Inspired by talking to a fellow Academia user at SciPy:

Every SE site seems to have a particular genre of questions that are essentially unanswerable. I've come to believe that the questions we get wherein someone asks, with an accompany tale of their career, coursework to date, interests, etc. "How do get into a top program in X" or "Should I apply to the University of Y".

There questions have, in my mind, three problems:

  1. Many are too specific - they only generalize to someone specific.
  2. They're also too broad, because they're not actually asking an actionable question.
  3. They're inherently unanswerable. The people who know (the admission committee of University of X's Department of Y) won't answer, and no one else knows.

While these get closed fairly frequently, should we consider adding language discouraging these types of questions in the FAQ?

  • 9
    Unfortunately, no one reads the FAQ.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 14:49
  • 1
    Care to suggest some language? We already discourage too specific, too broad, and unanswerable.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 21:01
  • 1
    Related, and possibly a duplicate: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/99/…
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 21:10
  • 5
    @StrongBad I'd edit the FAQ: "As a general rule, if you're asking about a particular institution, course, journal, or your chances of admission it's likely your question is too limited in scope." and cite that as the reason for closure.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 1:48
  • 5
    I once contemplated whether our FAQ should have a statement that says that whenever you are tempted to include your life story in a question, it's probably going to be too localised.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 9:49
  • 2
    It might be worth listing, say, 5 examples of questions that would fall under this ban, and make sure we all agree. Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 20:48
  • @eykanal I read the FAQ! In addition I'd like to state that this is a problem on many SE sites (especially Programmers.SE) as you stated; that said, this might be better off as a Meta.SE question perhaps? While it doesn't apply to all SE sites at the moment, there will likely be more questions like these in the future on different SE sites. Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 14:55

5 Answers 5


I know I'm new here, but here's a proposed wording for a custom close reason that I hope will be helpful:

This question appears to be off-topic because it is not answerable by the Academia community; you may need to ask an advisor, an admissions committee, or some other internal group, as it is not answerable by the general public.

Or, alternately, if you don't want to mention specific groups ("But mine isn't on the list!"):

This question appears to be off-topic because it is not answerable by the Academia community; you may need to ask someone specific to your situation, as the general public cannot completely answer this question.

This, I think, covers the point of what you're asking. It's not really about the life story, but about the answerability of the questions.

It's generally alright on Stack Exchange to have a long question, as long as it's clear, readable, and answerable. This completes the trifecta of moderation tools that captures questions which fall out of these criteria.

  • 3
    I really like the idea of a custom "Not answerable" close reason.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 18:18
  • I have started a new meta discussion with the intent to iron out the wording of the close reason.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 13:26

The fewer unique criteria and guidelines we have, the better, in my opinion, If questions can already be handled under existing rules, then I'd rather proceed that way, rather than introducing special categories. "Don't ask this, don't do that," is not a god way to run a site like this.

Besides, such an approach will lead to some potentially useful questions being placed on hold just because of the way the question writer approached it, rather than being a bad question.

  • 3
    some potentially useful questions being placed on hold just because of the way the question writer approached it - not necessarily a bad thing, if someone then goes and makes the question more generally useful.
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 8:40
  • 3
    There's no problem with badly-written good questions being put on hold. Indeed, that's the whole point of putting them on hold rather than deleting them! Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 6:50
  • 2
    I guess my beef comes from the "undergraduate" tag, which has seen some Pavlovian reactions. (As soon as undergraduate appears, some folks reflexively vote to close, even when the question isn't undergrad-specific.)
    – aeismail
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 2:26

As a counterpoint to aeismail's statement "The fewer unique criteria and guidelines we have, the better", I would say that there are very good reasons for having somewhat redundant specific bans for common questions. The point of having rules in the first place is so that users, specifically new users, know what questions are in scope and which are not. The fact that we get so many of these questions clearly shows that new users are not able to tell that these questions are not in scope from the current rules.

I am very much in favor of adding a specific ban for this kind of question.

  • 2
    It may also be probable that rather than new users are not able to tell that these questions are not in scope from the current rules but that they don't read the rules in the first place.
    – gman
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 14:05
  • @gman Sure, but isn't that sort of fatalistic? If we assume that people are not reading the rules anyway, then why discuss what they are?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 18:55
  • 1
    Yes, we should discuss what rules are in place but if users don't read them then it's up to the community either to make a comment to the OP to read the rules or flag the question off topic. I actually agree there are too many of these questions as well. I also think the flagging tools already exist to deal with them. Of course if another flagging option was included for these type of questions it probably would be of benefit.
    – gman
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 21:49

The problem with defining very specific bans is that it's very difficult to nail something down so well that it's easy to understand and apply it. There will always be a way to approach the ban so closely that it's hard to outright reject it, but it's still essentially the same type of question we are trying to avoid.

In general, where possible, it's better to define the community guidelines as principles that would also catch these problematic questions, rather than go down the path of writing a specific exclusion for each and every type of question we don't like.

Then, once the principles are defined, lead by example. Close these questions appropriately, add comments to teach others the principles that guide closing and encourage them to close such questions as well.

Over time the community will become aware of and accept that the principles cover certain types (or "smells" if you will) of questions and rather than having a hard line that you're constantly arguing with others about, you'll have a nice wide gray area that the community will define for you, and you shouldn't have to worry about it.

Great questions posed in this manner might succeed. Bad questions posed in this manner will generally be closed.

Everyone will be happy, and you won't be extending the battle over words for months and years, adding more and more language to the definition as you go along.

Teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves.


When a user wants to do X and asks for help without giving life story, users automatically ask for details regarding the professional life as comments and the author edits the question and adds asked details. So it is essential for us users to read a life story or detailled paragraph to consider different aspects and give a good answer.

The part you refer to as life story of course can include unrelated information, however most of the time it also requires what potential answerers require to post useful advice. While the life story makes the question very specific, the key information in it (such as I am doing post doc, I am x years old, I have been an advisor for y years at z university z area) also makes the question also very general.

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