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How to write the best UC essays possible

In Essays and Senior.

Writing the UC Essays (Personal Interest Questions)

Taken collectively, the University of California receives more college applications every year than any other set of institutions in the world.

As a proud Californian, I can't help but love the UCs. Where else do you find such a massive, well-funded, geographically dispersed system of top-quality public education?

California rules.

Ok, got that out of my system. Time to talk about how you can actually get into the UCs by mastering those devilish "personal interest questions," better known as the UC essays.

UC admission is an increasingly pitched battle

I know I just went off about how good the UCs are. But the reality is, they aren't what they used to be from at least two perspectives: cost and ease of admission.

Did you know that tuition at UC Berkeley in 1980 was $2,600 per year? Today the cost of attending is $15,000 and more than $40,000 yearly for out-of-state students.

Equally alarming is the shift in admission rates over that time. In 1980 only 9,000 students applied to Berkeley. In 2021 more than 85,000 applied. Today the admission rate at Berkeley is just over 16%. These same trends have unfolded at the other UC campuses, as well.

So students who want to attend Berkeley, UCLA, or any of the UC schools will need to bring their A-Game.

That means, of course, killing it academically throughout high school. Test scores no longer matter for UC admission, as the UC collectively decided to throw out SAT and ACT scores in the evaluation process.

Indeed, UC admission comes down to a few factors: grades, recommendations, and essays.

I have no control over your grades or your recommendations (although I do talk about recommendations elsewhere). I do hope, however, to have a positive influence on your UC essays.

That's what this post is dedicated to, anyway. So let's get into it.

What are the UC Essays?

The UC essays are a set of 8 prompts from which applicants must select and answer four. These prompts provide your opportunity to show UC admissions committees exactly who you are.

The UC website introduces these prompts in this slightly bizarre way: "Imagine UC was a person. If we met face-to-face, what would you want us to know about you?"

OK, don't love that, but there it is.

Each of the four essays you select has a maximum word-length of 350 words. Each essay does not have to perfectly meet this word limit. You should shoot to hit at least 275 words for each essay, though.

The UC system also emphasizes that all the prompts are evaluated equally; that is, no prompt is more or less valuable to answer than any of the others.

The UC essays tie into the UC admissions criteria in an important way. If you are really interested in this stuff, it might benefit you to read through the UC's own information about "How applications are reviewed."

The short story is that the UC prompts fit into the 10th point on that page, which considers holistic factors about your character, your intellectual interests, and who you might become on campus.

Each individual UC campus gives different weight to the essays in the decision process. You can also read about each campus's decision criteria through the page I linked above.

But suffice it to say that the essays are an extremely important part of the selection process, nearly equal to the importance of one's grades and academic performance.

That being said, UC essays are completely different animals than the Common Application Essay or school-specific supplementals. They require a totally different approach to presenting your narrative.

But before we talk about how to write these essays, let's review the prompts. I'll inject some of my thoughts about each as we go.

(If you just care about my tips for writing these, jump past this next section.)

Reviewing the UC Prompts

UC Essay Prompt #1: Leadership

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 prompt asks you to reflect on "leadership experience," which may or may not cleave to the traditional conception of leadership. You don't have to be a team captain to answer this prompt. A leader can be an individual, working in isolation to change things in your community for the better.

Either way, this prompt is a tool for getting at the question of how you relate to others. This prompt is about "inter-relations." I like this prompt because it's direct. If written well, it can really help to humanize you in the eyes of the committee.

UC Prompt #2: Creativity

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.

Another prompt that can be approached from both conventional and unconventional angles. Creativity can mean artistic creativity - are you a sculptor or a musician? Maybe this is where you talk about your creative process or what you feel when you make art.

But your answer can imagine 'creativity' more broadly. One of the best answers I ever saw to this prompt was about soccer. The student linked his analytical creativity (the tactical mind of a soccer captain) and the organic, in-the-moment creativity expressed through play.

UC Prompt #3: Exceptional Skill

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

When we think of skills, we might gravitate toward those singular abilities (juggling, playing an instrument, writing) that we have honed over time. But here is a list of other, equally valid skills you might have: communication, listening, dream-interpretation, rock-skipping, phone repair, doing a headstand.

Do these seem dumb? I admit: it might make for a bad essay to wax poetic about how you learned to balance on your head. But if talking about balancing on your head allows you to go deep into your quest to learn about physiology and exercise science, then we might be onto something.

The skill you select can throw light on a deeper character quality or a commitment to learning and improving. From that angle, this prompt can be a good opportunity to showcase perseverance and stick-to-it-ness.

UC Prompt #4: Opportunity / Barrier in Education

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

Alert: read. the. prompt. This essay is not an invitation to talk about any old opportunity or challenge in your life. It is specifically about how these have touched down on your education.

The UC provides some instructive info about this prompt. They say that "an educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college."

If you enrolled in a foreign school and underwent a year of intensive language immersion, you might choose this prompt. But it doesn't need to be so grand. You could write about an internship you took that helped you clarify your research focus. Or you could go through what it was like to deal with the stigma of having an IEP.

UC Prompt #5: General Challenge

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?

I think this is one of the best prompts to answer among the UC essays. Why? Because everyone faces challenges, even if we don't want to admit it.

From my perspective, this prompt can be worth double points. First, you get the opportunity to write a great essay about engaging with a problem. But second, you get to show off the additional maturity it takes to dig deep and admit to a committee of strangers that your life ain't so perfect.

It's important, though, to keep the second half of the prompt in mind. This should not be an essay about your ongoing efforts to deal with existential malaise. Your problem should be clearly identifiable and you should also be able to point out how you have managed it.

Finally, you need to address how the challenge has touched back on your academic performance / experience. This is a great prompt to answer if you had a big lapse in grades due to something that happened in your life.

Just remember, remember, remember: your job is not to elicit pity, but to show your maturity in dealing with adversity.

UC Prompt #6: Intellectual Vitality

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

Calling all nerds! I almost always recommend that my students answer this prompt. Why? If you've been reading closely, you may have noticed by now that many of these prompts come back to academic experience. It's no mystery: the UCs care above all about their academic culture.

This is the one prompt from the list that directly asks you about your academic proclivities. Go for it. Even if you aren't someone who strongly identifies as an academic, you should make an effort to talk about what inspires you in and outside the classroom.

Everyone learns. One of my students answered this prompt by talking about how his economics class helped him get into equities trading. As he learned more about regional markets as part of his trading strategy, he found that he became more engaged in the classroom too.

UC Prompt #7: Community Betterment

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

Similar to prompt #1, the key here is to define the concept of "community." Community could refer to any scale of human organization. Your family. Your group of friends. Your graduating year. Your high school. Your town. Your state. The country.

It doesn't matter what level of organization you focus on. What does matter is that you have a compelling action to talk about. How did you improve your community? The change could be a cultural or material one.

I find this one a bit boring to write, but usually worthwhile. It shows off a great characteristic: altruism. The UC system is looking for students who are outwardly engaged in the problems of today. This prompt can provide an opportunity to align yourself with that value.

UC Prompt #8: Open Prompt

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?

I don't want to offer a ton of commentary here. I believe that most possible essay topics are covered by the first 7 prompts, and I usually try to steer my students toward those. But on a case-by-case basis, I think prompt #8 can be the right call.

Writing the UC Essays

In the section above I laid out a bunch of ideas for how to approach the essays from a prompt-level.

But the most important thing you need to know about the UC essays is that they require a different tone and structure than other, more personal essays required by many schools. If you do the UC essays right, they can also serve as the groundwork for all your other writing.

Here are a few "rules" that will help you manage the UC essays.

Rule #1: UC Essays Should Cut Straight to the Point

In personal essays, it is generally OK to be reflective and abstract. Of course, the best personal essays are defined by their attention to detail. But many personal essays land on ambiguous and uncertain footing. There is often no clear-cut conclusion or lesson, and that's OK.

But the UC essays do not follow the same rubric.

The UC essays are evaluated partly on their directness and specificity. They are not exercises in creative writing or in unvarnished reflection. The UC essays should tell a straight-forward story from your life, highlighting an experience, what you learned from it, and (sometimes) how the experience will shape your future.

Consider prompt #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 not an invitation to tell a long story about the feeling of being privileged and bereft of topics for your college essay. It's a time to talk about an acute problem (either persistent or temporary) and your actions to overcome it. Finally: How did it affect your academic achievement?

We can answer this prompt well if we do three things in order:

  1. Explain a specific problem. Be a good journalist: Who, what, where, when, and why?
  2. Talk about the solution. What did you do to deal with your problem?
  3. Talk about the effect the problem had on your academics.

I know this might seem self-evident. But countless students have (and will continue to) roast themselves on prompts like this because they neglect to address a third of it.

In case I haven't been clear: The UC essays require straight-forwardness. Answer the prompt. Directly.

Rule #2: Try to Write the UC Essays First

It can be hard to navigate the transition from a reflective personal statement to the UC essays. That's why I usually have my students tackle the UC prompts first.

There are two benefits to this.

First, the UC applications are due earlier (November 30th) than most other schools. At up to 1,400 words collectively, they're a pretty major undertaking. So it's great to get going early.

Second, I usually find that in the process of writing the UC prompts, my students discover the germs of the stories that they want to write about for their common application or for school-specific supplemental essays.

(Prompts about intellectual vitality, in particular, end up being easy to translate over to supplemental essays.)

The UC essays are an exercise in concision. You will need to pare down your writing so that only the most essential details are present. If you rise to meet the challenge of the UC essays early, the rest of your essays will benefit from a war-chest of succinct and powerful turns of phrase, sections of exposition, and whole paragraphs that can be transplanted at will to other essays.

Rule #3: Select Prompts that Balance Your Narrative

Let's go back to that chunky block-quote taken from the UC website for a second.

In your essays, they are looking for...

Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

  1. You can't be all of these things. But you can be at least four of them, because that's how many essays you get to write.

Have you ever played a video game where you had to balance your character's attributes? It's kinda like that. You have a fixed number of "points" that you get to put into each category.

In this context, those categories might look like: creativity, intellectual vitality, leadership, resilience, compassion, community engagement, to name a few.

My advice: take a hard look at your application, figure out where your greatest strengths are, and lean into that area with two of your essays. Then, with the other two, show your diversity.

So if you're a really strong student, maybe you'll pick prompts #4 (academic opportunity) and #6 (intellectual passion). Those two should give you enough space to write expansively about your intellectual interests, research experience, and plans for study in college.

Then to show that you aren't just a bookworm, you can pick up prompts #1 (leadership) and #2 (creativity). The first will allow you to show the side of yourself that are externally engaged. The second will give you a chance to show you have multiple intelligences and diverse interests that go beyond a narrow academic scope.

Final Thoughts

The UC essays are exercises in precision, strategy, and honesty.

You need to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as an applicant, then carefully pick the prompts that support those. Then, you need to write clearly and directly, telling four stories that help the committee get to know you.

It's really hard. But doable, I promise. Hopefully this guide has been helpful!

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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