Advice for Writing Successful U. C. Essays, Part II–Personal Insight Prompts 5-8
This is my second installment on writing successful University of California essays for 2020-2021. For the first installment, click here: How to Write the University of California Personal Insight Prompts 1-4.
In this post, we turn to the final four of eight U.C. prompts. Note that you are not required to write 350 words, but if you have a good topic, the 350 word limit will feel too short, and your big problem will be fitting it all in. In a later post, I will look at the art of editing for word count.
Also be sure to give each prompt a try before making your final selections for the four required personal insight essays–if you start with the concrete evidence in terms of experiences you’ve had and actions you’ve taken, you may surprise yourself by findng that a prompt which seems not to apply to you actually does. And as noted in my earlier post, even if you don’t write the final essay for a prompt, the material from brainstorming and scribbling out ideas may be useful elsewhere. Now let’s move on to U.C. Personal Insight Prompts 5-8, and to why this post is worth reading, even if you end up not writing any U.C. essay prompts–my advice on the “Woe is Me” essay.. This kind of narrative has become increasingly common in the college application world. Tread carefully.
U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 5, and How To Write It
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?
Here is the guidance that the U.C. offers for this question:
Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?
If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”
Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 5
A specific challenge when it comes to actually writing a response to this prompt is the risk of creating a “Woe is Me” essay. What do I mean? First of all, I am not addressing those of you with learning challenges who have found ways to compensate and overcome them. However, I would add that you do not have to reveal disabilities or learning challenges to a university, though when you arrive on campus after having been admitted, they do have to provide you with necessary support–usually under a student services section or department. When I say the “Woe is Me” essay, what I am really focused on is essays that are meant to promote the trials and tribulations, the difficult life and intense suffering of an applicant to get the sympathy of the application readers. This can be a bad strategy, when it is a strategy and not just a life story.
The Rise of the Woe-is-Me Strategy
Here is why this strategy became popular: At some point around the turn of the century, word got out that the University of California was looking for ways to assess challenges in life that affected students, and that writing an essay about the life challenges you had to overcome was the best way to boost your chances of admission to the University of California system. Tbis approach first becme noticeable in the aftermath of political and legal action against equal opportunity programs in California.
So the essay on a difficult life, known in its extreme and false form as the “Woe is Me” essay became a kind of meme that drove thousands of applicants to concoct Dickensian background stories about poverty, disease, etc. Some of this was real, some was exagarrated, and some essays were totally fabricated. Application readers grew really tired of reading tales of suffering and woe, particularly when they obviously reached for sympathy. I am, of course, speaking of those essays sent in by applicants whose basic situation seemed pretty comfortable.
The worst effect of this meme in my opinion was its effect on students who suddenly felt they needed to have a competition for who had suffered the most or who had the greatest handicap to overcome. This seems to be to bad all around, for several reasons.
Why the Woe is Me Essay Should Usually be Avoided–and Who Can Authentically Use It
In the first place, it’s inauthentic for reasonably comfortable people to create sob stories out of their lives in order to get a benefit. In the second place, this is a bad game for most applicants to be playing–because there is incredible hardship out there in America, but if you are among the majority audience for a website like this, with time, realiable internet, a decent computer, etc, it’s a losing game to try to compete for a championship in hardship. You may end up looking phony. In the third place, it’s bad for young people to pretend to be something they are not in order to get a reward. I know that’s a bit circular, but so is the Nicomachean Ethics, which also offers some arguments on this writing situation, if you are interested.
In order to be more concrete here: I have done work for applicants who were functionally if not legally parentless, these being teenagers who worked jobs, went to school and took care of younger siblings because their own parents were unable or unwilling to do their job or were out of the picture. These things happen in America. Many college applicants come from really challenging backgrounds–but then they don’t have to pump up the suffering in their lives. Just reporting the facts is enough, and the fact that they have doen well enough in those circumstances to apply to college speaks for itself.
You, of course, have to make the call here–I do not know your life. There is great human misery to be found even among the owners of chalets and castles, but as a rule, suffering is distributed unevenly in all societies. But pumping up your suffering to get into a school is not a good thing to do. College app readers will frown mightily on those they feel or discover are manipulating the facts of their lives to get sympathy.
Who Can Write this Topic with that Focus
If you do come from a challenging background, however, it does make sense to choose this topic. The key for my clients who have written this essay is whether the circumstances shaped their lives and so were really a necessary topic for them to discuss, to explain certain aspects of their backgrounds and academic records. But even then, the main point of these essays was the way these students overcame the challenges. With real suffering, as noted above, there is no need to offer a florid description–the deeply personal circumstances speak for themselves in this kind of personal statement.
As a final, concrete example, I have also helped people with college applications after they arrived in this country fleeing war and violence or poverty and starvation or all of the above. So please weigh carefully if you need to respond to this prompt. If you are offering this essay as evidence for your challenges in life, make sure that others will see your problems as challenges significant enough to merit the time of your application reader as they fit together the puzzle of who you are. My most memorable experience working with a student writing about a life experience like this started with floating away from her country of birth on a smallish boat, being interned in camps for displaced persons, seeing other people die along the way, and then coming to the United States where she had to learn a new language, working a job to help support her family, dealing with prejudice about her appearance and assumptions about her religion, and still she excelled in school. Notice how simply stating concrete facts in this case is an example of facts speaking for themselves. Also, this was for a longer essay, back when U.C. allowed two essays of up to 1,000 words combined–she reused her Common Application essay on her background.
No doubt many of you’ve been working as well as taking care of siblings, many of you have learning challenges, and you may have been juggling family challenges, like your own academic challenges and the sudden switch to online classes in last semester of school. Just keep in mind that this was true of pretty much all of your peers and fellow U.C. applicants. Ask for some ourtside opinions of the merits of your personal challenges before going with this approach.
And if you do have dramatic or challenging personal story, state the facts without dramatic, you-are-there stuff and try to focus more on your initiative and problem-solving, and on the impact your efforts had in your success. But do make the cirumstances clear–a basic description of the situation or events will make clear the obstacles you overcame.
U.C. Essay Prompt 6 and How To Write It
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Here is the U.C. guidance for this question:
Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.
Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?
Commentary and Analysis on UC Personal Insight Prompt 6
My main recommendation: if your passion is intellectual, be sure that your passion extends outside of the classroom. You want to show this as a self-motivated activity, as something you pursue for its own sake, not just for grades. And you should think about why you pursue it, on a personal level, but also see if you can show some benefit for those around you–from your community through your school to your society at large and the world. Is there some way in which your interest can make the world a better place? If so, write out some ideas on that–whether it’s already true, or part of your plan for the future, through your education (something you should say–don’t assume the reader can infer the ouctomes of your interest, or their context). Show why you care about this.
And look at how a passion may apply to other areas of interest. One of the more interesting essays on this topic I have seen was by a student who attended an arts-oriented school, who worked on both visual arts and sculpture there, and how the manual skills picked up, and the artist’s sense of shape and design, helped this student come up with a design solution on what I will loosely call a high-tech robotic machine. This student solved a difficult problem involving how to shape and consruct protective cladding.
So I go back again to my advice in my first post on writing the U.C. prompts for 2020-2021–start by writing down experiences and scribbling out some details of description. While you come up with concrete experiences and actions, also look for ways in which your academic passion may have shaped your approach to problem-solving, or how it may be connecting you to knowledge outside of the specific discipline. On addition, look for chances to show how you may have worked with others, innovated and showed some leadership ability. It is nice to overlap (a bit) between essays, like this prompt and the prompt on leadership experiences, prompt 1, showing some leadership again in an essay not explicitly about leadership. The discussion on U.C. prompt 1 is located in my last post on the U.C. personal insight essays–click to see.
U.C. Essay Prompt 7 and How To Write It
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
My first point on this one: You are free to define your own community here, as shown by the guidance offered by the U.C.–
Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?
Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 7
If you come from an interesting family, your community can start there. And if your family has some traditions and customs that define it and in some sense define you, and those offer a positive insight into you and what you want to do in the world–fantastic. That’s step 1. Now what have you done to help your community? Also, repeating my recent comment, there is an element of leadership here as well, and that overlap of ideas and traints between essays (but not repetition of content).
Social justice is perhaps the most obvious community issue in the United States today, and no doubt many of you are interested in it, and perhaps actively involved in making change happen. However, if that is a recent passion, consider whether you have the record to address it in a college application essay.If you are applying in fall 2020, then June, 2020 is not the time to develop a sudden commitment for justice to your community or to the fight for civil rights for all.
On the other hand, many people have certainly had an awakening in the last month, if not the last six years. Maybe your awakening or commitment is serious, you are committed, and you are doing the work and putting yourself out there (hopefully with mask and sensible precautions.) Then you can write this essay as an important part of defining yourself. Just be wary of appearing to look like a carpettbagger or bandwagon jumper if you’ve been mostly an observer until recently–and just speaking up in class and posting a bit on social media is not really enough to make you an activist for an essay like this.
Also be wary of preaching and oversimplifying. Now is the time to act on principles, so be sure to clarify them, their origins and development in you, and be wary of preaching and oversimplifying. Yes, I know I already said that. History is complicated, and its long arc has bent toward justice, but only slowly, through activism and dramatic moments, but mostly through determined and disciplined work over time. You can already see how long the fight is still likely to be based on the lack of legislative response in Minnesotat this June. So be in it for the long run in life and in this essay, if you write it.
I have written about how to tackle essays on a problem, on social justice, etc, so you can see a post like the one I link now, and follow the subject tags for more, here–Essay on a Problem. All of the topics I list in this years-old post are still at play, now. Which says something in itself. If you scroll down in that linked post, I specifically address social justice essays.
U.C. Personal InsightEssay Prompt 8 and How To Write It
Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
Here is the U.C’s guidance on this question:
Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?
From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.
Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 8
Coming up with suggestions for this is a stumper for me, because it’s a personal insight essay–only you as an individual know your unknown topic that will fit here.
But in my experience, this essay tends to develop when a student starts our to write one thing and ends up with an essay that does not classify clearly–so it goes here. It’s a nice place to drop a good essay that does not quite fit anywhere else.
But here is a final, point: this personal insight application essay is not an essay for a high school class. I have made this statement several times in my two-part analysis of the U.C. essays this year, but in this case I mean that an application essay is not like an essay on a history test. There is no one right answer, or even a narrow range of right answers. These are personal essays, about you.
And college application readers are looking for good writing, interesting matrerial, and insight into you. If an essay is a slight reach on what community is (see above), so what? It it’s good and they like it, they like you as a candidate as well. Maybe it goes here, but if it sort of fits community, don’t worry too much: app readers don’t toggle back and forth between the prompts and the essay you wrote and look to deduct points because you did not answer all aspects of the question.
But still, this final prompt is a place to drop a good essay that does not really fit any of the others. And it’s maybe an opportunity for that quirky idea. Just don’t be too cute.
Contact Me for Essay Developing and Editing
Well that’s it for me on analysis for the University of California essays for this year. I do still have some spots for editing and essay development as I write this in the third week of June, 2020, so Contact Me if you need help. (Note; this link takes you to my business portal, which I separate from this free, advice-to-all-applicants website. Not a scam, just to separate the buisness from the public service and journalistic side).
And get writing soon. Four essays is a pretty hefty workload.