community.
I am a pretty good writer. My other essays are unique and grabbing. This prompt makes it difficult to write in a way that would capture the reader. Looking for a way to tackle it that might make it a little more exciting.
500 words is a deceptively large amount of space! It is enough to create a real narrative to underpin your answer to the prompt--and the best essays will do so. Here are some potential ideas for a framework, ranging from the wacky to the more traditional:
--use 'tweets' from a twitter feed (if you are on Twitter!) to reveal what others have said about you.
--take excerpts from what very different people in your life have said about you, and use them to set off each paragraph.
--focus on a specific story and show how it reveals 3 of your most significant traits.
--who knows you best? Your best friend, your precocious 9 yr-old cousin? Ask the person--and maybe in that process there is an interesting, comical or humanizing set-up for your essay.
Be sure to choose traits that are interesting. Smart, friendly, and funny are 'ok' and viable options--but if you choose them, you will have to make sure your essay is creative and super-reflective. You might have an easier time drawing from traits that are less conventional, and that highlight your personality or qualities not evident on the rest of your application!
All my best,
The suggestions above me are really good so its kind of a tough act to follow!
Another way to think of 3 traits is to think of the different activities you do: Are you a leader? Do you play sports? Tutor kids? Do Community Service? Work at a job? Babysit? Anything will work
If you look at your different activities you will be sure to find really great adjectives to work with and then you can use those activities as examples of your descriptions
hope this helps!
Thanks! I like Ivyeyes ideas. Coming up with the traits to write about is not my problem. I was just having a difficult time trying to figure out how to write about them in a way that wouldn't be boring - like listing off traits and explanations. I think I will use another essay I wrote about an experience I had that displays my traits. Appreciate the help!
For this essay you should focus a lot on your personality in what you like doing and the experiences you've had. I know from my own experience it is one of the most difficult essays ("finished with mine last week" ).. and remember no more than 500 words.
take your time .
Good luck .
This prompt makes it difficult to write in a way that would capture the reader.
Why? This seems like an ideal opportunity. You can be very clever about it. I don't want you to use someone else's idea... come up with some words that will remind the reader of themselves or their loved ones -- always writing with the reader in mind... trying to hypnotize the reader.
Choose words that resound in the mind of the reader... but let the words come from your own inspiration. Listen to a song by Matisyahu for inspiration! :)
Yolayny is right. It is actually a hard prompt. I just finished mine a few minutes ago. While trying to introduce myself to the writer, I took up too much space and by the time I was starting the conclusion, I was already way over the word limit.
So I advise you to think of the three words, the conclusion and make sure that you are short to the point and don't write redundantly, as I do. :)
Good luck with it.