Doubling Up on Essays Part II: The University of California and the University of Oregon Application Essays Compared


In keeping with the spirit of making double use of essay prompts, I turn to a university that is an increasingly favorite first-choice, as well as long-time safety valve application for California students: the University of Oregon. In particular when you are creating a safety school application, you want to also be creative about reusing an essay (or two). Compared to U.C. Berkeley, Oregon is indeed a safety school, and it is also a very good, large public university. Read on for some insights on essay reuse, if that works for you.

U Oregon has an open-ended prompt for their main essay which could be paired with a number of prompts—most obviously with the nearly identical UC prompt number 8.   Of course, this also means I am making suggestions for any open-ended, tell-us-something-about-yourself prompt, paired with the University of California. See my last post for more on writing for the University of California and a selection of other schools: The Harvard Supplement and the University of California Personal Insight Questions.

Here is UO’s main prompt: Write an essay of 500 words or less that shares information that we cannot find elsewhere on your application. Any topic you choose is welcome. Some ideas you might consider include your future ambitions and goals, a special talent, extracurricular activity, or unusual interest that sets you apart from your peers, or a significant experience that influenced your life.

Keep in mind that that University of California essay that was so painful to cut down to 350 words can now take back some or more than all of those words you cut.


Let’s compare this to the University of California to see if how we might expand a U.C. essay to use for U Oregon.   Here we go, U.C. prompts in black font, commentary and comparison in red font:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  Hey, the right leadership essay could set you apart . . . for Oregon as well as for the U.C. How could you set it up to work for both? Of course, if this is just about how you put up posters for your leadership class at high school, or served as class Treasurer, with nothing distinct or distinguishing about it, fuggedaboutit. They already know about that, from your activities. You’d have to do something really spectacular for an essay on school leadership to stand out, or have taken some kind of legit stand. Just choosing a better venue for Prom? Nah. Move on to something else.    Whatever it is should show what a great/creative/unique person you are. Or maybe try the next prompt.
    2. 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.  And, by golly, your actual creative side instead of your leadership creative side could also set you apart—this might be an even better way to address UO . . . depending, of course. If you are an artist, have at it, but you need more than a list of art activities, briefly described, that are already on your activities . . . perhaps you artistic side has helped you solve problems in engineering . . . No, really, I have seen this: artist realizes she is an engineer after helping create a heat shield for a satellite (Don’t’ we all have a summer internship that offers us the freedom to work on spacecraft?). Not you? Then maybe you just really like art or music and can talk passionately about it—it’s that passion that will make this essay shine.3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  What could set you apart in the UO essay on information they can’t see than a talent you haven’t talked (much) about? Notice that this overlaps with the last essay, if you are a (talented) artist. BTW, in truth, application readers do not really look to see if you “answered” the prompt—unless you wrote something cheesy with an overly obvious “lesson learned,” in which case they may look for evidence that you are forcing all kinds of activities and lessons into your essay in a rote way. Rote=Bad.4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced. You would, of course, choose things that won’t really show up in your transcript or your activities directly, though you could drag some classes and whatnot into your essay, and this prompt would definitely fit what UO is looking for.5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? Ditto my last comment.

    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you. Sure, your academic subjects and grades are in here, but hey—they can’t really see how it influenced you in great detail, so why not?

    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    U Oregon Prompt on equity and conclusion could work here if making your school or community better involved some kind of diversity or inclusivity issue. And then, of course, there is U.C.’s prompt number 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California? And for this one . . . oh, wait. This basically is the UO prompt, except it’s for UC, and UC only allows 350 words. But hey, it’s pretty easy to add words, really. So have at it.




How to Begin Writing College Application Essays for 2016-2017: The Harvard Supplemental Essay and The University of California Personal Insight Statements

Who should read this post: Anybody applying to Harvard; Anybody applying to Harvard and the University of California system; Anybody applying to a Common Application School; Anybody writing more than one application essay.

 So step one this year is not to just sit down and write an essay.  And why not?

Because most of you will write essays for multi-college portals like the University of California system and a slate of colleges through the Common Application or Coalition application. If you are just getting into the app process and thought you could write your Common App essay and be done, sorry: most Common App and Coalition schools also want their own supplemental essays—and when a super elite like Harvard offers even the chance to write an additional essay, you need to do it lest you appear to be a slacker. All things being equal, you are likely to lose out to another applicant who looks like you in terms of data and other material if they wrote the extra essay and you did not.

What this means is clear: too many essays, too little time.

So assuming you have ten to sixteen essays to write, too much schoolwork and not enough time: what should you do? The answer is also pretty simple, but does take a bit more time up front: find a double or triple use for essays when you can. Sure, you thought of that, but have you done it yet? If not, read on. Actually, read on either way, as I will do some prompt analysis for Harvard and the University of California, along with a shout-out to Stanford, with a bonus of some helpful links.

How to Start Your College Application Essay

Back to step one, which is now to print out the prompts for your top target schools and set them side-by-side, along with a few safety schools, and engage in a comparison/contrast exercise. The more times you can reuse an essay as is, or do a bit of editing and reuse it, the better. Of course, you do have to avoid stretching too much when you try to make one essay work for another prompt, and you should definitely do a close read to make sure you did not leave in the name of  college x in your essay to college y  (Seriously: people really do miss details and end up sending an essay addressed to one school to another. For an amusing example of this and some other major boo-boos, listen to the introduction to this episode of This American Life: How I Got Into College.  It only takes a couple of minutes and is good for a laugh, at least.

Getting back to getting started,  if you are entirely new to this game, please dive in and start selecting your schools of interest in the Common App or Coalition portal (or Naviance, if you are using it). You will find that most Common App schools also want some kind of supplemental essay, or essays, or at least some quick responses about yourself. To learn more, get registered, select schools and  then click on the supplementals and essays.  Copy all prompts of interest into a document.  Then come back here  for a lesson on doubling up on essays and so not going crazy (completely) or burning out (utterly) by Thanksgiving.


The Harvard Optional Essay and the University of California Personal Insight Prompts:  A comparison

Many students will apply to some University of California campuses as an alternate or backup for one or more Ivy League applications, so let’s look at a comparison of the U.C. essay prompts and Harvard.

Here’s the University of California Prompts, bare-bones version (on the U.C. site, they append quite a bit of commentary to the basic prompts):

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  
    2. 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.
    3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
    4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
    5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 You choose four of these eight prompts and write them (Caveat to junior college and other transfers—you have a required essay and choose three of these four prompts; here’s a link to the required transfer essay: U.C. Transfer essay).

And now we turn to the Harvard prompts, comparing each to the University of California personal insight prompts, with Stanford’s roommate letter thrown in for fun:

Harvard College Application Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

Essay optional (Hint, hint:  Optional only for those with a scholarship in hand.)

You may wish to include an additional essay (You should)  if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life—Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could pair with the University of California’s prompt 8 (UC 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates if that thing is some unusual circumstance in your life.
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries— Analysis and comparison: This prompt overlaps with the UC prompt 8 as well, if your unusual circumstance is living abroad. Of course just attending an international school does not make you all that unusual—thousands of American students in international schools, as well as thousands of foreign students apply to Harvard and the U.C.’s. But if you start by visualizing how your life is abroad is different from a suburban American teen (your major competition overall) and then think about how you have some unique view of experience within your living abroad experience, then that is your angle.
    • Oh, and a caveat: In all cases, whether writing for U.C. or for Harvard, please avoid the clichéd essay on a trip. Have a look at this link for some advice on how to write (or not write) the trip essay for either U.C. or Harvard (or anywhere else): Evading the Cliché Step 2.
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you. Analysis and comparison: Well this does not actually line up perfectly with any U.C. prompts—but it does overlap nicely with the Stanford letter to a roommate and hey—if you are applying to Harvard (with its 5.39% admit rate), why not apply to Stanford (with its 4.96% admit rate) as well—so let’s digress here to Stanford, which is still using its “letter to your roommate” prompt. You wouldn’t want your Harvard essay to look too much like a Stanford letter, but the usually more cheeky or informal tone of a letter might work for Harvard as well. Here’s a link to the Stanford prompts: Stanford Short Essays.

Okay, Back to the U.C. . . . . and Harvard:

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. Analysis and comparison: This lines up best with the U.C. prompt 6 ( . . . favorite academic subject and its influence on you) as long as you frame it with a specific focus on a book, project, research topic, etc. It might also work for the U.C. prompt 4 (Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity).
  • How you hope to use your college education. Analysis and comparison: This does not line up well with any U.C. prompts. A number of Ivies have this kind of question (Cornell, et al) but the problem with doubling up this prompt is your need to show some knowledge of the school. So you could write about your ambitions and show why you have them, then do some reading and clicking on specific programs, professors and research, etc., at Harvard, and then write this one. Then cut off the specifics about Harvard as you use it for other schools, swapping in research on their programs, etc.
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months. Analysis and comparison: This is, again, a question with no overlap for the University of California prompts; it is also not really an essay prompt. On the other hand, I would not just list books here. No, I would present an annotated list, with a brief reaction to each book—a few sentences at most.
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty. Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could be a leadership issue if you took some kind of initiative in relationship to integrity or honesty—which is, of course, prompt 1 for the University of California. But handle this one with caution. If you waded into the morass of plagiarism or cheating, you have to figure out if you can get into that without hurting yourself by talking about it. You don’t want to present as a cheater, nor do you want to present as a snitch. If it was a big deal, possibly you have to, however, since if it was a big problem, it likely has a presence on social media. The last time I looked at a study, over 40% of application officers look at social media, and any serious stuff about you online will require some damage control.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission? Analysis and comparison: If you wrote an essay for the University of California’s prompt 7 (What have you done to make your school or your community a better place), that could work as the basis for this essay. Notice that they want to know what you will do at Harvard, which means what you will do in the future, but what you will do in the future won’t be very convincing if you have not done something in the past. So as I said, you might be able to use your UC 7 essay and add to it here to show how you will continue your commitment to world peace or whatever. But do some research on what is already in place at Harvard (and your fav U.C. campuses).  Why?  Because saying you want to start a World Peace Club at Harvard won’t be very convincing if they already have one. It would just show that you did not do much research, which suggests a lack of interest. Oops.

Some tips on Editing

Keeping in mind that to cut a 650 word essay down to 500 words, or a 500 word essay down to 350 words is actually to create a different essay, try to match up prompts, and when possible, match up prompts in a similar wordcount range.

To see what I mean, use my link below, and then read down into the post and you will see a very simple but very useful editing exercise I do on a brilliant essay by Titi Nguyen that will show you how you can cut a much longer essay and have a very good (if very different and much shorter) essay: How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples. After clicking the link, save time by searching the post for this:  My Wonder Years.

If you can use a technique like this to cut a Common App essay down to a U.C. 350-word essay, you can save some time. In addition to the editing trick, which would require only some work with transitions to make a great, new essay out of Nguyen’s long essay, notice the topic: television shows, and from what I would call a lost decade in terms of culture.  Nguyen’s use of what should be not just a mundane but a mindless topic allows her to get at the meaning of her life and to show her unique experience.

Hey, how has media shaped your life? Or how does it offer a lens into your life? Follow her lead and something good may happen (just don’t copy her. Inspiration is okay, plagiarism not so much.  You should go with things that are important to you.  Maybe it’s food, or shoes or something else nobody else would think of as a serious topic).

So that’s it; that’s how I would go about doing a comparison of U.C. to Harvard prompts and thus look to save time and verbiage (Yep, that’s both a thesis and a summary).

My next post will do a similar comparison for the University of Oregon, a good, large state university that has become a fallback school for many California applicants—with an app data profile similar to U.C. Riverside. Call it a safety comparison if you will, or just call it a look at a solid university to double up with the U.C. (or some other fine institution).   See you soon. (Oh, and yes, I will be doing more Ivy League analysis, as well as having a look at U Chicago and other elites, later in the month of September on into early October, as time allows.  Editing on client essays has to come first, but Stay tuned for more).











Big Changes for the University of California Application: What, Why and What to Do (Part 1)

Who should read this post: anybody who is now or will be in the near future applying to any University of California campus; any parent of anybody applying to the U.C. anytime soon; anybody interested in what is going on in higher education.

 Our major topics: The U.C. Application Essays for 2016-2017; Some Current Data on U.C. Applications, From Admit Rates to G.P.A.’s; A Brief History of U.C. Admissions

 Our friends at the University of California have finally made their break from the Common Application.

But wait, you say—they never were in the Common App system. And you’d be right.

But the old, two-essay format for the U.C. pretty much guaranteed that a majority of applicants reused their Common App essay; with one thousand words total, you’d upload your very polished Common App essay, then write (or reuse from somewhere else) a shorter essay of about 350 words, after which you could click on as many U.C. campuses as you liked and call it a day. For the last few years, the U.C. has been like a satellite orbiting the Death Star known as The Common Application.

So much for that.

What exactly they want now is four essays, each of 350 words (maximum) and you are to choose from eight prompts to do so. If you are a junior college/transfer applicant, you are required to write about your major, then to choose three of seven remaining prompts. I link the new U.C. prompts for everybody here.

This is the biggest change in years at the U.C. and the biggest change I have seen yet this year in any of the major applications—so why are they doing this, now? And why should you care? Isn’t it enough that you have to write the bloody things?

Well, yes it is, but knowing why can help you understand what they want. And the why has three reasons.

Reason number one: The U.C. is having trouble figuring out who the best applicants are. More on that below.

Reason number two: The U.C. has too many people applying. To a large extent this is due to the fact that it’s easy to apply to all the U.C.’s once you’ve done the app for one: you write the essays, fill in the rest of the application, and then just start clicking to send it to as many U.C.’s as you want. Sure, you pay for each campus you target, but the fee is relatively small against the upside benefit of a seat at a U.C. campus. But you already knew that.

Reason number three: Essay recycling. Clearly this is tied in to the large number or apps, partly because the U.C. was a default backup to a range of super-selective Common App colleges (the Ivies, etc); most U.C. applicants were (and still are) applying to a selection of Common App schools as well—and being able to reuse the Common App essay made it all the more easy to add a set of U.C.’s to your average HYPSM application.

I know I already mentioned that, but it’s an important point because, well, they don’t want to feel like your fallback date for the big dance if your true love turns you down, and you can see how the new application is a direct response to essay recycling when you look at the length and at the number of essays now required for the U.C.: very few universities have a 350-word limit for their essays, and very few require this many essays written specifically for them. Of course, the number and range of questions also require you to do a lot more writing about yourself, and they hope that this will help them do a better job figuring out who to admit.

Think about it: if you are at a typical suburban high school, you probably need two hands and both feet to count the number of people at your school who have a 3.8 or above GPA and a 2100 SAT (or 32 ACT). But would you want to share a dorm with all of them? Are some of them not indistinguishable from robots?  U.C. truly believes in building a “learning community” and, like all schools, want people who themselves really want to attend, and who have more experiences in their lives than were defined by ten years at Kumon and four years of college counseling.  Therefore, the essays, which make it harder to fake it as you show who you are.  Though not impossible.

The takeaway is that it’s become much more difficult to reuse another essay directly on the U.C. application—or to use their essays directly on somebody else’s. Stanford, for example: they want 250-word supplemental essays, and while some clever editing might allow some crossover, a 350 word essay cut down to 250 words is a whole new essay.

On the other hand, a school like Harvard has some overlap through their “optional” extra essay (which is not really optional for most students) because it is so open-ended. And there is a degree of overlap between select UC prompts and prompts for a number of U.C. analogs as well as for some excellent, lesser-known choices across the country. So I will address the opportunities for multi-use essays directly in my next post.

For now let’s leave the essay prompts behind and turn to the details on how this came to pass, and on some current data for the U.C. admissions (3.91 average GPA at the two most popular U.C. campuses, for example) read on.

How We Got Here (And Where We Are)

To get a broader picture of where we are,  let’s start with a quick look at the ancient past: By the middle of the 20th Century, the U.C.’s stated mission was to provide higher education to all California students who qualified. For some perspective on what that meant, prior to 1960, the top 15% of all California students were admitted to the U.C. system, and until 1964 the system admitted all students who met its requirements.  And this without needing an SAT test.   Then, in 1968, a paradigm shift began as Ronald Reagan, governor of California, defined higher education as a privilege that should be defined by the practical and limited to the “deserving” (have a look here for a quick summary of Ronald Reagan’s role in changing the postwar educational paradigm: The Day the Purpose of College Changed).

Flash forward to the early 1980’s and Berkeley was denying admissions to roughly 50% of applicants; by 1990, that number had grown to around 2/3.


Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California

That seemed like tough news in 1990, but it seems fantastic compared to last year’s Berkeley admissions: for the incoming class of 2020: 14.8% of all freshman applicants were admitted to U.C. Berkeley, this coming out of 82,558 freshman applicants. And, oh yes, that average Berkeley SAT of 2093 and ACT of 31 for this year’s incoming freshmen, in addition to that 3.91 average GPA (Which was 3.94 for out-of-state and international students—though there are seats set aside for them which might still result in you getting bumped by an out-of-state student, Oh 3.9 GPA Californian).

Of course, you already knew that U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. were both a bear to get into (No, I could not pass up the chance for a bad pun).

But now, even the so-called second tier campuses appear increasingly difficult for admissions, partly because the ease of spamming applications to all campuses, noted above, but also for the very good reason that the education is superb, and the chances of getting into other big-name university brands is even more brutal—just under 5% last year for Stanford, for example, and 6% admit rate for the tougher Ivies—and, well, Mr. Reagan, who attached the idea that education was special and argued that education should take cuts like everybody else when the budget needed to be balanced, and since the early 1970’s, it’s been about balancing budgets more than addign seats—I add only that this is a short summary but fully factual. You can add whatever politics you like to the facts.

But it could be worse–and there is plenty of room for the top 10% of students in California, at the least, if you are flexible in your U.C. target list. So before you panic, consider a wider field, starting with my favorite dark horse, Santa Cruz, which had an average admit GPA of 3.85 and an overall admit rate of 56.9% last year (with a California admit rate close to 80%). This from a university that the Times International survey has ranked in the top two in the world for research influence over the last couple of years (measured by how often U.C. Santa Cruz researchers were cited by others). Yep, U.C. Santa Cruz, at the top of world rankings for research citations.

As for prestige, in ten years, having a degree from U.C. Merced will be gold to a U.C. Berkeley or U.C.L.A. platinum.

It’s true that the pressure is not going to go away, but the new four-essay admissions strategy is likely to have a dampening effect on the total number of applications, and the additional 5,000 or so California students that the U.C. has agreed to add over the next two years will also have an effect on the chances that a California student will be admitted, as well as on the average GPA and test scores. And let’s look past my Dark Horse to a couple of other options.

In fact, let’s look in the San Jouquin Valley, where Merced’s middle-range GPA’s for students arriving this fall ranged from 3.37 (25th percentile admitted) to 3.88 (75th percentile). Which means that Merced looks like Berkeley did when Reagan was governor, in terms of getting in (Historical fact:  1967 was the first year that the SAT was required for U.C. admissions)—though I hasten to add that Merced will also be a large construction site for the next 4-5 years as they build it out into a truly world-class campus.

If construction dust (and valley fever) sound like bad news, have a look further south at U.C. Riverside, which for students enrolling this fall, had a mid-range GPA of 3.52-4.0, a mid-range ACT composite of 27-29 and a mid-range SAT composite of 1490-1915.

And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays

 So what should you do as you begin your U.C. application? Let’s start with Reason 1 for the change in the application: at the most selective U.C.’s, they are having a tough time figuring out who is a robot as they sort through reams of applications containing the life accomplishments of kids who have had fully programmed lives, going to Kumon since age four and starting college activities in 8th grade.  So view the essay as a chance to show them why you are unique and would be a real addition to whatever campus(es) you are applying to. But before you do that, compare the U.C. prompts to those used by the other schools you are applying to. Or better yet, wait until next week, when I do some of that for you, as well as analyzing prompts.

See you soon.