As an admission director you’re faced with a daunting task. How do you determine whether an applicant is a good fit for your school when you have limited time to spend getting to know each applicant? How can you determine whether their values align with the values of your school or their learning personality is a good match for your school’s programs? One of the most effective tools you have is the opportunity to ask applicants to share their thoughts and perspectives with you as part of your application.

Asking students to complete part of the application themselves is common for middle and high schools looking to obtain direct insights and reflections from applicants (versus answers supplied by parents). We know that it is important for schools to craft effective admissions questions. Thus, we thought it would be beneficial to share the types of questions that many schools are asking.

We analyzed questions used by hundreds of private schools across the country last year, and these are our findings. Take a look at the top eight question categories that schools ask their applicants to answer in their admission forms.

Except for the very common questions, the examples representing the different categories were written by us, so feel free to use them for your own application questions!

1. The Self-Description: Tell us about yourself.

Although stated in many different ways, schools often ask their applicants for a self-description. While seemingly a simple question at first, answering requires a level of self-awareness and reflection. The most common question asked in this category across all the schools we surveyed is a version of this:

  • What three words would you use to describe yourself?

From this question you can get a quick picture of the student—his or her personality traits and special qualities. Sometimes, the question is expanded to give the applicant an opportunity to provide more detail, perhaps in a longer essay form. Examples include:

  • What do you consider to be the most interesting thing about yourself?
  • What do you think is the most important thing for us to know about you?

Another take on the question is to find out how students believe they are perceived by other people. These questions encourage the applicants to see themselves through other people’s eyes:

  • How would your teachers describe you?
  • What would your best friends say makes you special?

2. Setting Expectations: What do you think of our school?

The motive behind asking this next category of questions is not instantly apparent. On the surface, it appears to be inquiring about the school’s reputation from the point-of-view of an applicant. But in doing so, it uncovers more of the student’s self-perception. Take a look at these variations:

  • Why did you choose to apply to our school?
  • Our mission statement is […] Why do you think this is the right school for you?
  • Based on your impressions during visit day, tell us what excites you about our school.

These questions will reveal the applicant’s priorities and values in relation to what they believe the school can offer them. As such, the expectations of the student should match reality.

Another way to find out if students would fit in with your school culture is to allow them to imagine being part of the school community. For example:

  • Given the list of clubs and sports shown below, list up to three that you would be the most interested in participating in. Explain why you chose each one.
  • What do you feel you will be able to contribute to our school?
  • At our school, we value the sharing of diverse experiences. Tell us what diversity you would bring to our school.

3. Learner Type: What are your academic strengths/weaknesses?

The third most common category of questions involves asking the student to identify points of academic strength and weakness. They can be direct:

  • What is your strongest subject?
  • What is your weakest subject?

While looking at the applicant’s grades might already reveal the answers, they do not tell a complete story regarding the type of learner the student falls under. This information can be further assessed through questions like:

  • What subject do you enjoy the most?
  • What is the most interesting subject for you to learn?
  • Of the subjects you are currently studying, which would you choose not to study in middle/high school? Why?

4. Reader Profile: What have you read?

It is very common for schools to ask applicants about books that they have read. Sometimes, the school also qualifies the question by asking for books they read other than those assigned in class. The answers to these questions reveal personal interests and a thirst for knowledge:

  • List the names and authors of the last three books you enjoyed reading. Discuss what shared attribute these three books had that led you to enjoy them.
  • Describe a book you read outside of school that had an impact on you. Explain why that book was meaningful.

5. Stand Out: Are you creative?

Schools often give applicants an opportunity to show their creativity. This is usually achieved through thoughtful, open-ended or unstructured questions such as:

  • Imagine you could go back in time and observe a historical event in person. What would that event be and why did you select it?
  • Write a short story beginning with: “It was a Wednesday, and you know what happens on Wednesdays…”
  • Quote a real-life Twitter conversation and explain why it is socially relevant (or irrelevant).
  • Why not?

These types of questions provide a chance for students to give non-traditional and clever answers. Applicants have the opportunity to share their sense of humor, or their willingness to take risks. These are important attributes of a diverse student body.

6. Main Drivers: What inspires you?

This category of questions helps explain the choices that students make including their preferred school, interests, and even future career. Questions like these help to uncover them:

  • Describe a teacher you admire. How does he or she inspire you?
  • Tell us about an important person in your life and how he or she made an impact on what you value in life.

Ultimately, you can learn about the applicant’s goals, for these are role models that they aim to emulate.

7. Real Life: Share an experience.

When applicants are asked to share an experience, you have an opportunity to evaluate their critical thinking skills as they need to describe insights and lessons learned. The most common type of question in this category involves an obstacle that the student faced along with a description of the solution. Examples include:

  • Describe a time in your life when you experienced a setback that you were eventually able to overcome.
  • Our school is rigorous and challenging. Share a time when you have been faced with an academic challenge and then describe how you were able to succeed in meeting that challenge.

Other questions about experiences cover a broad range of topics with the same intent to elicit interesting insights that were gained in the process. Here are some examples:

  • Tell us about a volunteer experience that has changed your perspective in some manner.
  • Describe a time where you observed a social interaction between others that made you uncomfortable. How did you react to that situation?
  • Describe in detail a classroom experience that truly engaged you and made you excited about learning.

8. Short answer questions

Some schools provide students with a set of prompts or short answer questions. They have a similar function to creativity questions, but they ask for more concise responses. Some sentence completion questions include:

  • I am happiest when I…
  • It makes me sad when…
  • My teachers think that I’m…
  • If I have a few hours of free time, I love to…
  • My favorite phone/computer app is…
  • The one thing I would change about my current school is…
  • The one possession I could never give up is…
  • Three words that describe my family are…
  • I will be a success in life if I’m able to…

Depending on their answers, applicants can show humor and a hint of themselves outside their roles as students.


Application questions should be purposeful. Schools take great care finding the right questions to ask to help them identify the best-fit students for their schools. We hope that by sharing the broad range of questions schools are using that we can provide some inspiration for you as you craft your own admission forms.

If you are interested in more information about aligning application questions with your school’s values, check out our webinar on the topic recorded in partnership with the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP).