Wondering how to write your UC essays?

The University of California offers 8 essay prompts from which students choose 4. Each has a word limit of 350 and a suggested minimum of 250 words. UC schools do not accept the Common Application or the Coalition Application. Students must use UC’s unique application system.

True, there is no one right way to write any given essay. But to stand out in the admissions process, you need to show who you are and tell a story.

First some general advice for approaching the essay topics

1) DO NOT REPEAT.
One of the greatest dangers of writing four different essays is that some students are tempted to write about a similar topic for more than one of the essays. In general: DON’T DO IT! That being said, UC won’t see your common application essays. You CAN steal ideas from that essay!

You want each essay to show a different side of you. You don’t want to tell the same story or the same ideas over and over again. Part of what UC schools are looking for is a diverse portrait of who you are—that is why they have you answering four different questions.

Make each essay unique. Allow each essay to show a different side of you.

If one is about a particular academic subject, try not to focus on the same subject in other essays, unless you feel the other essay conveys something important that is otherwise too difficult to convey and is not repetitive to the information in the first essay. If another is about your family, discuss other topics in other essays. If one is written in a creative off the wall way, write another with more traditional essay style. If one shows your intellectual perspective, try to show your emotional self in another. You want to present all facets of yourself. Each essay should contribute something new so that your entire application feels like a complete portrait of you.

2) Avoid cliché achievement stories

Ultimately, the biggest mistake I see with students, particularly those who come from abroad, is writing a predictable essay that lacks a voice—and often that essay is a bloated fact from his or her resume—i.e. they try to make a story out of an achievement.

Questions 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are all subject to this warning. Do not create an overly simplistic story that is essentially a fluff out of an item on your resume. Remember you’re writing this to stand out. If your essay could be anyone else’s essay, it’s not going to help you. Don’t be predictable. Ask why, how, and analyze yourself and your world. Go deeper, go beyond the surface.

3) Tell a story and get specific.

Regardless of which topics you choose, you need to tell a story of some sort at some point. In other words, you need to get specific, and talk about actual things that have happened in your life. Story story story!! Don’t just summarize your feelings or ideas about your experiences. Don’t be too vague. When the story is read it should have enough specifics so that it’s clear this story could only be yours.

Generally, stories work better to reveal who we are than just descriptions.

Rather than say “I often try to help my mom out because I know she’s really stressed and needs an extra hand. She’s so busy all the time but I know it’s because she’s just looking out for me.”

Say, “Every morning I rinse the coffee pot, even though I don’t even drink coffee. I help her fix the printer every time it jams. I know my mom spends all day cleaning houses so she can help pay for my cello lessons and school lunches. It’s the least I can do.”

4) Find a balance between reflection/interpretation and narrative.

You don’t just need to tell a story, you need to reflect upon it and shape it in order to convey a point of view. You need to analyze what happens and what it means. Just telling what happened is another classic mistake some students make when writing. Be sure to focus on all questions in the prompt—not just the part that spurs you to pick a particular event to discuss. Even if the question seems to only ask for “description” or “what,” give us more. Give us why and how.

Even as you tell your story, pick details that are telling—details that make a point, that reveal something about you. Don’t just pick detail for detail’s sake—make sure the little things you talk about reflect big ideas.

5) How you write is more important than what you write about.

Often students stress out thinking that they won’t be able to find the perfect idea to talk about—but that’s not what matters most. You have to be able to tell us something about who you are or what you believe in with your essay, but the path in getting there can come in a variety of forms. Even simple, everyday interactions can be used as metaphors for the deeper things we care about. You can turn an essay about your favorite sandwich into a reflection of your personality. What’s most important is that you use story to reveal insights. In italics find the instructions from UC’s site. My comments are below each prompt.

You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.
Keep in mind
All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.
Questions & guidance
Remember, the personal questions are just that — personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who are you, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.

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.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

For this essay, don’t worry about the idea of a “traditional” leadership role. Just because you’re not captain of the soccer team doesn’t mean you can’t write this essay. Leadership comes in many forms, as the part in “things to consider” mentions.

What’s more important is that you get to the heart of a deeper question. Don’t just describe your leadership—use this as an inroad to discuss something more meaningful. Think about:
 How did your experience teach you a lesson about yourself or about the way life works?
 How did your perspective change from this experience? What realizations did you have?
 What were the unexpected challenges of your leadership role?
 What worked and what didn’t work?
 In what ways did this experience stretch you or your personality? Did you push yourself or challenge yourself to grow or change?

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.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?
How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

With this essay, you have the space to relate why creativity is important to you—don’t just describe—analyze. Go deeper!

 Why does creativity matter?
 How does creativity manifest itself in your life and what effects (good or bad) does it have?
 What is the nature of creativity—how does it work?
 What are the challenges unique to a creative person or endeavor?
 In what ways has creativity offered you a retreat / an escape / a new vision for your life?
 In what ways has creativity helped you better understand yourself?
 Has a creative pursuit helped you mature or become wiser?

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

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?
Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

This is a great essay if you have a talent or skill that is a big part of your life. If your biggest achievement is extracurricular—tell us all about it. If you won a national science competition, or are an accomplished tennis player, it’s time to tell that story.

You can also take a more creative bent on this question. I have one student writing this essay on her sense of empathy. In terms of topics to avoid, I would recommend NOT talking about your “hardworking” nature—that is not really a talent and it doesn’t make for a good essay. On the other hand, this can be a great place to talk about your interpersonal skills—your ability to read people, listen, or your sense of intuition.

In any case be sure not to just put your resume of accomplishments in paragraph form. Talk about why this talent matters to you and tell a story of how it’s affected who you are.

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

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

The message to send here is: I care about learning. How do you show schools how much an education actually means to you? Don’t just make this about the “B” you got in Algebra—don’t talk about bad grades you turned into good grades. Focus on what you have immersed yourself in to get the most out of your education.

Why does learning matter—why is school important to you? For some of you, this might mean leaving schools in China and moving to the US to go to boarding school. For others, it might mean applying to schools in both countries. For you, it might mean walking 40 minutes to a special school that is better than the local one because you had the opportunity for better learning.

If you prefer coming to the US for college you might also be able to work into this essay why you agree with the American educational ethos. What draws you to seek more opportunities to learn English or to study abroad? What do you value in an American education that you can’t get in China?

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?

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?”

This is a great place to talk about something that may have adversely affected your grades in some way. IF your grades dipped and it was related to some life event: your mom got cancer, you moved towns, etc. talk about it!! Account for bad grades here if necessary!

This could also be a place to discuss any ongoing issues you may have—if you are ADHD, have a disability, or suffer from something, you can talk about that here.

Finally, this can be a normal kind of challenge that helped you see who you are, just make sure the challenge relates to something significant. Regardless of the nature of your challenge, you want to show something about who you are in this essay. What did your challenge teach you about your life or about life in general? What did you learn from this experience?

6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)?

Tip: don’t just write about how you get A’s in some subject. Talk about why a subject really ignites your passion. What makes you care about this subject and why do you like it? Tell your story of how your interest in this area developed. If relevant, explain what this spark is leading you to pursue in college. Craft your essay with an eye toward intellectual curiosity—share what about your favorite field is so fascinating. Show us what makes it so awesome and tell us your story of how you came to know that.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

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?

If community service is your jive, this is the place for that story. I will say that this essay is not a common one for students to pick. I occasionally have students who have worked to create something better in their community—for example, one student worked to stop sexual harassment and assault on the campus of her boarding school—which had become a serious problem in her community. Her essay was “her story” – i.e. the one huge thing she worked on for three years that had to be on her application somewhere. Her essay was shocking and intense, but authentic. It wasn’t the kind of story most students have to tell. If you have that story to tell—then do so.

The biggest problem I have with this essay is that often the “difference” people make isn’t very consequential OR it feels cliché. Volunteering for a few hours one Saturday is not really enough to justify your writing of this essay. Only write this if service in some way has been a big part of your life, or if you think it’s something that defines who you are. Otherwise, this essay can come off seeming self-aggrandizing. If you don’t have an obvious answer come to mind on this one, I recommend you try another prompt. “Forced” answers to this question are all too common.

8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you?
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? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.

When I sit down with college essay students, I often ask them to make a list of everything a college should know about them so that the college realizes how awesome they are. If there is anything on that list of yours that you haven’t written about yet, this is a great place to put it. This answer is malleable—if there’s something about you that makes you great—and it didn’t come out yet—tell it here.

The other thing you can do is look at OTHER essays you’ve written for other schools—what essay is your absolute best—which one shows the best part of you? Put that here.

This is the essay I might approach last – or after you’ve worked through some of your other applications—find that jewel you haven’t talked about yet.