How to Write the UC Essays

The University of California (UC) application requires you to respond to 4 of the following 8 essay prompts (350 words max per essay):


Essay Option #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.

Essay Option #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.

Essay Option #3: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Essay Option #4: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Essay Option #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?

Essay Option #6: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 


Essay Option #7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Essay Option #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?


Here are some tips to optimize your UC essays:


Tip #1: Minimize the storytelling and be responsive and straightforward.


In your main Common Application essay, many of you will engage in storytelling to capture your reader's attention and to share your experiences. When executed properly and succinctly, that kind of storytelling can be very effective and compelling. However, the UC essays are much narrower in scope and much tighter in space. In these types of situations, you need to minimize the storytelling so that you can actually answer the prompt.


Storytelling usually takes up a lot of space because you have to help the reader imagine the situation by setting up the characters, the tension, the setting, and the dialogue. In these UC essays, you don't have the space to be doing such lengthy storytelling. I'm not saying that there is no space for storytelling, but keep the storytelling to a minimum. In these UC essays, your responses should be much more directed, specific, and narrow. The UCs want you to answer particular questions, so make sure that you do so in a responsive and straightforward manner. If you have some space to sprinkle in a pithy anecdote, great. Otherwise, focus on providing substantive responses in these UC essays.


Tip #2: Don't make it obvious that you just recycled another essay.


Throughout the course of your college application season, you will write dozens of essays, both short and long, for various schools. Obviously, you want to be economical and smart about your essay-writing and not have to spend energy and creativity generating brand new content for every school that you apply to. Learning how and when to recycle essays is critical for your success during the admissions process. However, don't be fooled: just recycling another essay without making any modifications for the UC prompts is a recipe for disaster.


Colleges are not dumb. They know what other schools are doing, and they often imitate each other. For example, when a prestigious school dumps or adds an admissions requirement, other schools often follow suit. Colleges are also aware of specific essays and prompts for particular schools. The University of Chicago is known for some of the quirkiest and most creative prompts (a great resource for brainstorming, by the way). Stanford University regularly asks students to write a note or letter to a future roommate. The list goes on. If you decide to just take a school-specific essay and copy and paste it into your UC application, your admissions officer will know--I guarantee it. Recycling an essay is not the problem. The problem is giving off the impression that you spent no time or effort tailoring an essay for the UC application. You don't want to give off the impression that you are lazy, unmotivated, and uncreative. Recycling is great--just do it subtly and tactfully so that no one can tell that your essay was simply recycled. The best recycled products look like brand new products; the best recycled essays look like brand new essays.


Tip #3: Be specific and provide concrete examples.


The UC prompts are very specific, and your responses should be very specific as well. The UCs are not looking for laundry lists of experiences or resumes in narrative form. Each UC prompt is narrow enough that you should be able to identify one significant experience from your life (yes, one) that can serve as the anchor for the essay. Aim for depth rather than breadth in your responses. Dive deeply into your experience, elaborate, and reflect. Don't just gloss over your experiences quickly as you move through your 4 UC essays. Show your reader that you carefully selected the experiences that you shared in your essays and that they are meaningful and significant in explaining who you are. Each of your specific experiences should reveal something different but important about you.


Always provide concrete examples. Don't operate in the realm of theory and generalizations. The worst mistake you can make is to make your essay very abstract or general. It's important to show off your academic and scholarly qualities, but make sure that you achieve balance in your essay and can provide evidence from your own life to support the claims you are making about yourself. You are a human being, and human beings have specific personalities and concrete experiences. Being specific and concrete in your essays is critical to persuading your reader that you not only answered the essay prompts directly and effectively but also are a great and interesting candidate for the UCs.


Tip #4: Emphasize your personal growth and development.


The delta, the change, the growth that you experienced is key. The UCs care deeply about how you have changed as a result of your experiences. Instead of focusing on what happened, focus on the whys and the hows. Why was this experience meaningful or important to you? How did this experience change or influence you? The journey matters (often more than the destination), and colleges want to see the journey that you have taken, limited it may be. Just as the UCs are interested to see upward trajectories in your grades, test scores, extracurricular involvement, etc., they are also interested in seeing this upward trajectory in your personal growth. Because although they are ultimately building an academic community of scholars and intellectuals, the UCs are mission-oriented and see themselves as incubators of future leaders of the world--people with great character, judgment, and skill. Personal growth and change do not happen overnight. And showing, specifically and concretely, how you have changed and grown as a result of your experiences will demonstrate how you have persevered over time and have become a better person over time.


The UCs love to see positive growth and change in you--dynamism rather than stasis. Show how you are continuing to grow in your thoughts and beliefs and progressing towards a greater and better version of yourself as a member of society and your community. Be comfortable admitting that you may not have all of the answers yet. That you are comfortable with uncertainty, doubt, and holes in your thinking. But be genuine and sincere about it. Showcasing your intellectual humility and curiosity as well as your willingness to learn will make a strong impression on your reader. The UCs are looking for students who are willing to change their minds, make new friends, try new activities and experiences, change majors, and stretch themselves academically, physically, socially, mentally, spiritually, and beyond. The UCs are supposed to provide safe environments for exploration and experimentation--the last bastions of imaginative play and study before you enter the "real world."


Tip #5: Reveal your individual identity within the context of communities.


The UCs encourage and welcome a community mindset because you will be living in close quarters with diverse people, interacting daily in lecture halls, laboratories, gyms, fields, and dining halls. No UC wants to accept a selfish person who will just look to advance his own interests, solve his own problems, and use and exploit others to get to his next goal. Alumni communities are great and strong because alumni want to help each other out. Especially these days, colleges--including the UCs--are focusing on emotional intelligence and soft people skills, building communities of smart students who are also compassionate, empathetic, and generous. Thus, if you can show that you are a person who has helped make her community a better place by addressing a specific problem or genuinely hopes to make her community a better place by offering constructive and practical solutions, then you will make a much stronger impression on your reader.


Showing what kind of person you are in the context of communities is especially important for the UCs because the UC communities are quite large. Each UC consists of thousands of students, and sometimes you will feel lost and overwhelmed in a sea of students. Your ability to navigate these large communities and find yourself and be comfortable is hugely important. The UCs want students who can integrate themselves into large communities, build smaller communities, and be welcoming to others who feel disoriented and unwelcome. By highlighting your individual identity within the context of communities, you will show how you will help build more vibrant and welcoming UC communities.


Tip #6: Focus on recent experiences.


You might be tempted to look back at your entire life, from early childhood to the present day, to brainstorm. I recommend that you focus on your recent past. What do I mean by the recent past? Approximately the last 5 years or so of your life. This will not only help you narrow and prioritize your brainstorming, but it will also lead to more compelling essays because you will have experienced things when you were more mature and able to comprehend the nuances and significance of these things.


The UCs don't really care too much what you were like as a young child. They care much more about who you are now. And recent experiences in your life are usually going to be better reflections of your current identity, character, personality, and values. People change over time, and hopefully, you have matured significantly over the last several years, especially as you journeyed through middle school and high school. You are on the cusp of adulthood, and the UCs are excited to see how you see yourself in the present day and what your hopes and dreams are as you enter college and beyond. This is not to say that you can't include some details of your more extended past, but the emphasis and focus should remain on the recent past and how you have recently experienced personal growth and recently gained new understandings of yourself or others.


Tip #7: Explicitly connect the dots for your reader.


It is not enough just to discuss an experience or tell an engaging story. You need to explicitly connect the dots for your reader and help him understand how this experience affected or changed you. Thus, make sure that you save some space in your essay to be able to connect these dots for your reader and help them clearly understand the significance and upshot of your experience. If you just tell a great story without connecting the dots for your reader, then you have simply built a great short story and not a great personal statement.


Why do I emphasize explicitly connecting the dots for your reader? In your mind, everything makes sense. You have complete information about yourself, your life, your experiences, and your growth and understanding. We often make the mistake of assuming that others can see things the way we see ourselves and our world around us. People often see things differently based on their background, worldview, politics, religion, etc. Some readers just "get it" more easily and quickly than others. Thus, to appeal to the broadest audience possible, you want to make sure that the points of your essay are clear and explicit to everyone. That's not to say that you should "dumb it down" and make your essay boring. There are ways of explicitly connecting the dots for your reader but also doing it in a sophisticated and nuanced manner. Your writing quality does not have to suffer in order to accomplish this very important objective.


Tip #8: Showcase your scholarly qualities.


Remember that colleges are ultimately schools where you live, study, eat, and play with others for an extended number of years. At their core, colleges--including the UCs--are still academic institutions, and they want to see that you possess the academic qualities and curiosity that will make you an excellent addition to classrooms, laboratories, discussion sections, etc. In every essay topic you choose, make sure that there is a scholarly or academic side to it that you can discuss and flesh out.


This is your opportunity to show that you are a serious student of not only academic subjects but also the world. You see things, you notice things, you can "closely read" and analyze the world around you. Demonstrate that you are academically curious and that you do things for the sake of learning sometimes. You don't just do the bare minimum required at school and just try to get good grades. The more the UCs can see that you take initiative of your own learning and growth, the more confident they will feel in admitting you. The UCs are huge environments where your hand will not be held by someone. They need to feel comfortable that you will take responsibility for your own education and will be able to handle your independence. In college, you will often lose track of time because of flexible scheduling, interesting conversations, oversleeping, partying too hard, and engaging extracurriculars. The UCs want to see that you will be engrossed in your work and activities but also be responsible.


Tip #9: Keep it personal and always connect it back to yourself.


Remember that at the end of the day, you are writing personal essays--personal statements. The whole purpose of each essay is to show who you are, how you think, what you value, and how you will contribute to the vibrancy of a college community. Don't lose sight of the larger objectives of this essay. The UCs don't want to just hear your thoughts on abstract ideas; they want to understand you as a person better and explore the inner workings of your mind. They want students who are both smart and likable.


Show your sense of humor, and show that you are relatable and likable. Yes, you should showcase your scholarly qualities, but also take this opportunity to showcase the humorous and dynamic sides of your personality. Seize the opportunity to gain some personal points with your reader. Embrace your inner nerd if you want and geek out about whatever topic or experience you are writing about. Embrace yourself fully. Your reader will appreciate your authentic interest and curiosity. Humor is always difficult to insert in an admissions essay, but in my opinion, showing that you have a sense of humor is vital. You are not just a robot who studies well and does a million extracurricular activities in a superhuman way. You are a teenager who also has fun and has a vibrant personality. You have hobbies and interests outside of school, and you don't take yourself too seriously. You obviously want to be careful not to offend anyone with your humor--this is where tact and good judgment come in. And if you can exercise that good judgment and entertain your reader while sharing an experience, then you have hit the grand slam.


Tip #10: Demonstrate good judgment in your topic selection and diversify your essays.


Ultimately, choosing your essay topics is about demonstrating good judgment. The UCs want to see what you are able to come up with when you are given some freedom and flexibility in choosing your essay topics. Too many students try to be clever and unique when writing their essays for college admission. They want to be the next viral star whose essay will be published in the New York Times or aired on the evening news for its brilliance and humor. If your essay achieves that level of creativity and excellence, then fantastic. But you don't need to aim for a viral essay in order to write a strong personal statement. Don't try to be someone you're not in your essay. Authenticity and honesty are important, and people can tell when you are faking it. Too often, students come to the fall of senior year and think that one great creative essay can just change who they are in the eyes of admissions officers. The problem is that the rest of your application may betray you. Admissions officers look for patterns and consistencies across your application. If there is incongruence between your quality essays and the rest of your application, then they will begin to wonder why. Your essays and the rest of your application need to tell a coherent story about who you are.


Not very often do you get an opportunity to be introspective and write personal essays. In fact, for most high school seniors, this might be one of the first times in their lives that they are not writing academic essays. So the new format and content may be disorienting and challenging. Take this opportunity to get to know yourself better. Rely on people you trust--your friends, mentors, teachers, and family--to help you dig into your experiences and unearth your most important qualities. Ask yourself big questions and don't be afraid if you don't have all of the answers yet. What are your most important values? How do you spend your time, money, talent, and creativity? What are your greatest dreams and aspirations? How have you changed over time? What communities are you a part of? How have you found meaning and purpose in your life? What are your individual strengths and weaknesses? Beginning to tackle these questions honestly will empower you to write authentically, project your personality, and dazzle your UC admissions officers.


No matter how boring a life you have lived or how boring a person you are, each of you has a unique personality and life story to share with your reader. Take advantage of these essays to share more about yourself to your reader. Think of your college application like a large puzzle that you are assembling. When you finish your college application and all the puzzle pieces are together, your application reader should be able to see a clear and interesting portrait of who you are--the bigger picture. In this spirit, you should try to avoid redundancies in your application. Each puzzle piece should be playing its own unique and significant part in capturing the essence of who you are. Thus, in each essay, figure out what aspect of yourself that you haven't highlighted previously you are going to share. Diversify your essays both in substance and in style and your UC application will be so much more compelling and successful.

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