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.

Examples

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.

Columbia University:

  • 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.

Princeton University

  • 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?

Be Honest!

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.

Warnings

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!

Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

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.
Julia Mearsheimer