If you’re submitting an undergraduate application to one of California’s 23 world-class state university campuses, you’ll be tasked with selecting and completing 4 of 8 distinct essay prompts with a word limit of 350 words for each essay. The University of California Admissions online portal emphasizes that you “should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.” While admissions committee members are often felt left wanting to know more about candidates’ backgrounds and experiences than 1-2 short essay prompts provide, UC schools give you plenty of chances to highlight yourself from a variety of angles. This post highlights strategies to employ for each of the 8 possible prompts to create the most dynamic written record of your candidacy possible.
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.
This question is often passed up by high school students who think not being Student Body President means they haven’t actively been a pre-college “leader.” This assumption is untrue, however. I regularly encourage clients to emphasize leadership experience that also speaks to a unique extracurricular passion they have and remember that no passion is automatically more interesting than another. Before you write yourself off as a non-leader, generate a quick list of times where you have stepped up and made an impact in your family, school, or community. Being the trumpet Section Leader in marching band or the Chess Team Captain can make for as interesting of an essay as being the quarterback of the varsity football team provided you focus this essay on a specific and memorable moment when you significantly influenced others or resolved a dispute. There might have been an instance of cheating during a chess tournament you stepped up and called out, for example, even though doing so disqualified you and your teammates. Or perhaps there was a time when your basketball teammate had a parent with a cancer diagnosis, and you entered their life, organized a city-wide fundraiser, and made a tangible difference.
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.
This essay can be a bit of a trap if you don’t have an activity or interest you’re passionate about to focus on. It will be important to narrow the idea of “creative side” as specifically as possible. Since you only have 350 words, try to frame this essay by opening it with a story about your creative side that draws your reader in. Set a scene for us, then discuss the creative skill you’ve cultivated. This example can be linked to other aspects of your candidacy, such as your unique volunteer experience in high school. Maybe you dipped your brush into a can of layering paint while building a home for Habitat for Humanity when you got the idea to add artwork to the walls of a child’s bedroom, or found a passion for painting on canvas as a result of this volunteer experience. Notice that this prompt has a broad definition of “creative side” as well and encourages you to consider problem solving and novel thinking as creative. If you’re a math whiz, you might write about the volunteer math tutoring you did for local students and how explaining concepts to others helped deepen your own understanding of the subject.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Since creativity and talents tend to go hand in hand, if you already plan to answer essay prompt #2, it is advisable to not overlap that content with essay #3. If you have a talent or skill that has defined your personal or academic development, this can be a very compelling prompt, especially if the story of developing that talent involved significant challenges you can highlight. Maybe the first time you tried out for the tennis team, for example, you were cut and had to put in another year of practice to finally end up making the team and winning your first match. Try not to make a generic skill such as studying or getting good grades the topic of this essay. UC schools will already see your high school grades and SAT / ACT scores, so there is no need to highlight these aspects of your application again. If you can link your talent or skill to a campus activity you want to continue while in college, be sure to mention it in this essay. In the case of the tennis example, you could highlight your desire to play on either the university club or varsity tennis teams, or simply continue your passion as an intramural player.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This prompt tends to work best if you highlight an educational barrier you’ve worked to overcome, since barriers you’ve faced help establish narrative tension that will draw your reader into the story you’re telling. This is likely not an ideal essay to choose if you do not feel you’ve faced educational disadvantages (e.g., if you attended private school and had a personal tutor growing up), though it could be a unique opportunity to talk about how you overcame a learning disability such as dyslexia and how the experience of overcoming your learning disability has shaped the way you think about academic success and your future college experience. The barrier you discuss obviously doesn’t have to be cognitive in nature. Maybe you grew up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood and are the first person in your family to go to college. Telling that story in detail can help signpost for an Admissions Committee the unique challenges you’ve faced that may have resulted in lower test scores, grades, or extracurricular involvement than other applicants.
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?
This is another prompt that tends to start best with an opening scene that introduces the challenge you’ve faced with a narrative frame. Using dialog can often be an effective way to start off a narrative essay like this and draw your reader in. For example, you might open with a phone conversation between yourself and a family member telling you that another family member is ill or injured, then continue the story by discussing the steps you took to address the situation, move forward, and cope with the aftermath. This will likely be the most personally revealing essay you write if you select it, but don’t let that stop you from summoning the courage to write it. I once had a client tell the story of how he lost his father on 9/11. It was extremely hard for him to write initially, but the process of revisiting his grief also helped him tell the story of how he overcame poor academic performance and depression in high school by finding a network of friends and loved ones he could count on.
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
If you’re the type of student who wakes up each morning excited about one high school class in particular, this is the essay for you. Math whizzes and literature buffs, this is your chance to wax poetic (or numeric) and tell us about what diving deeply into your favorite academic subject has taught you about yourself and the world outside school. Don’t let yourself be limited to discussions of how you stayed late at night in the high school chemistry lab conducting extra chain reactions. Try to look beyond school and highlight the chemical engineering internship experience you sought out over the summer or the experiment you conducted in your garage despite your parents skepticism. This essay is as much about how you’ve pursued a specific academic passion as why you first got excited about it. Tell us what inspires you, but tell us a good story about where inspiration has led you as well. It is customary to link the passion you choose to your prospective college major, but not necessarily required.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
The main mistake I see applicants make with an essay like this is to not think of “community” broadly enough. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to how you define the word, but picking a specific example will likely work better than trying to cover 3 or 4 in less than 350 words. Whether you’re actively engaged in your church youth group’s regular volunteer efforts at soup kitchens or support members of your fellow Chinese immigrant community with the citizenship naturalization process, a compelling essay #7 will clearly define a positive community outcome that came from the hard work and time you put in to improve your hometown, high school, or another community that is important to you. Keep in mind that the example you choose doesn’t have to be pulled from the same town you live in. If you grew up in the Chicago suburbs but have volunteered often in the city itself, serving a community beyond your own can make for a compelling essay topic that helps set you apart from other applicants.
8. 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?
While the advice the University of California Admissions online portal gives for this essay includes that you shouldn’t “be afraid to brag a little,” don’t think that this prompt is necessarily the only part of the application to highlight your clearest strengths. You could not select this essay and still represent yourself and your talents effectively by choosing four of the other seven prompts. This essay can be a useful time to highlight something singular about yourself if you didn’t already answer prompt #3 and want to close on a strong note. Admissions Committees tend to read essays in chronological order, so if you do select prompt #8, make sure you’re ending on a strong and interesting note. You don’t have to have come up with a potential cure for cancer to make this essay convincing if you can link what you’re saying to the University of California System in some way. Maybe you have already been involved in a pre-college program at a particular UC campus–a creative writing program for high school students, for example–and formed meaningful connections with faculty members in the process. Mentioning details like this can help demonstrate you want to be part of the social fabric of a UC campus and are more likely to attend a UC school if accepted, which can certainly help sway an Admissions Committee.
If you’re applying to the University of California, you already know you’re up against tight competition. Don’t be overwhelmed. Get the guidance of an experienced admissions specialist who will help you stand out from the highly competitive applicant pool so you can apply with confidence, and get accepted! Click here to get started!
• Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
• 7 Signs An Experience Belongs In Your Application, a short video
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