The first thing to know about writing successful University of California application essays involves the serious time commitment they demand. Early in this decade, the U.C. doubled the number of essays required and established a 350-word limit for each essay. Applicants now face four essays, and the relatively short 350 words is a challenging limit for you applicants–more than a blurb, but not much room for a well-developed essay. I think that because these prompts represent a tough challenge, they also seems to be working for the U.C., which is not changing any of the prompts this year and, according to my sources, is not planning real changes in the coming years. However, you still have a lot of competition for a seat at the U.C.. Though the system overall has seen a leveling of application numbers over the last two cycles, there are still well over 80,000 freshman applications and over 100,000 total freshman and transfer students who applied to UCLA in 2019-2020, while Berkeley racked up over 80,000 freshman and transfer applications. Now, that is a lot of applicants. Planning well and looking for solid evidence in your experiences can help separate you from the crowd.
This post is Part 1 of a two-part discussion of the U.C. Personal Insight Questions. You will find my discussion of how to begin writing successful essays for prompts 1-4 below; I will continue with prompts 5-8 in a post to follow within a few days of uploading this.
Requirements for the U.C. Essays
Here are your guidelines for writing the U.C. Personal Statement essays:
— You will have 8 questions to choose from.
—You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
–Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
–Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you. All questions are given equal consideration in the application review process.
Two things to consider as you start–the range represented by the prompts you end up writing about, and how convincing your evidence will be for each.
Concrete material that supports your main ideas is key–your principles and ideals are of great importance, but real experiences are more convincing than broad statements of principle that have never been tested or acted upon. It’s noble to believe in equality for all, for example, but if this principle has mostly been an area of discussion in classes and some posts you put up on social media, your personal insight statement about your belief in equality will be not fully convincing. If you started a club or engaged in constructive activity that aimed at creating equality, or at getting people to work toward it, that would be better at supporting a successful essay. And so on with any statement you want to make to the U.C. about yourself. So we start with the evidence from your life and experiences that you’d use for each topic.
Start By Looking for Concrete Experiences To Use for Each Topic
My advice for starting the process is to brainstorm each topic before you settle on the four you will write about, and as you brainstorm, to focus on concrete evidence, on your actual experiences and on actions you have taken that could relate to the prompt question. Even it it seems like some topics should be dismissed out of hand, it is still worth spending time on every topic to see what experiences you have that fit–in the process, you may change your mind about the topic, or you may find material that will be useful in another essay.
So start by copying all of the prompts into a document and start typing below each, with a focus on what you have done or what you have experienced and how you have reacted in a positive way that could be used as evidence in each essay.
Some of the topics focus on a single experience or period in your life, but you should still look for ways to break the experience down into areas that offer concrete material–of course generalizations are important, and abstract concepts like principles that you live by really matter and will help separate you from other applicants, but if you cannot offer solid evidence for your principles and beliefs or interests, all you have is some lofty rhetoric that may end up sounding empty.
If you are one of those who still likes to scribble a bit and handwrite rough material, or if you have limited access to a computer, just put each prompt on a separate sheet of paper and get started.
To help you further, I offer a discussion of the specific essay prompts below, including the U.C.’s guidance and my own commentary. Throughout, I will also use the opportunity to discuss some basic considerations for college application essays in general–things like your writing situation, audience and purpose.
U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 1, and How to Write It
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
Here our first issue is defining a good topic within the range of options suggested by a prompt, and I will also take a look at your audience and purpose for this special kind of essay.
Here’s the U.C. guidance on the prompt:
A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?
Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?
Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 1
My commentary: You will notice that U.C. discusses activities both inside and outside of school, and ends their suggestions by pointing out that taking care of your family is also a kind of leadership.
Indeed. So consider the family experiences, especially those of you who are caring for younger siblings and/or older relatives as your parents work. Stepping up to take a job and/or help take care of siblings is an informal form of leadership–you are taking on an adult role when you work to support your family or help care for others–and in its broadest sense, what is leadership about if it is not about taking care of others?
If you do choose this kind of topic, however, Just be sure to avoid what I call the “Woe is me” essay. More on this when I discuss prompt 5.
When defining leadership activities in school, in clubs, or in other organizations and informal groups, look for those things you have done that are above and beyond what was required. Being in one of those school leadership classes that organizes events in school is great, but keep in mind that those activities are required for a grade in a course. The same holds in an academic course–just taking charge of badly organized lab groups would be fine as a minor support in an essay on leadership ability, but when I see a student essay on leadership and all of the action in the essay takes place in a class–well, it does meet the topic requirements, but your leadership was in a pretty limited, academic setting. This essay want you to show more about yourself. And in a class in which your lab group went awry, your primary goal would be to save a grade, really. I’d suggest that you want some more significant leadership accomplishment than that. Of course you could throw in that classroom experience as a bonus-along the lines that you continued to apply the lesson you learned from great leadership experience x when your lab group floundered in class y, and you did z to save the situation.
In general it’s more convincing if you acted as a leader in a way that seems self-motivated and imaginative–this could still happen in a school environment, from starting a group or club and running it to, these days, organizing and activism against violence and oppression. If you are an advocate for social justice, though, do avoid preaching to your audience. They are almost certainly on your side, anyhow. And avoid name-calling and oversimplification, while keeping in mind that this essay is not an arguement about proving your side right–it’s about what motivates you and how you act on those motivations.
While all kinds of school-based activities do fit the bill, I do want to mention that in recent years, a whole lot of DECA essays have crossed my screen, and the same is true of your college app readers. So your DECA essay needs something unique to set it apart.
U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 2, and How To Write It
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.
Let’s start with the U.C. guidance on this prompt:
What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?
How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 2
I start with the U.C guidance for this simple reason: they agree with my approach to the essays. Note the way the U.C. suggestions point you to using specific, concrete evidence.
Also note the way U.C. is framing the range of topics to use on this one–this essay allows you to expand on some academic area in which you excel, but it also opens up an opportunity to move the focus outside of school. The key here is to focus on a creative aspect of yourself that is not defined solely by your GPA and transcript.
If you are an artist or builder, who loves to tinker, this may not be very clear through your coursework, and the creative and personal importance of your art or tinkering is unlikely to appear at all in your formal records, so this is the chance to expand on those less quantifiable aspects of your experiences.
Avoid simply restating activities, but you can take advantage of this prompt to expand on some area that is important to you, showing more about what motivates you, what makes you “tick.”
U.C. Essay Prompt 3 and How to Write It
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 3
The creativity prompt in #2 does tend to overlap with the talents and skills focus of prompt 3, so look for the opportunity to augment but not repeat material. This specific focus does have some added challenges–specifically, how can you talk about how talented you are without seeming to brag?
Well, one way, again, is to focus on the concrete. If you can show accomplishments or show yourself expanding your intellectual range because of this talent, that can make the difference. Once you consider your talents, you will realize that discovering a talent usually means you begin to challenge yourself more as you pursue that talent.
As Bear Bryant said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” Just be sure you can offer proof, vividly.
If you have a broad sort of skill that you think applies across several areas, again be sure to use some concrete examples. Or if you feel like you have one dominant talent and are going for that “spike” by emphasizing it, I would also recommend that you look for a way to frame it as a passion. A talent for something is often tied to a passion for that activity, and when we write about what we care about, that changes the way the subject is framed. So talk about what you love in the activity where you pursue your talent. Then you need not fear looking unintentionally arrogant. Also look to tie a talent to another trait, like curiosity- creating a sort of essay equation like this: a talent for x and curiosity led to discoveries like y.
U.C. Essay Prompt 4 and How to Write It
Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This is the last prompt I will discuss for this post on the University of California Application Essays for 2020-2021. As noted above, I will post on the remaining prompts in a few days. But I’d like to close this discussion with a look at a big issue we have not yet addressed: your application reader.
First, though, here is the guidance U.C. offers on this essay topic:
Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?
Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 4
As you start working on ideas for this prompt, keep in mind the writing situation in general, and the purpose of a college application essay. This is much different from anything that you have written for high school. The purpose of any college application essay is not a baring of your soul. The point of a college application essay is to gain admission to the college of your dreams or desires. That’s it. So any deep confessions should be in the service of college admissions. That means choosing carefully what to discuss.
Possibly this seems too obvious to say, but I see many application essays that are more suitable for an English teacher at a high school than they are for a college application reader. In a college application, you become a kind of holograph, a doppelganger of yourself created by your GPA, your transcript, some test scores (though many colleges are dropping those requirements this year) and your essays.
Who you are in a college application comes down to some numbers and the words you put into four essays. And all of your Personal Insight essays are in the deepest sense arguments. Regardless of the autobiographical form, each essay is an attempt to persuade an unknown adult to admit you to a college.
This is unlike anything you have done for a teacher. Your teacher has already seen you in class, has or is developing a feeling for you as a person, and is in a relationaship of growth. A college app reader is more like a bouncer.
I am discussing the college application reader now because of the writing situation and this prompt. We have all had educational barriers and obstacles. Quite often this involves a conflict with a teacher. If you were writing this essay for a high school teacher, they might know who you were talking about and sympathize. But even if you were writing this for a high school teacher, they also might be offended at a perceived attack on another teacher or on the institution, or they might feel you were not accepting responsibility. Tbis is all the more true for a college application reader who only knows you through the material you put in yoru application. So if you had a really bad experience with a teacher, weigh carefully the benefit of talking about that as an educational barrier. Then consider another topic.
After all, an app reader is a school official, too. And the app reader may view the situation in a different way, may see you as blame shifting or complaining, may think you should just deal with it. An app reader is likely to see an essay on a problem teacher in a negative light.
Get Feedback Early on the Optics for Educational Obstacles
So this “academic challenges approach” is a topic focus that I encourage you to get some early feedback on. After you have brainstormed, ask a few other people for their opinion on the material and focus you propose. If you plan to write about a barrier you have overcome, how will that barrier and your material look to an application reader–will it look like you are complaining or trying to pump up your level of hardship to manipulate your reader?
More specifically, if the hardship involves something like a learning difference, is it really necessary to write about? If you have some kind of disability, you do not need to tell any college about it, but when you arrive on campus, they are required to provide you support–so ask yourself if you really need to talk about that specific obstacle.
(I will discuss the risks and benefits of writing about a significant challenge in more depth for prompt 5, in my next post on the U.C., but I raise these issues now because I see essays like these every year.)
Writing About an Educational Opportunity
In contrast to the educational challenges focus, the more obviously positive of the option alternatives is the educational opportunity you took advantage of (or better yet found for yourself or applied for). This could be in school or outside of it and oviously opens up the chance to expand on things like internships and research outside of the classroom–just be sure to add detail that conveys your intrinsic motivation and curiosity, and don’t repeat your activities descriptions directly–this is a chance to expand on an experience you put in your activities, but the point is to show more about yourself, exploring your motivations and goals.
And again, the educational opportunities that work best for this kind of essay are opportunities that were in some way earned–if your parents paid to put you on an international flight to work on an archeological dig, let’s just say that looks like an affluent student’s family looking for ways to pad the resume. (For those of you who are confused by this: Yes, that’s a thing I have seen done by families who can afford it and who are pushing college activities, and application readers are also aware of the college application activities industry. Some internships are in a gray area where this is involved.
I will be turning to U.C. prompts 5-8 in my next post. Contact me if you are seeking world-class essay development and editing.