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The Requirements: 4 out of 8 essays, 350 words each.
The UC application sounds like a riddle. Every student must write four essays, but choose from eight prompts. The rules may be unfamiliar, but the game is the same: tell admissions something they don’t know – and then do it three more times! The instructions counsel you to “select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances,” and frankly, we couldn’t agree more. A strategic applicant will choose a constellation of prompts that highlight vastly different aspects of their lives and personalities, leaving an admissions officer with a deep and complete picture of who they are. Don’t get hung up on trying to divine the questions admissions wants you to answer. In the end, they just want to get to know the real you, plus the application swears that “there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.” So follow your heart (!) and don’t let the fatigue get to you. Avoid robotically starting every answer by restating the question and be as anecdotal as possible. With each essay, your goal isn’t just to answer the question, but to tell a very short story about yourself!
When answering this question, avoid the siren song of your resume. This question isn’t asking you for a list! Remember: it’s your job, as an applicant, to use every essay as an opportunity to reveal something new about yourself. Think of a moment when you were in a position where you worked really hard to help a group of people. Maybe you are always the one helping your younger siblings with their homework, and you struggled to find ways to engage your dyslexic younger brother with math. Maybe, as a camp counselor or church volunteer, you were in charge of choreographing and instructing a number for a group of seven-year-old hip hop dancers to perform. Perhaps, on a Habitat for Humanity school trip, you became the head cook, whipping up everything from pancakes to chicken fajitas while galvanizing a team of sous chefs to pitch in.
The point is, try to isolate a single leadership moment, and bring it to life with vivid details. Describe where you were, what was happening around you, and what you were feeling. Discuss what challenges you faced, and what you ultimately learned from the experience. Don’t shy away from challenges or even failures, since these are exactly the sorts of character-building experiences that can demonstrate resilience and quick thinking.
You may think that this question was geared towards the artistically inclined, but take a closer look. The wording offers many potential definitions that veer away from traditional conceptions of creativity (and actually, it asks you for your personal definition!). Creativity lies in your outlook: seeing the opportunity to use one of your skills in a novel situation; looking at a problem from a new angle to find the solution that no one else could see. This question is, in reality, ideal for the more scientifically oriented to create a more well-rounded profile. Creative types, on the other hand, might want to proceed with caution since, really, every question is an opportunity to show off your talents and describe your artistic endeavors.
No matter who you are, though, remember this classic writing advice: show don’t tell. So, you claim that gardening, or Calculus, or painting is how you show your creative side. Okay. So, then immerse the reader in this activity with you. If you enjoy gardening, describe the plants, their qualities, and how you make your horticultural choices; are you drawn to the aesthetics or are you botanically inquisitive? Similarly, if your subject is Calculus, show the reader how you sat in your dad’s office for six hours straight trying to calculate Pi on a three dozen sheets of paper using red crayon. If you love to paint, show the reader where you paint, what you paint, and why you paint, describing the colors, textures, materials—the essential process behind your art. Write descriptively so that the reader can feel as if he or she were experiencing your creative passion with you.
If question 3 reminds you of question 2, you’re not alone. Often, when we talk about a talent or skill that we have honed over the course of a lifetime, we’re inclined to describe it as an art — a creative extension of who we are. So if you choose to respond to both of these questions, make sure to highlight distinct skills in each.
The good news is: finding your subject should be easy! You just need to answer this question: what makes you proud? Think about the stories that your friends and family like to share about you. Think about moments when your hard work paid off. When you can zero in on an experience that makes your heart swell, you’ll be able to pinpoint your essential subject. If the memory of your first swim meet victory still makes you smile, draw us into your rigorous training schedule; describe the aspects of the sport that motivate you to wake up early and push yourself. What were your challenges? What has this experience taught you? This narrative should have a clear timeline that traces your growth from the past to the present and into the future. How do you plan to further develop your talent in college and/or after college? Show not only that you have grown, but that you will continue to grow as you take your first steps into adulthood.
This question is tricky because it has two parts. So first break the question down: You can write about either A.) How you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity OR B.) How you have worked to overcome an educational barrier. The “or” is key. You are not being asked to write about both parts of this question. Just write about one.
If you have participated in an afterschool program, internship, honors program, or a special class that was meaningful or inspiring to you, you will want to think about choosing option A. Maybe it was an afterschool program for young, aspiring lawyers, or an advanced history class that you took at your local community college. This is an opportunity for you to showcase your ambition and highlight the kinds of challenges that engage and excite you. Beyond underscoring an academic interest, reflect on the personal qualities required for you to succeed. And remember to show, not tell! It will save you from accidentally humble-bragging your way through this assignment.
Now, for option B. If you have worked to overcome a disability, struggled in school because you have a different background than your peers, suffered financial hardship, or something along those lines, you can choose to write about option B. To nail this tricky task, you will need to highlight not only the ways you struggled, but also the qualities that helped you succeed. How would you define yourself? Resilient? Hardworking? Brave? Zero in on a quality that resonates with you, and write targeted descriptions that bring it to life. (No one is going to believe you if you just write, “I am resilient,” and leave it at that.) Lastly, reflect on how this barrier shaped who you are today, and what skills you gained through facing this educational barrier.
If you skipped question 4 or chose to write about option A, this question is a gift: a second chance to showcase your resilience in the face of obstacles. On the other hand, if you chose to write about option B in question 4, this might feel redundant. You are free to write about both, but again, proceed with caution and be sure to select a totally different challenge.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: questions that ask you to describe a struggle or failure are really probing for stories about success. What pro-active steps did you take to address the problem at hand? Even if your solution didn’t work out perfectly, what did you learn? In facing this challenge, did you discover a courageous, creative, or hard-working side of yourself? Did you learn something valuable about yourself or others? Highlight the upside. How did this challenge shape who you are today? And how will the skills that you gained dealing with this challenge will help you in college and beyond?
If you’ve ever referred to yourself as a “nerd” or “geek”, this question is probably for you. To nail down a topic for this bad boy, you can work in two directions: (1) think about how your favorite academic subject has impacted your extracurricular pursuits, or (2) trace one of your favorite hobbies back to its origins in the classroom. Maybe your love of languages led you to take a job at a coffee shop frequented by multilingual tourists. Or perhaps your now-extensive coin collection was resurrected when you did a research project on ancient Roman currency. Whichever way you go about it, building a bridge between the scholarly and the personal lies at the heart of answering this prompt.
Some backwards advice: When writing about community service, you should always start with yourself. Community service essays are cliché minefields. To avoid drifting into platitudes, you need to ground your writing in the specificity of your life. Don’t start with the action and end with what you learned. Instead, dig into your motivations. If you spent weeks petitioning your school community to raise the hourly wage for custodial staff, what prompted you to act? What assumptions did you have about income inequality and what did you learn about your community in the process? Or, maybe you weren’t too enthused about your community service. Maybe you participated in a soccer-team-mandated day of coaching a pee-wee team. What caused your skepticism? How did you turn the experience around?
Also, don’t just choose a topic that sounds impressive. “This year I acted as the co-chair of the Honors Society, presiding over twenty different cases.” If you didn’t, in fact, really enjoy Honors Society, write about a topic that means something to you instead. Think of a moment where you felt like you made a change in your local community. It can be something small; it does not have to be monumental, but it should mean a great deal to you. Describe the moment, using detail to bring it to life, and then reflect on what that experience taught you, and how you hope to continue these activities in the future.
This question is really just what it says it is—an open-ended, choose-your-own-adventure question. Is there something that you really, really want to tell the UC admissions team that you feel makes you a strong and unique candidate that is not showcased in the other three personal insight questions? As with the other questions, whatever topic you choose, please use detail and description to bring this topic to life for the reader, and include thoughtful reflection on why this topic matters to you. Also, be sure to explain why your chosen topic makes you stand out as a strong candidate for the UC schools, since the questions specifically asks you to do that!