How’s the first week of school going, y’all? As we all resume in-person or virtual classes, most of our high school seniors now meet the cold reality of this semester: not only do they have to attend classes and maintain their GPA, as well as create lasting memories with their closest friends, but they also have to complete multiple college essays and applications (approx. 9-12 applications on average) within a short, short amount of time. Trustus, we know it takes up a lot of time, and the college essays tend to take up the most amount of time, overall. So we’re here with another blog post on how to effectively and efficiently approach another specific type of personal essay: the University of California Personal Insight Questions, otherwise commonly known as “the UC essays.”
WHAT MAKES THE UC ESSAYS UNIQUE?
Unlike the Common App personal statement, or most personal essays required by private and public colleges, in which students must write a single essay on a single topic that is slightly longer in length (around 650 words), students applying to any college in the University of California school system must answer 4 of 8 prompts on a variety of topics. Each essay is a short answer of 350 words maximum. And each essay must directly answer its prompt. (More on that later, promise.)
We’ll copy and paste the topics below. As you skim through them, ask yourself: which questions elicit the greatest response from me? Does a specific prompt allow me to immediately recall a specific moment or memory? Which prompts would allow me to tell the most compelling story about my life? And (perhaps most importantly), which prompts would be the most fun for me to address?
Here are the prompts:
- Describe an example of a leadership experience in which you’ve positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you’ve taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you’ve faced.
- Describe the most significant challenge you’ve faced and the steps you’ve taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you’ve furthered this interest inside and/or outside the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?
Alright. Are you done reading ‘em? Are you ready to brainstorm? Before you get started, here are some helpful tips:
BE DIRECT, BUT DON’T FORGET TO BE CREATIVE
Due to the UC essays’ limited word count for each prompt (trust us—350 words is not a lot of space to write about your life), it’s important to make sure you answer the prompt as effectively and efficiently as possible. For these essays, unlike the Common App essay, you can’t write a long introduction about your random love of birds before discussing your experiences with leadership—you need to get straight to the point, and answer the prompt as quickly as you can.
However, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to be creative or tell a story within the essay; in fact, it’s highly encouraged that you do so. Readers will always, always tend to prefer to read essays that are written more like a short story, rather than a dry, boring recitation of the facts. Have you ever heard of this old writing rule: “Show, don’t tell”? That means it’s best to describe a particular moment through your writing, with lots of sensory imagery and action, rather than merely addressing it. For example:
TELLING: “I swam the 50 Free for my high school swim team and I won second place. I was pretty proud of myself.”
SHOWING: “The roar of the audience’s applause still ringing in my ears, I emerged from the water’s surface to see my time emblazoned in bright lights on the scoreboard: 23.97 seconds, my new personal record. It didn’t matter that I’d walk home with silver—I still walked home with my head held high.”
See the difference? The second option is much more thrilling to read, and therefore much more likely to maintain your reader’s attention. Even while you have to address the prompt directly, you can still find ways to make your essay read more like a story. So don’t be afraid to be creative!
VARIETY, VARIETY, VARIETY
While the UC essays’ short answer prompts should allow students to write about a wide variety of experiences and personal skills, you’d be surprised how often a student will write about the same story from their life over and over and over again. This is a crucial mistake to avoid. As you look through the UC essay prompts, don’t just make sure that you write about different aspects of your personality and experiences—make sure you choose a varied group of prompts, too.
Since you can only write about 4 of the 8 topics, you want to make sure that the 4 topics you select will allow you to write about a wide range of topics. Notice, for example, that Prompt #2 asks you to write about your creative side, while Prompt #3 asks you to write about a talent or skill. Many, many students will choose both Prompt #2 and Prompt #3, and write about the same creative talent: painting, for example, or their love of the piano. This is something you should never do, and it can easily be avoided if you choose different prompts altogether. Check out this basic description from the PrepScholar blog of the ways in which each of the UC essays prompts differ:
- Topics1and7 are about your engagement with the people, things, and ideas around you. Consider the impact of the outside world on you and how you handled that impact.
- Topics 2 and 6 are about your inner self, what defines you, and what makes you the person that you are. Consider your interior makeup, the characteristics of the inner you.
- Topics 3, 4, 5, and 8 are about your achievements. Consider what you’ve accomplished in life and what you are proud of doing.
When in doubt, choose at least one essay prompt from these three basic categories. It’ll be difficult to show off a wide range of skills, for example, if you only choose Topics 3, 4, 5, and 8.
Once you’ve chosen the topics, think also about whether allaspects of your life are adequately represented in your four essays. If all of your essays talk about your academic interests, for example, you might be in trouble; similarly, don’t write about sports or extracurricular activities for all four prompts. Once you’re done brainstorming each of your essays, ask yourself: is there a crucial part of my life that isn’t represented in these essays? If you’re an important member of your church, or have volunteered at a food bank for several years, make sure that you find a way to include those experiences in your essays! These short answer prompts are a crucial opportunity for you to write about a lot of different aspects of your life and goals, so make sure you use this opportunity to the fullest.
SHOW THE PROCESS OF “LEARNING AND GROWING” WITHIN EACH ESSAY
It’s a classic rule in writing that the hero on the Hero’s Journey must overcome some trial or obstacle before achieving success. That is, it’s important to have the hero face a problem, but it’s equally important to show that the hero has solved that problem. Think about it: how many stories have you experienced where nothing happens to the hero, and the hero accomplishes nothing at all? It’s pretty rare, right? And difficult to do well? That’s true for your personal essays, too.
Remember: these essays are a chance to show off not only your personality and passions, but to also show that you are a mature, responsible young adult who is capable of growing and learning from your experiences. So be sure to highlight your growth and what you’ve learned in each of your essays. If you describe a problem you faced in one of your essays, you must make sure you also describe how you solved that problem. If you weren’t able to solve that problem, then you must make sure you describe what you learned from the experience. It’s deeply important that you show that you’ve progressed as a student and a person within each essay, so don’t forget to do so!
Okay! That’s all for now. As always, please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the UC essays, or want to set up a session with us. We’d be happy to help you tackle any part of your college essays. Best regards, Jordan Sutlive