30 Aug Personal Insight Insights: Deciphering the New UC Essay Prompts with Statement Guru
There’s a shocking development at the world’s best system of higher education, The University of California.
No, it’s not quite as shocking as the logo change from a few years back:
That was too shocking, actually. The uproar caused the UC system to revert back to its original design.
This new change is here to stay. The University of California—AKA Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Merced, UC Irvine and UC Riverside—has changed its essay prompts. Here’s the rundown:
OUT OF 8 PROMPTS, ANSWER 4 IN 350 WORDS OR LESS.
Astute readers will notice that this increases the amount of words they’re looking for from applicants. Before, the UC required two essays of 500 words or less each, for 1000 total words. Now, we’re all the way up to 1400 words! But don’t panic; this is simply more space for you to show off that shiny plumage of yours. Let everyone else worry about the higher degree of difficulty. You’re a Statement Guru reader—together, we got this!
Before we delve into the nitty gritty, I’d like to give you some general wisdom to ensure you get the most out of this article.
- Don’t assume you know which four prompts are the best four to answer right off the bat. I recommend really thinking through how you would answer all eight. Perhaps even force yourself to write up a rough paragraph for each one. This will get the creative juices flowing and maybe lead you down unexpected, fruitful paths.
- Even if you’re not a UC applicant, these are great brainstorming exercises to get you thinking about your non-UC essays. If you’re applying to both UCs and non-UCs, consider writing one or more essays here that can be adapted to other prompts or vice-versa.
- Make good use of the space. You have 350 words, use 350 words, or something close to it. On the other hand, 350 words is not a ton to work with, and some of the creative flourishes you can play around with in a longer format essay will have to be jettisoned. Still, there’s room to be interesting and memorable, but you’ll need every last inch.
- When narrowing down your fab four, avoid redundancies. Because you have multiple opportunities here to reflect who you are, make sure each essay highlights a different interest, character trait, event, goal. Ultimately, these essays aren’t about the things they seem to be about, they’re about you. You’re shining four different lights onto yourself. If they all come the same direction, it will result in a shadowy, noir-ish image. If they come from various directions—voila! A three-dimensional, fully realized individual.
- Have fun! If your essays are a drag to write, they’ll be a drag to read. If you haven’t found essay topics you’re excited to write about, keep brainstorming.
Now, onto the 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.
I’ll be blunt; most rising seniors have scant experience with leadership, either practicing it or seeing it first-hand. You’ve mostly been exposed to institutions—school, clubs, sewing circles, church, etc.—where true leadership is a bit hard to come by. Leadership, real leadership, is not about being an administrator and fulfilling the status quo. It’s not about job titles or responsibilities that might read like something out of a resume.
Real leadership is about changing hearts and minds. It’s about doing the right thing over the easy thing. It’s about inspiring others to follow your vision. And it’s also about modifying your vision, if necessary.
Many roles that objectively seem like leadership roles might not be. For example, if you were president of a club, but you only performed tasks any other president would have done in your position anyway, that’s not real leadership. However, if you were instrumental in conceiving of, planning and executing a conference/performance/trip/event, now we’re talking. Like I said, high school isn’t exactly a breeding grounds for essay-friendly leadership. Remember, changing hearts and minds. If you can capture that sentiment, you’re on the right track.
The bad news is that leadership is a rare thing, and by definition, not everyone can be leaders (because, then, there’d be no one to lead!). The good news is that examples of great leadership can be found anywhere—your after-school job, when you’re hanging out with your friends, on a school trip, at home, in a coal mine.
Statement Guru’s Assessment: Not a prompt for everyone. Some students start non-profit organizations, organize charity drives, cure cancer, travel to space—all while still in high school. For those overachievers, a leadership essay writes itself. For most students, identifying and illustrating great leadership in 350 words or less can actually prove to be a challenge.
Degree of Difficulty: B, splitting the difference.
Upside: A-, has inspirational potential.
Key term: Changing hearts and minds.
Bonus tip: Find an image of your favorite leader past or present for your desktop. Let the wisdom seep into your document through digital osmosis.
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.
Like Prompt 1, Prompt 2 is not as simple as it looks. In the same way that job titles don’t necessarily reveal leadership, artistic activities don’t necessarily reveal creativity. What does having a creative side mean anyway? Does it mean singing in the shower? Does it mean freestyle rapping? Does it mean solving sudoku puzzles during flights? What is a creative side and how can I get one?
To find your creative side, you have to, well, get creative. For Prompt 1, ‘hearts and minds’ was the mantra; here, it’s think outside the box.
As with the leadership essay, you can’t just memorize and mimic standard operating procedures. All those piano lessons where you learned the collected works of Mozart? It shows a strong creative side—if you’re Mozart! If you’re still you, sure, you could try to make the argument that flawless renditions of classical pieces is thinking outside the box, but it’s not so easy when you put it like that, is it?
Case in point, I play guitar, piano, drums. I’ve been writing creatively for years and years. As a comedy screenwriter, I’ve even won a contest. But if I was faced with this prompt, I would probably throw all that out the window and write about creating travel itineraries.
Travel itineraries?! At first glance, this sounds insane. First, what are those? Second, who cares what they are?! You’ve got legit creative pursuits to point to. While there’s no doubt, I could fashion superb essays about my love for songwriting or how creative writing helps me make sense of the world. Yet, if the name of the game is thinking outside the box, why not really think outside the box? When planning a trip, I love figuring out the absolute best travel logistics, places to stay, transportation options, activities. Making travel itineraries for me are like sudoku come to life! My point here is to—say it with me—think outside the box!
Statement Guru’s Assessment: I truly believe that everyone has inspired moments of creativity, and if you think you don’t, you’re not really giving yourself the self-examination this prompt deserves. So… like, y’know… do that!
Degree of Difficulty: B+, marginally easy.
Upside: A-, thanks to an inherent fun factor.
Key term: Think outside the box.
Bonus tip: Find a lightbulb that’s turned off. Stand under it. Turn it on.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Prompt 3 is straightforward, perhaps to a fault. Tell us what you’re good at. Go!
I have a feeling this prompt will be one of the most popular, and that’s a good thing. Do I think many all-time classic essays will come out of it? No, I don’t. Do I think sometimes it’s good to convey to the UC admissions folks your bread and butter skills in the most direct way possible? Yes, I do.
This prompt is not exclusively academically-oriented, so you might want to take a look at Prompt 6 if you’re really interested in something that is (computers/literature/math/art/etc). But academic or not, if you’re really good at something, whether it’s chess/singing/poetry/geometry proofs/Dance Dance Revolution/cooking/basketball/etc., this might be the prompt for you.
In any case, this essay is problematic. Not your fault, but you have to deal with it. The University of California is asking you for what makes you so awesome, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling them what makes you so awesome. Resist that temptation! Essays like this work best when you earn those moments of triumphs, so focus on the challenges and obstacles you overcame to make it before reveling in the making it part. Doing so will give rise to that elusive storytelling quality that elevates typical admissions essays into Statement Guru essays.
Also, you might have noticed that a couple of my example prompts above were creative—e.g. Dance Dance Revolution—so isn’t that better to tackled with Prompt 2? That all depends. In that one, the mantra was ‘think outside the box. Here, it’s superpower. What’s your superpower? How did you discover/develop it? And how has it affected your life, positively and negatively?
Statement Guru’s Assessment: This is as easy as these kind of essays get. Avoid the pitfalls, and you’re super!
Degree of Difficulty: A, the approach and execution should be relatively obvious.
Upside: B-, that obviousness comes at a price.
Key term: Superpower.
Bonus tip: Every superhero has an origin story. If you figure out your origin story, you just might have the beginning of your essay.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
The two parts of this educationally-oriented essay are two sides of the same coin. On one side, you have opportunities you’ve made the most of; on the other side, you have obstacles you’ve vanquished. Let’s deal with these two approaches separately…
Opportunity: Conceptually, this is easy to grasp. And, like Prompt 1, the rarer the opportunity, the better. Taking an AP class doesn’t move the needle much; neither does pursuing a club activity. Really, you’re looking for the most unique and memorable experiences you can point to. You’re looking for significance. A class trip to Washington D.C., being a foreign exchange student in Mongolia, a summer internship at NASA. If a particular program is selective (e.g. a summer STEM program at an Ivy, a Washington D.C. internship, being a Navy SEAL), it’s usually a good sign. But whatever you do, don’t make the experience the star of the show. You’re the star, and the particulars of what you did are relatively arbitrary. What isn’t arbitrary is what the experience reveals about you and what you learned (which should sound familiar by now). Also, the main pitfall of Prompt 3 pitfall rears its ugly head here—taking advantage of opportunities is inherently a hey look at me! type of essay. When you’re riding high, it’s hard not to get a little braggy. And braggy essays are the worst. But I have the antidote! Sit tight!
Obstacles: The dour cousin of Opportunity. The Yin to the Yang. The Bert to the Ernie. The Lennon to the McCartney. With this variation, you show off your indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. Remember that this is an educationally-oriented prompt, so don’t stray too far from school settings here. Perhaps you have a learning disability. Perhaps the class you were dying to take got cut due to funding. Perhaps you have had to deal with socio-economic issues. Perhaps your school IS HAUNTED! By now, I don’t have to tell you that the obstacle isn’t really what the essay is really about; it’s really about you. On the plus side, it’s easier to write a compelling essay about triumphing over hardship than it is to write about that sweet internship you landed. BUT—no essay prompt is perfect, and here, you must be careful of wallowing in self-pity. You think braggy essays are a chore to get through, try ones awash in bitterness.
Like I said, the Yin to the Yang. And therein lies the solution to approaching either one. For the Opportunity essay, give us a dose of Obstacles to take the edge off the bragginess. Similarly, for the Obstacles essay, a whiff of Opportunity gives you the positivity you need to not be such a downer.
Statement Guru’s Assessment: Like Mahjong, this type of essay is easy to learn, hard to master. But now, after reading this, much easier to master. You’re on your own for Mahjong though…
Degree of Difficulty: A-, when considering both options, an interesting approach should be fairly clear.
Upside: A-, all things considered, it perhaps offers the best mix of ease and impact.
Key Term: Yin to the Yang.
Bonus Tip: If your educational Opportunity involves interacting with underserved communities, be very careful not to come across as condescending. Similarly, if your Obstacle involves getting yourself out of a underprivileged community to seek greater opportunities, don’t make it sound like you are abandoning your roots.
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?
No, you’re not seeing double. Annoyingly, the University of California decided to give you two prompts that are similar enough to confuse for one another, but different enough to hurt you if you do.
There is one key difference between the Obstacle variant of Prompt 4 and this one: Education. So, if you’re contemplating a hardship-laden essay, really think about its content and how academically-oriented it is before categorizing it as Prompt 4 or Prompt 5. I’d also caution against going “double negative” (Obstacle Essay + this one). These are college essays, not Dear Abby letters.
So what kinds of topics would work here? Anything goes, really; you’re only limited by your imagination (and reality, of course… this ain’t fiction). Health issues other than learning disabilities. Unstable family members. The hobgoblin living in your basement. (Now, if that hobgoblin hurls books at you every time you try to go down there, that would be more of an educationally-centered Prompt 4 essay.)
Other than that, the advice I gave you for Obstacles will serve you well here. Don’t dwell on the negative; demonstrate how these obstacles revealed what you’re really made of. Also, don’t forget it’s asking for your ‘most significant challenge.’ That’s setting a high threshold, essentially asking, think of the absolute worst thing that’s ever happened to you, then write about it in 350 words or less! Then, maybe we’ll let you into our fancy school! Fun!
Statement Guru’s Assessment: The good thing about this one is that the conflict is built into the essay, so even if you’re narratively-challenged, you’re well on you way to channeling Edgar Allan Poe.
Degree of Difficulty: A-, easy, except for all the trauma you’ll experience dredging up the past…
Upside: A-, conflict=readability.
Key term: The absolute worst thing that’s ever happened to you.
Bonus tip: While most versions of this essay will end in triumph, the prompt itself asks for ‘steps,’ not results. So, if it’s more authentic to your story, it IS possible to have a failure-ridden essay here—so long as the lessons learned are meaningful and you strike an optimistic tone in the end.
6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
This is really simple, right? You just talk about math or biology or geography or whatever and why you like it and stuff. WRONG! That approach is like buying a one-way ticket to Boring Essay-ville. Writing a straightforward essay about your favorite subject is like posting photos of your kids on Facebook—no one wants to see that! Just keeping it real… So then how do you tackle Prompt 6? Here are some options:
- Make it like a romantic comedy. You and your favorite subject—a match made in heaven, and sometimes, hell. It’s true that the things we love most are also the things that tend to aggravate us the most, so what does that look like for you and your amour. How did you meet? How did you know that he/she was the one? What does the future look like for you two? Don’t take this option too literally—it would be weird and annoying for you to talk about physics like it’s the girl next door. Rather, give the essay a romantic comedy spirit, where you let your storytelling instincts loose and recount the highs and lows of your love affair with psychology/art/literature/chemistry/etc.
- Center it around an event or events. Part of the problem of answering an open-ended question such as this one is it’s easy to provide an unfocused response. The romantic comedy route adds narrative thrust. An event (or two, or three) solves the problem another way, by compressing the timeline and adding stakes. It could be a class presentation, a competition, a conference—just as long as it demonstrates your love of the subject and its impact on your life.
- Pick an unusual subject. This is a tricky one, especially if this subject isn’t the same as your intended major. But eccentric, off-the-wall subjects like warlock studies, gonzo chemistry and boomerang history are instantly interesting. Okay, I made those up, but you get the idea.
- Write the essay about someone. To be clear, the essay would still be about particular subject, but subjects don’t exist in a vacuum. Most of the time, there are people involved in the process. Perhaps a parent, sibling, mentor or teacher introduced you to the subject, and your relationship with it is inextricably linked to that person. You can also approach it another way; you can be in the mentor role, and your love for the subject can grow deeper as you pass along your wisdom to someone else.
- Save the world. Having a passion for something often leads to opportunities to give back. If you can create a context of doing social good through your subject of choice, you might have an inspirational, kumbaya type of essay that might want to make into a movie and run on the Hallmark Channel.
- Skip this lame prompt. To be honest, in most cases, you can write a better essay about your favorite subject using one of the other prompts. But if you must roll with this one, please follow these three magic words: don’t be boring. This rule applies to any admission essay, but it’s especially relevant for Prompt 6 because it seems to be daring you to write a boring essay. Don’t fall for its wily ways! Either spite it or avoid it.
Statement Guru’s Assessment: What might be interesting to you might not be interesting to others. When attempting this prompt, it’s vital to put yourself in the shoes of your reader, then figure out how to make it interesting.
Degree of Difficulty: C+, unless you write about your summer studying warlocks…
Upside: B-, but potentially higher if you outthink it.
Key term: Don’t be boring.
Bonus tip: Your favorite subject will usually be linked to career aspirations. What a great way to end an essay like this!
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Remember that Save the World option we just talked about? Well, it’s back and now it gets its own prompt. It’s important to keep in mind that you can define community however you want. It can be school-related, familial, cultural. It can be religious in nature. It can be oriented around video games, music, sports. It can be online or real-life. It can be fictional or non-fictional—actually, scratch that, it can’t be fictional. But you get it. As long as you’ve got an assemblage of people for a particular purpose, you’ve got a community. See if you can get a little creative with the community in question here.
Similarly, making it a ‘better place’ is also open to interpretation. Some paths to betterment are obvious—fundraising, training a team, helping the disadvantaged. Some other paths are less obvious—implementing sustainability practices, organizing flash mobs, exorcising demons from the gymnasium. I think this is one prompt where you can offer up a few accomplishments instead of just one. But space is limited, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of a scattershot strategy. In any case, however you define community, however you define improvement, the change/s you enact should be tangible and should reveal your leadership chops. But there’s also a tricky balance to maintain here, as the more of a leadership essay it is, the more it’s a better fit for Prompt 1.
The magic word here is commUnity. Yes, that’s right. I capitalized the ‘U’ in the word, because I want to emphasize you. You are an integral part of your community, and you should be an important part of this essay. Hence, the capitalized “U.” Now, when you’re off writing this essay, you might want think of it like communIty instead, because you wouldn’t use “U” to talk about yourself, you’d use “I.” Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, here’s the main point here—like every single on of these essays, it’s really about you, you, you. You must keep the focus on yourself as you navigate these environments, influence the right people, make the world just a little brighter. Don’t give this prompt the fly on the wall treatment. It requires the dragonfly up in everyone’s business treatment.
Statement Guru’s Assessment: Some students will have inspirational triumphs to share here. Some students will have a ho-hum anecdote (“I raised fifty bucks for my middle school jog-a-thon.”) Some will have literally nothing to go on and should look elsewhere.
Degree of Difficulty: B, not the type of essay that writes itself, but with some planning, it shouldn’t be too daunting either.
Upside: A-, making the world a better place is always a crowd-pleaser.
Key term: commUnity/communIty.
Bonus tip: Sporting events/conventions/parties/rallies/etc. tend to make great endings for these type of essays.
8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
If there’s an 8-ball on the table, it makes sense that it’s this one, right? If you know anything about pool, you know that the 8-ball is the most dangerous ball in the game—but it’s also the only ball that can seal your victory. In other words, handle this baby with caution, it has teeth.
As little children, we’re all told we’re special. Now, at 17-ish years old, you’re being asked why. Before we get into the weeds with this one, I’d like to call for a brief moment of contemplation. Remember Prompt 3? I know it’s been a while. To refresh your memory, it asks for your greatest skill or talent. What?! Isn’t that what this prompt is asking?! Kinda sorta. There are plenty of essays that would fit comfortably under both. In these instances, go Prompt 3 every time. Here’s the thing about Prompt 8—it’s a bit… different. It wants to learn things about you that don’t fit as comfortably under any other prompt. The whimsical, the unexpected, the odd, the startling, the powerful, but most of all, the original.
I know it sound like I’m down on Prompt 8, but I’m totally not. In fact, I’d venture to say that there is no other UC Personal Insight prompt with as much upside, because it gives you so much freedom to explore interesting, idiosyncratic things about yourself. But you must bring it.
This isn’t the type of essay that inexperienced writers thrive with. Sure, if you’ve got something burning inside you that you’re desperate to talk about, by all means. Just know the risks and know that it’s okay to abandon ship at any time. On the other hand, if you’re very comfortable with expressing yourself through words (i.e. blogging, journaling), I’d encourage you to pick this prompt. More than with any other prompt, you can not only write a great UC essay with it, you can write a great essay.
So, what kind of essays would work as a Prompt 8 essay? Using myself as an example, here’s potential ways I could go:
- As far as I know, I’m the only “Nived Ravikumar” in the world. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- I won a couple of chess tournaments in my youth. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- I’ve traveled to 32+ countries. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- My career as a professional photographer lasted only one day, but what a day—I did an assignment for The Today Show‘s website. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- My hair is somewhat iconic. It’s a thick black shock of hair not unlike a black hole. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- Despite never playing a live musical performance in my life or having any sort of musical career to speak of, I managed to get one of my songs played on a popular L.A. radio station. There’s an essay there somewhere.
- My Google profile has over 10.6M views. There’s an essay there somewhere.
I think you get the idea. Prompt 8 wants you to discuss only one thing though, so avoid the Greatest Hits approach.
Which brings us to the final keyword: Real Facts, as in Snapple’s “Real Facts.” Yes, the well-known tea purveyor prints a factoid on the bottom of every one of their bottle caps. Anything’s fair game, history, science, astronomy, geography. What Real Facts all have in common is they are instantly memorable. Sometimes, it’s because the fact is counter-intuitive, sometimes the fact is just so random, sometimes you just can’t believe it could possibly be a fact.
And now, I pose the question, if Snapple did a Real Fact on you for one of its bottle caps, what would it say? Solve this, and you’ve solved Prompt 8.
Statement Guru’s Assessment: I’m calling it now. Most of the great Personal Insight essays will come from Prompt 8, and they will come from seasoned writers. The less experienced writers will know to stay away.
Degree of Difficulty: C-, not for the faint of heart.
Upside: A+, in a way, it’s a shame it’s capped at 350 words.
Key term: Real Facts.
Bonus tip: Drink some Snapple!
There they are. All 8 Personal Insight Prompts. As always, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.