Answer the question

My wife has learned the hard way that I am not a good viewing partner during televised presidential debates. Ten minutes is all I need to launch into the diatribe she knows is coming, all leading to the inevitable outcome when I get too frustrated to continue. This isn’t aimed at one particular side of the aisle—politically, I’m an equal opportunity critic around this one pet peeve.

Just answer the question.

Somewhere in the history of political debate prep, consultants decided that their candidates needed talking points paired with seemingly related anecdotes that must be wedged into the conversation at all costs. Yes, the degree and the frequency varies from candidate to candidate. It might even vary from party to party depending on the issue. But I can’t remember a presidential debate in my adult lifetime when I didn’t wish aloud at least once, “Why don’t they just answer the damn question?!”

Ignoring the question for the sake of injecting your preferred answer is akin to saying: “What I want to talk about is more important than what you want to know.” And for some questions, that leaves viewers very well informed about what a candidate wanted to say, but unable to decipher what a candidate would actually do.

Students often make the same mistake in their college applications.

Some students decide preemptively what their own talking points will be in their application. That’s not a bad strategy. It’s your application, after all. If it’s important to you, the college will almost certainly want to know about it.

But you have to find the right opportunity to share it. And it doesn’t help your admission campaign to ignore the question being asked.

An essay prompt that asks you to describe a time you failed or made a mistake, and to explain what you learned from it, is not an invitation to tell your admissions readers about an impressive accomplishment. Example: “I didn’t prepare as well as I should have for my audition, so imagine my surprise when I was selected to be the lead in the school play!” Failure is a part of life, particularly for successful people who put themselves in failure’s path. A thinly veiled effort to wedge in an accomplishment might tell them what you wanted to share, but it doesn’t tell them what they really wanted to know. That’s the disconnect that occurs when you don’t answer the question.

Colleges spend a considerable amount of time crafting, debating, and refining their applications. Every question has a purpose. Thoughtfully consider, revise, and polish your answer? Yes. But clear and compelling responses always start by answering the question.