How to Answer the 3 Most Common Written Application Questions 

May 28, 2020

By Jenny Han Simon

The writing section of any application is often the most daunting, requiring careful consideration of the question or prompt and a thoughtful and creative approach for the answer. While the questions an application presents sometimes seem straightforward, coming up with memorable responses can be tough. These questions are often more nuanced than they seem. Specific prompts might actually represent a broad topic, quality, or experience that the applicant needs to address. 

By approaching every question or prompt with the assumption that it is asking for something more than what the language alone asks for, you can create a memorable response and share more about yourself and experiences with the application reviewers. Seeing questions in another light might also be what you need to get over that dreaded writer’s block and find some momentum.

1. What challenges do you anticipate you will face during this program? How will you overcome these challenges?

Whether you’re applying for grad school, a study abroad program, or an internship, there is no doubt that you will be sure to come across some less-than-ideal situation or be placed in circumstances outside of your comfort zone. Program coordinators and application reviewers are also aware of this, so they want to choose applicants who demonstrate both a realistic and nuanced understanding of the challenges they will face and the mettle to overcome them. Beyond that, however, challenges help us grow. 

What this question is really asking is: do you know what you are getting yourself into?

Thus, when you answer a writing prompt like this, you must address certain aspects of the program design and curriculum in your answer, assuring reviewers that you have done your research and are undoubtedly ready and eager to undergo this experience. 

Questions such as these are asking you to provide evidence that you are capable of what you say, which is where addressing anticipated challenges and how you have overcome previous obstacles is key. There is no correct answer to this, as everybody will find difficulty in different things and will overcome obstacles in their own way. What matters is that you convincingly explain how you will triumph in the face of adversity and successfully complete what you are setting out to do. You may consider:

  • What previous academic, social, and/or economic problems have you had to face and how did you deal with them?
  • What kind of person are you in a group, as part of a team, in the workplace? How do you cope with working as part of a team, independently, or even completely isolated? 
  • How do you destress and regain your composure under intense stress?

2. How will you adapt to and engage with a new environment and a new community?

This question is most often seen in study abroad or foreign exchange programs where applicants will experience a completely new society and way of living. Even if an applicant is not prompted to answer this question, addressing this sentiment can be useful in giving reviewers a better idea of oneself and how they plan to use their time to the fullest. Such opportunities come with obvious challenges, but even more so, they present us with new experiences, stories, and relationships that may inspire the next big chapter in our lives. 

What this question is really asking is: how will you use your time to create meaningful experiences for yourself and the program?

Reviewers are not looking for applicants who can merely complete a program successfully according to the supposed technical outcomes listed; they are seeking applicants who have the potential to be truly exceptional, who can take an opportunity and create five more. Some ways you can approach this question:

  • What other disciplines can you study or put into practice during this program? Some examples include sports, instruments, art, and/or volunteer work. 
  • What will be your motivation for partaking in events and experiences that do not directly align with the program? 
  • What can you share with others in regards to your passions, hobbies, experiences, and/or studies?

When thinking about what you want to be able to share with others, especially in the context of international exchange, make sure that your tone doesn’t come across as condescending or didactic. It’s a good idea to have other people read your application to double-check for you. Similarly, it is more opportune to approach applications from the position that you have more to learn, that you are willing and eager to do so, and that you will be capable of passing on whatever knowledge you have acquired. 

3. Why should this program invest in you?

This is, to many people, the most difficult question to answer. It is straightforward to the point of being uncomfortable, and the risk of coming off as arrogant and conceited in the answer is high. Conversely, being so humble that you downplay yourself and your accomplishments is also ultimately detrimental to your application. The program you are applying for likely has a number of talented and highly accomplished applicants, but being objectively the best applicant doesn’t mean a guaranteed win. It’s more often about being the best applicant for the program itself. 

For this question, you should answer: how do my passions align with the program’s mission?

For example, you would not apply to a graduate history program if its main focus is British history and your research interest is American post-Cold War development. Even if you are the best American history scholar out there, you would not be the best fit for that program. While you can prove how “worthy” or prepared you are for a program through the other sections of an application, questions such as these give you the chance to show off how much you have researched about a program—its faculty, courses, alumni, mission, etc.—and how you align with their mission. Some questions you may want to consider when crafting your response are:

  • Who are the program’s featured alumni and why are they featured? How do they inspire you, or how are you similar to them?
  • What endeavors have you undertaken independent of this program that align with what you will be doing as part of the program?
  • How will your personal goals further the mission of the program? How will you give back?

A program truly invests in those who it admits. Whether it’s time, money, or mentorship, you will be getting an opportunity denied to someone else. Because of this, be sure to showcase past experiences and how you have learned from them in your application. Also when you look for opportunities, seek those that will further cultivate your passion and knowledge. In this way, both you and the program itself will have benefited from your participation, proving that they made a quality investment when they admitted you!

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

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