12 Tips for UT-Austin's New Freshman Short Answer Prompts

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UT-Austin is changing all of their topics beginning with Spring/Fall 2020 applicants. I discuss in previous posts the new Essay A “tell us your story” and examples of ways to approach telling your story.

In this post, I introduce the three new required short answer topics and the other optional one. In subsequent posts and videos on my Youtube Channel, which I encourage you to subscribe, I will provide tips and advice for approaching your writing.

In 250-300 words each, you must answer the following questions:

Required UT-Austin Short Answer 1: Major Choice

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

Required UT-Austin Short Answer 2: Leadership

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.

Required UT-Austin Short Answer 3: Diversity

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.

Optional UT-Austin Short Answer: Special Circumstances

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

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View your application as a whole rather than parts

Admissions reviewers are assigning a single personal achievement score from one to six. Your application needs to read as a coherent whole where you presume your reviewers are looking for the overall portrait of who you are as a person and why you feel you’re deserving a space on UT’s campus.

It’s helpful then to write all of your short answers together rather than drafting one, polishing it until the final draft, and then moving onto the other. What often happens is content you feel is initially appropriate in one short answer may fit better in another short answer or Essay A.

Throughout, you should reference specific experiences and examples from your life and how you see yourself as a UT student. You are making an argument that you deserve admission, and the short answers allow opportunities to discuss your major, leadership, and diversity. Use them to your advantage.

UT Wants you to Choose a First-Choice Major

I know that it can be frustrating that UT requires students to select a first-choice major so early in their career and makes it rather difficult to change between colleges and schools once you arrive. It’s their system though, so I encourage you to approach this prompt with an open mind and articulate to the best of your present ability why you feel drawn to your desired area of study. Your reviewers understand your goals may change, so focus on getting into UT and figuring out what to do after you arrive on campus.

The Office of Admissions also provides Wayfinder, a tool to help you explore your major and interests to help you articulate why you are interested in certain area and perhaps eliminate one or two things you had considered but don’t want to apply.

The university pigeonholes students into majors because it increases four-year graduation rates. Internal transfers are less likely to graduate on time, so they’re more willing to admit and hopefully enroll students who are more likely to complete the degrees within which they enroll.

The new prompt places less stress on students to need to have everything figured out and a five or ten year plan laid out. In the past, I always advised students to cite specific reasons why they’re choosing their major and how a UT education can help them achieve their goals. Instead of splitting up a discussion of future studies across different essays, students can develop their points fully in one prompt.

As a rule, and this goes for everything in your essays regardless of the context: any time you can cite specific details, experiences, anecdotes, or, in this case, UT/Austin resources, you should.

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Reference Specific Previous or Current Experiences

It’s critical that you include examples from your academic, extracurricular, professional, or independent studies experiences that influence your first-choice major. It isn’t enough to discuss vaguely your academic ambitions because you will be competing for spaces with students who have decent ideas where they have come from and where they want to go.

Consider developing lessons you’ve learned in a specific course or from a teacher who has influenced your future goals. If you have participated in an internship, discuss your roles and responsibilities and how the opportunity helped you explore and refine your interests. Particularly with STEM, if you’re competing in robotics, engineering, or science fair competitions, discuss your most memorable events or projects.

Many students also pursue their interests independently of the classroom or student organizations. If there is a topic or theme where you find yourself losing track of time or you voluntarily pursue certificate programs, this can be a great opportunity to share with your reviewer experiences that may not appear on your transcript or resume.

Find Related Student Organizations or Academic Resources

Like in high school, the college experience is not confined to the classroom. Most students pursue extracurricular activities or student organizations that may or may not relate to their academic pursuits.

Citing specific resources will help elevate your essay beyond platitudes about “rankings” and “prestige.” UT houses one of the largest library collections in the world featuring, for example, over ten million volumes including one of the most prolific stores of Latin American History in the Benson Library.

UT has a nuclear reactor, marine research centers on the Gulf Coast, and the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. You can get your pilot’s license or learn to ride a horse.

Instead of speaking generally about student organizations, identify one or two that match your current activities or proposed future interests. That’s a great way to articulate how you can bring a diverse perspective to campus and demonstrate your fit for major.

They make it very easy for you to find every student organization using the search engine Horns Link where you can filter for any number of things like cultural organizations, service, special interests, pre-professional societies, visual and performing arts, sports, etc.

Every UT College and School and many majors also have student organizations. If you’re applying to the College of Education, for example, consider exploring their organizations. The Moody College of Communications also has an active student community across a wide variety of interests.

McCombs also has a number of organizations as do Plan II and Liberal Arts Honors.

Identify specific undergraduate research and study abroad opportunities

Many students express interest in conducting research or studying abroad during their college education, which is great! I studied abroad three times during my UT education and feel greatly enriched.

Your First-choice Major and Diversity Short Answers provide perfect opportunities to discuss related resources that interest you.

Like with the Horns Link student organizations search engine, there are also tools for both study abroad and undergraduate research.

The International Office has a search engine that filters for language of instruction, country, major, and length. You might also be interested in exploring internships abroad.

UT heavily promotes it’s emphasis on undergraduate research opportunities. EUREKA is a search engine that catalogs professor’s interests and research labs.

Many colleges/schools have their own undergraduate research opportunities like College of Natural Sciences Freshman Research Initiative and this search engine for research in the College of Liberal Arts.

UT Computer Science and each major in the Cockrell School of Engineering makes it easy to see which areas they focus and what different labs are researching.

Again, your essays are not a contract requiring you to pursue any particular opportunity. Reviewers just want to see that you’ve done some homework and considered why you’re applying to UT beyond it’s “wide offering of study abroad programs.”

When discussing Why UT, consider talking about the City of Austin

Austin is a fantastic city. Especially if you’re applying Out of State, it’s important to discuss how leaving your hometown can open up new opportunities not available elsewhere.

This portal provides a lot of specific reasons that Austin is appealing and may introduce you to opportunities you hadn’t considered.

If you discuss wanting to build a career in Austin, it may help to search for startups, corporations, non-profits, or government agencies. There are a ton of community organizations that connect UT students with philanthropy and service.

It’s important to avoid cliches like “UT’s vibrant technology sector” and instead reference specific technology companies. Chances are, if you’ve committed time to a service organization in high school, there are similar efforts in the City of Austin that are worth locating.

Share Relevant Personal or Family Circumstances

Oftentimes, students have personal reasons for choosing their first choice major that go beyond professional prestige, money, academic interests, or hobbies.

Common cases include students who have experienced illness or injury or support a loved one living with chronic conditions or substance abuse. One client of mine, for example, struggled with anxiety and depression. She and a friend started a student organization to provide a resource for their classmates who may also struggle or are living in abusive relationships. Their personal experiences and interning at a counseling center informed their first choice major of studying psychology.

Family concerns may influence studies in Education, Psychology, Nutrition, Social Work, Speech Language Pathology, or any number of different programs where you feel a special connection. Some student-athletes suffer from serious injuries and may want to study Applied Movement Science before pursuing graduate studies in occupational or physical therapy. Others may have a passion for cell biology or organic experimental chemistry following a grandparent’s cancer diagnosis.

Tie your leadership activity into your first-choice major

The Leadership short answer is a great opportunity to connect your Major short answer by tying your present commitments to future interests.. If you have an activity or tie that ties into your first-choice major, talk about it!

Leadership doesn't necessarily mean participating in college organizations or extracurricular activities. It can also mean contributing to classroom discussions, conducting research, or studying abroad.

It's also okay to say that you don't want to continue participating in the exact same activities you did in high school - few college students end up doing this. It is important to consider what future activities, resources, or organizations may interest you.

Discuss an interest or talent and share a story

One straightforward way to answer is borrowing from Apply Texas Essay B and the Common Application that offers the opportunity to discuss an interest or talent.

  • Is there an activity that's central to your identity?

  • Do you have an interest or talent that exposes you to people who share different perspectives?

  • Does your talent push you out of your comfort zone or confront adversity?

  • Is there a particularly memorable moment worth sharing with reviewers?

  • Does your interest or talent relate to your first choice major, i.e., could you contribute something to classroom discussions?

Once you identify an interest or talent, I encourage you to tie it into UT resources, curriculum, or student organizations that interest you.

Complete me questionnaire and we can talk about how to build your best UT-Austin essays.

Illustrate something unique about your background (religion, race, sexual orientation, heritage, rural, etc.)

Another straightforward way to answer this prompt is to consider anything in your background that may be unique or is marginalized in society.

  • Do you have particular religious or cultural beliefs and practices central to your identity and community?

  • Are you African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or of mixed race/ethnicity/heritage?

  • Are you from a small town or a high school that doesn't send many students to university?

  • Are you a recent immigrant or come from a family of immigrants?

  • Do you speak another language alongside English, or have you deeply committed to the study of a foreign language?

  • Do you identify as LGBTQ or advocate as a straight ally?

  • Are you applying to a major or program where your identity is historically underrepresented, i.e., women in STEM or men in Nursing, Education, or Social Work?

It's important that you not just identify and answer one or two of these questions. You need to take the next step and say how it contributes to UT's campus and classrooms.

One way to do this easily is identify a student organization, campus or community project, or professor who interests you and relates to your background and where you feel you could contribute.

Elaborate on your Expanded Resume

Students and families frequently ask me, “Will X or Y activity help me in the college admissions process?” Their question is valid yet misses the point somewhat.

Merely having an activity on your resume doesn’t automatically make you a more competitive applicant. Your activities are only as important as you can articulate them. Reviewers only know as much as you share.

It may be the case that one of your less obvious resume activities is the one most meaningful to you. You can’t assume that your reviewer will understand the depth of your commitment as a sectional leader in band or captain of the debate team.

Use your any of the short answers to argue persuasively why they should give extra consideration to certain parts of your resume. Discussing a specific activity or two in your short answer signals to your reviewer that they should expect to see more on your resume. Connecting your short answer to your resume makes your case more compelling.

Connect your short answers to a potential letter of recommendation

Like the resume, merely submitting a reference letter is unlikely to help if the review doesn’t know why that referee is significant to you. If you know that you’re requesting a letter from your AP Calculus teacher, consider discussing in your first-choice major the specific topics and themes that interest you. Share about a memorable group project or independent research paper.

Your reader will definitely see your resume and essays first before finally ending with your recommendation letters. A strong recommendation letter can put the final touches on an outstanding application.

Complete me questionnaire and we can talk about how to build your best UT-Austin essays.

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