A step-by-step guide to conquering every personal insight question to get into your dream UC school
(Note: This article can also be found in our free, 91-page comprehensive guide to writing every college essay, Conquer Your College Essays: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Get Into Your Dream School.)
Table of Contents
Part 1: Introduction
Whether you’re a California resident or not, you may have considered University of California (UC) schools—and for good reasons. In addition to being the nation’s best public university system overall, the UC system includes several elite schools that may be a better option than private schools for competitive applicants due to their prestige, diversity, and value, like UC Berkeley and UCLA. Educating nearly quarter of a million undergraduates, UCs are a home for California residents, out-of-state attendees, and international students alike.
Given their attractiveness, admission is competitive, ranging from 16 percent for UCLA and 17 percent for UC Berkeley to about 36 percent for UC Irvine and 51 percent for UC Santa Cruz (all numbers for the fall 2017-entering class). And every year, it gets tougher to make the cut for some of the most sought-after campuses like UCLA, which sat at 18 percent in 2014-2015 and has been sinking since.
But it’s worth the effort to apply to UC schools. Why? Filling out one application allows you to apply to every UC school.
You can think of the campuses according to the following tiers, based on their US News & World Report rankings. Seven of the nine undergraduate campuses (UCSF and UC Hastings offer graduate degrees only) rank in the top 100 schools, with six of nine in the top 50:
Tier 1: UC Berkeley (#21), UCLA (#21), UC San Diego (#42 in the latest rankings, with UC Santa Barbara supplanting it—but San Diego has historically appeared higher)
Tier 2: UC Santa Barbara (#37), UC Irvine (#42), UC Davis (#46)
Tier 3: UC Santa Cruz (#81), UC Riverside (#124), UC Merced (#165)
If you’re already filling out the Common Application, that means you’ll write a personal statement, complete the Activities section, and assemble supplemental essays for several schools. If you’re also applying to the UCs, you might consider ordering your process this way:
Shorten you Common App PS for one UC essay, if applicable
Write remaining UC essays and fill out the UC Activities section (which is longer than the Common App Activities section)
Repurpose your UC Activities list for Common App Activities and your remaining UC essays for Common App supplemental essays
However it would be a mistake to treat the UC application as another set of supplemental essays, or as small fry now after tackling your 650-word personal statement. Here’s how we recommend planning and then executing the essays that comprise your application to the University of California.
Why do UC essays matter? How much do they matter?
Over the past decade, as the University of California received more applications—200,000 freshman and transfer applications for the 2016 class—the admissions committees found themselves unable to make difficult calls on students based solely on test scores and GPAs. That’s why, in 2017, the UC system switched to new “personal insight questions.” They are, in other words, an opportunity for you to show who you are beyond your scores; that’s why the committees dreamed these up, and it’s why spending time to craft these essays will go a long way.
These questions are also a chance to show more sides of yourself than students could in previous years when applying to UC schools, when there were fewer questions asking for longer answers.
The UCs follow holistic admissions, like many private universities, which means their ranking system takes into account a number of qualitative aspects of your life—whether or not you’ve made the most of the opportunities you’ve been given, the level of your extracurricular involvement, and other “big picture” elements. While holistic admissions can be frustrating to those of us on the outside, leaving us to question what exactly gets weighed behind the scenes, there is one certainty: your essays matter—some folks estimate they account for up to 30% of admissions decisions—when a university tells us its process is qualitative and subjective.
Let’s meet our students
As we move through this guide to acing your UC application, we’ll be following a few students who successfully made it to Tier 1 UC campuses. These students are or are based closely on several of the applicants with whom we have worked over the past decade-plus.
Student #1: Arman. Arman, a generalist, has strong grades, earning a 4.0 with high honor roll. He participates in academic team events, and is also physically active, playing intramural basketball and coaching younger children in YMCA after-school activities. He’s not sure what he’d like to major in, but he’s worked at a law office over the summer and is interested in cultural studies and education.
What’s not on his resumé? Arman comes from a mixed ethnic background—he’s Mexican-American and Armenian-American—and both cultures have informed his childhood, sometimes complementing one another, and other times colliding.
Student #2: Maria. Maria is passionate about the environment, having grown up in California during the drought. From her AP Environmental Science class to the various recycling and water-saving initiatives she’s volunteered on in her small Central Valley town in the northern part of the state, she’s learned what she likes and hopes to study. She also plays tennis and has danced since she was small.
What’s not on her resumé? She’s never pursued it in a formal extracurricular fashion, but Maria loves art, and does pottery and ceramic work here and there on weekends.
Student #3: Karan. Karan, an international applicant, is interested in the arts. He likes reading and cinema, and might want to study anything from Art History to English to French film. He moved around a lot so his extracurriculars are inconsistent, but he has made some short films on YouTube and has competed in parliamentary debate.
What’s not on his resumé? Karan’s lived in three countries: India, the U.A.E., and Canada. Due to the constant geographic instability and the need to always chase the next visa, he’s never felt quite at home in any of those environments.
Student #4: Denise. Denise, a transfer applicant, has always been interested in technology. Though her large public high school did not have much in the way of computer science courses, she got herself accepted to STEM summer programs, where her passions were confirmed. She wants to be closer to the tech world, though she isn’t sure what she’d like to study—STEM, business, or some intersection of the two.
What’s not on her resumé? Denise was raised by a single father and her family has not had an easy time financially for many years.
Student #5: Nadia. Nadia is passionate about politics and political advocacy. An enthusiastic competitor on the statewide mock trial and debate circuits, she has taken every class at her large public high school related to government and speech possible. She’s also interested in international relations and law school.
What’s not on her resumé? Nadia struggled with low self-esteem and physical and cyberbullying when she was younger. Her older siblings often had to intervene to keep things from getting out of hand. This is often still on her mind.
Part 2: The Questions
As we’ve said, there is only one application required to be considered by all the UC campuses. Eight essay prompts (which the UC application calls “personal insight questions”) are offered. You answer four; there is no right answer about which ones you choose. You only have 350 words to answer each question.
This is not quite like your Common App. The Common App gives you the chance to make one single, bold, loud statement—a 650-word personal statement—and to embellish that essay with more information in the Activities section and, in some cases, in supplemental essays. The UC application, by contrast, gives you four chances to make smaller statements. This means you’ll want to think about coherency and consistency, but also about avoiding repetitiveness.
The disadvantage, here, is that you may not be able to tell a single story in all its glory, as you can theoretically do in the Common App. But the advantage is that you have multiple chances and multiple angles to express yourself. In many ways, the UC application can feel “truer to life,” since so few of us have a single story or experience that defines us but are rather comprised of many smaller ones. Thinking about the UC application in those terms can lift some students out of the funk that comes from the sense that you need to express your whole self to an admissions committee in order to get in.
Overview: The Prompts
Here are the most recent University of California freshman application essay questions:
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.
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.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
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?
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
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?
Choosing your questions wisely
Some students have the impulse to try to parcel out what they feel is their Single Important Story across several essays, since they have only 350 words instead of 650. We suggest not thinking of the UC application in these terms. Instead, try to offer four pieces of yourself that, when placed together, add up to make a whole.
So how do you choose which four pieces to use—or, more directly, how do you choose which four questions to answer of the eight offered? It’s not about picking one question to describe the four extracurricular activities you’ve participated in, or one question that explains your major, another that explains your personal life, and two for extracurricular activities. There’s no formula. But here are a few things to take under consideration as you determine which questions make the most sense for you to answer:
Can you reuse your personal statement or supplemental essays to answer one of the UC prompts?
Does the phrasing of any of these questions remind you of the prompt you responded to on your Common App personal statement? (e.g. #4 and #5, ‘an educational barrier’ and ‘significant challenge’ recall this Common App prompt—The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?)
Does the phrasing of any of these questions remind you of a Common App supplemental essay, or have you written something that answers the question already? (e.g. perhaps #2, which asks you to describe the way in which you are creative, might overlap with this supplemental question from Rice University—The quality of Rice's academic life and the Residential College System are heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What personal perspective do you feel that you will contribute to life at Rice?—if you wrote about intellectual or academic creativity, as Maria did)
2. Repetitiveness vs. Coherency
Perhaps you want the admissions committee to know about your experience navigating a large high school with few academic opportunities. You might see a chance to explain this in either Question #4 (which we’ll call the educational opportunity/barrier question) and Question #5 (which we’ll call the personal adversity question).
There’s no reason you can’t answer both. But you’ll need to be able to articulate a separate goal for each answer. Drawing up a separate mini-outline for each question (which we’ll explain more shortly) will help you determine whether you’re truly writing two different essays about related topics, or repeating yourself without adding new information or angles on the original.
3. Most importantly: which questions speak to you?
Your heart might not start to thud faster at every single one of these questions. But there’s likely one “buzzword” that popped out to you. Creativity. Leadership. Community. Challenge. Figure out which question contained that lucky buzzword, and work on answering that one first. That will put you in a positive headspace for continuing to the other questions that may not come quite as naturally.
Outlining your answers
While 350 words isn’t very long—about three paragraphs—it’s still long enough that you may benefit from outlining your essay in advance. The good news is that most 350-word, three-paragraph essays follow a standard structure. Some students treat their UC essays as short-answer questions, which might imply that you don’t need an outline. Try to avoid that by, instead, treating them as highly-condensed essay questions.
We’ll get into some specific examples shortly as we go question-by-question, but for now, keep this basic model of the three-paragraph, tripartite essay in mind:
Paragraph 1: Hook (and thesis statement)
In this paragraph, the writer hooks us, with an image, a brief anecdote, or a snappy sentence or two. But there’s little time to linger.
By the end of the paragraph, the writer clearly articulates their thesis statement, which will guide us through the next two-thirds of the essay.
In an essay this short, the thesis statement does not always come at the end of the first paragraph. Sometimes the first two paragraphs are taken up by captivating narration of an event, and the thesis comes in the conclusion, in the successful thematic and narrative tying-up of the essay. But when outlining and planning your essay, it’s a good idea to be certain about what the thesis is, and to try to begin to convey it—either outright, or hinting at it—by the end of the first paragraph. We’ll see some examples of it appearing in the first, second, and third paragraphs below.
Paragraph 2: Examples, illustrations, and a sense of change/growth overtime
In this paragraph, the writer brings in specific illustrations of the thesis statement, and, crucially, must convey a sense of time, change, and/or growth. Like many college essays, the UC questions ask applicants to reflect on a significant moment in order to demonstrate introspection and analytical insight. Change is often crucial to that. Usually you are not the same on one side of a major life experience as you are on the other.
Paragraph 3: Conclusions, including a sense of how the essay topic will influence the writer now and into the future
And, as with many good essays, this paragraph should try to lead the reader to a sense of closure, conveying a lesson and a sense of what has been learned and gained from the experience.
The Leadership Question
Here, again, is Question #1, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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 the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished 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?
Let’s use Arman’s essay as an example:
I exclaimed, “You’re too lazy for your own good!” In the moment, it seemed like a perfect way to motivate my best friend, Serj. I was trying to get him to the gym. He’d asked me to hold him accountable as his workout partner. But as soon as those words slipped out, I saw in Serj’s posture, wide eyes, and flared nostrils that I had made a huge mistake.
This exchange had been a long time coming. For months I had texted Serj one hour before our scheduled gym sessions. Still, Serj canceled on me frequently. When he did show up, he seemed happy—but that was rare. I’d been lifting weights for three years, and I know how great you can feel because of it. But by yelling at Serj, I was not convincing him of the benefits of being active. I was shaming him. Five gut-wrenching seconds after I delivered my stinging honesty, I apologized. But we hardly spoke for two weeks. Eventually he accepted my apology, even thanking me for pushing him to be active. I knew, though, that I would have to earn his trust again as a workout partner.
That day, I discovered honesty’s best friend: empathy. I thought telling Serj the cold truth about his behavior would finally help him see that he was wrong to blow off the gym. But my honesty was my subjective opinion. When I later talked to Serj, I learned about the fears that had kept him from self-motivation—he had never been athletic, and he found it hard to believe that putting himself through a physical ordeal would be useful. He was already berating himself enough in his head. I didn’t need to do it for him. Since that experience, I have exercised more empathy when asked to lead. When coaching elementary school kids at sports camps, I praise their effort first before delivering criticism. Children are glad to retry any drill—but I know it’s in part because I’ve imagined, first, how scary it is to try something new, and I’ve acknowledged that first.
We can reverse-outline Arman’s essay to see how it’s working:
Paragraph 1: He has a hook—him yelling at his best friend, and then he provides brief context, just enough to inform us without derailing us.
There’s not much of a big ‘thesis’ statement when you first glance at that paragraph, but when we look closer, we see that there is one sentence that will drive us through the next two paragraphs: “I had made a huge mistake.” That’s enough here.
Paragraph 2: You could say paragraph #2 is all about offering more context for how we reached this emotionally climactic moment that served as the hook.
But it’s also doing the work we mentioned above, of demonstrating change. Note that Arman isn’t showing change or growth overtime by saying “on day one of working out we did this, on day two that…” etc. Instead, he’s demonstrating a sense of change and growth through reflection and retrospection. We can tell that he has grown since the mistake because he acknowledges why it was a mistake (‘shaming him’). The paragraph also mentions an apology, which is a sign of change.
Paragraph 3: Lastly, the essay begins its final paragraph with a very clear lesson that is an elaboration on the thesis in the first paragraph: ‘I discovered honesty’s best friend: empathy.’ Now we can read the previous paragraphs through that lens.
Even better, paragraph three does two more things with its conclusion: First, it resolves the original conflict and we learn what happened with Serj. And second, it actually uses a personal story to discuss extracurricular activities, but without being heavy-handed. It spins out the lesson with Serj to something that is already listed on Arman’s activity list, coaching kids’ sports.
One key takeaway from Arman’s essay is its careful balance of humility and reflection. When students see the word ‘leader,’ they can often begin to brag about themselves and their accomplishments. But your activity list can contain all the big wins and important titles under your belt. The essay is a chance for you to humanize those, and to demonstrate introspection. Arman does that by showing how he made a mistake and corrected for it.
Arman also avoids getting bogged down in abstract concepts, another pitfall of questions that ask about ‘leadership’ and ‘community.’ In fact, Arman doesn’t even use the word “leader” until the final paragraph—that’s a major show of strength. It demonstrates that he understands how he is answering the question—by discussing two intangibles of leadership, honesty and empathy. He earns the right to talk about honesty and empathy because he’s writing only about his own experience for two paragraphs, so by the time he touches on those big, abstract words, he’s already filled them with his own meaning.
The Creativity Question
Here, again, is Question #2, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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?
Let’s use Maria’s essay as an example:
For twelve years, I have spent my weekends and summers making ceramics and painting at the community center, and when I need to relieve stress, I often sketch. These might seem like private acts of self-expression. But they have impacted the way I solve problems, particularly in my sustainability work. I’m passionate about the environment, and a few years ago, I realized many of my classmates didn’t understand how to live with the lowest impact on the environment. With the help of a science teacher, I founded the Water Conservation Club and set out to engage my peers. Art proved invaluable in these projects.
The first initiative we tried was a calendar initiative for elementary school students. I visited classrooms, talked about recycling, environmentalism, and clean energy, and then asked first, second, and third-graders to draw pictures of how they could live more sustainably. Their drawings showed them picking up trash, saving water, even going on a hiking trip with their families instead of flying across the country for vacations. With the children’s parents’ okay, we turned their drawings into calendar art, and sold the calendars, raising over $1,000 for TreePeople’s Drought Defense Challenge, which hopes to tackle California’s 6-year drought. I’ve visited those classrooms and found that those students are still engaged. Their parents arranged a carpool, they use leftover water to water the class plants, and recycle paper and plastic.
The second initiative was a children’s book I wrote and illustrated, called It’s Just One Drop. It followed an anthropomorphized water drop walking around town, seeing the different ways people waste water, which affected his reservoir home. The community members eventually realize their wrongdoings and work to conserve water through taking shorter showers, turning the sink water off, and doing full loads of laundry. Although the book hasn’t been published yet, I’ve used it to teach preschoolers the importance of water conservation.
In either case, I could have talked to classrooms using a chalkboard or a PowerPoint. But bringing my proclivity for art into the picture helped me reach young people who might otherwise have glazed over.
How is Maria’s essay working? It’s not quite like Arman’s, or like the standard model we outlined above, but that’s just fine. She reached this structure organically, with her first draft, and it can serve as another model for how to answer these questions.
Paragraph 1: Maria explains that she loves art (which answers ‘how she expresses her creative side’) and offers a clear thesis statement about how art helps her solve non-artistic problems. The thesis statement is especially strong because she’s not talking about art applying to non-artistic problems in the abstract—she specifically tells us she’s going to discuss her environmentalism work.
Paragraphs 2 and 3: Both of these serve as the body paragraphs that give two different examples of Maria’s artistic inclinations empowering her to do better work on sustainability.
Paragraph 4: Maria doesn’t need much of a conclusion here, because it’s pretty clear how art has helped her deal with non-artistic problems. She also doesn’t need a whole lot of emotional introspection for this essay. All she needs is to remind us that without her art habit, those would have been more boring projects. Maria could also talk about her prospective major or how she wants to leverage art in it, but when she reached this version of the essay, it read as complete and fulfilled in its own right.
A good application would have some answers that read like Arman’s—introspective, personal, emotional—and some like Maria’s—efficient, clear, interested in communicating her skills and activities. But too many like Maria’s will make a student sound cold and summarical, whereas too many like Arman’s might make the admissions committee forget that he is a student who can accomplish tasks and get things done.
The Talent Question
Here, again, is Question #3, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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 it, 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?
Let’s take a look at Denise’s essay on this topic:
The first time I touched a computer, I didn’t know it was a computer. That is to say: I am of the generation that never had to think much about technology, because it’s always been available to us. But one day in middle school I asked my father how it worked. “How what works?” he asked. “The phone,” I said, pointing to his cell phone. And then I realized my question applied to the other devices I’d taken for granted—the computer, streaming videos, apps. That summer, my dad found out about a free program at a local university on Saturdays. It would teach you the basics about computers, including how to code.
Ever since, I have been learning about coding as much as I could. My high school does not have a computer science class, but I petitioned my school to let me enroll in a few classes on technology and society, including intro to computer science, at a community college. I have also used resources like General Assembly to self-teach. I came to love working with computers and coding because each problem I had to solve goes toward building something. The reward doesn’t always come quickly—there are bugs to fix and many ways you can break what you are trying to build. But when it does, it’s visible.
I also studied design and graphics on my own and used the combination of these skills to create websites for friends, family, and local businesses. While it is not a formal extracurricular activity, it is my after-school job.
It would be funny to call coding a “talent.” It has never felt like it came naturally, but through sweat and frustration. Perhaps my talent is my interest in computers, the same thing that caused me to ask “How does it work?” when I was younger is now what causes me to ask “How can I make this work?”
Denise’s essay is built in the following manner, which may now be familiar to you!:
Paragraph 1: A hook, though it’s a mild hook. She begins by telling us a bit about what she got to take for granted as a young person, then points out that she pushed against the grain of truly taking it for granted. It’s an expert humble-brag.
There’s no clear thesis statement in this paragraph in the sense that Denise doesn’t say “My talent is coding.” Rather, there’s an implied thesis emerging at the end of the essay, when she tells us that her “talent” is a combination of determination (“sweat and frustration”) and curiosity (“how can I make this work?”). That’s an awesome way to redefine the prompt on her own terms.
Paragraphs 2 and 3: This section shows the growth and change we look for in the middle of an essay. It’s very concrete, telling us everything Denise did to get herself an education in technology.
Paragraph 4: In the concluding paragraph, Denise makes sure we don’t get lost in the weeds that paragraphs 2-3 brought us into. She’s at risk of allowing us to forget that she’s supposed to be talking about her talent in an introspective way if she doesn’t do this. But in the first sentence of the paragraph (“It would be funny to call coding a ‘talent.’”) she reminds us of the essay’s topic while also subverting it. It’s another great humble brag—in telling us that she doesn’t believe it came innately, she’s humble, but she’s just intelligently chronicled (the brag!) all the ways she worked hard to get to this place. Again, here she could choose to add, “therefore I wish to study computer science in California,” but it’s implied in this strong essay.
The Educational Opportunity/Barrier Question
Here, again, is Question #4, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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?
Let’s take see what Karan wrote on this topic:
The summer after ninth grade, I had the chance to attend a pre-college program in North Carolina. It was a special opportunity because I had never before been to the United States, and I knew I wanted to go to college in the U.S. I have grown up around the world, in India, the U.A.E., and Canada. But this program had a few spots for international students, and I was selected to attend. Students took a college-level course for three weeks. I chose to enroll in a class called ‘Philosophy in Literature and Film.’ The focus, for my session, was philosophies of technology and science.
Over those weeks, I read thinkers and writers and watched films and listened to music by artists I had never heard of, from Philip K. Dick to Jean Baudrillard to Kraftwerk. I learned to think about art as what my professor called an “anxious condition”—the way society expresses its concerns, about politics, the future, and, in the case of our class, technology.
As the product of a school system where math and science are prized above the humanities, I had to convince my parents that studying philosophy in books and movies was a good way to spend the summer, and I came back personally certain that it had been. I could now see big themes and meaning in popular culture and in the books I read. And before, I was unsure of how to integrate my interest in things other people thought of as abstract: religion, philosophy, history, books, and film. My summer class showed me that ideas like religion and philosophy can serve as lenses to analyse the past and popular culture, or as the material that we use in writing books or making films.
I would like to continue this journey of interdisciplinary study in college, possibly becoming a professor. The program I attended marked the beginning of my certainty about this path.
Karan’s essay has a few things going for it, namely that it’s written in a readable and informational style both on the structural and the sentence level, which is to his advantage because he’s discussing complex ideas, including critical theory, philosophy, and more. Let’s break it down:
Paragraph 1: This paragraph is all about the who-what-when-where-why. Karan tells us what the program was, how he came to attend it, when he went, and crucially tells us why it mattered to him (‘a special opportunity’). The ‘thesis’ for this essay will come later, and that’s fine, because the opener is very clear.
Paragraph 2: This paragraph demonstrates more specifics about the program. It’s really important that Karan does this, because otherwise the admissions committee might think he doesn’t remember much of what he learned in class. He gives just enough information—three names and one phrase used by the professor—to show that he was mentally present and, more importantly, intellectually moved by the course.
Paragraph 3: Now we get into the meat of why what Karan learned mattered to him—that change and growth. He gives several specific takeaways: he discovered the value of the humanities, and learned about what interdisciplinary study means. Again, his concreteness while discussing abstract topics works to his advantage.
Paragraph 4: Karan concludes efficiently and tells us that the summer has shaped his professional ambitions. That clearly answers the question about how he took advantage of the opportunity.
There are a few other small things Karan did that are worth noticing. He paid attention—consciously or subconsciously—to the language in the question, which differentiated between opportunities and barriers. He chose to write about an opportunity, which implies privilege; his parents may have paid for this program. But because he acknowledges it as a ‘special opportunity’ and says he ‘had the chance’ to go, he doesn’t come across as entitled, but in fact, grateful.
The Personal Adversity Question
Here, again, is Question #5, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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?”
Here is Maria’s response to this question:
It was October my junior year, when my mom learned she had breast cancer. It was terrifying. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I went to school exhausted, helped with errands, and tried to juggle classes and extracurriculars. My energy began to drop, as did my grades.
Unexpectedly, it was tennis that helped me overcome this academically and personally challenging period. Since I was six, my dream was to win a tennis tournament. But I struggled with the pressure of competition. I foreshadowed my loss prior to a match, allowing nerves take over. My body trembled; it was difficult to breathe. By the end of middle school, my losses outweighed my wins, and I no longer believed in myself.
But shortly after my mother received her news, I began to work with a new coach—Dusan Vemic, Novak Djokovic’s former assistant coach. Novak’s positive mindset had encouraged and inspired me at some of my lowest points, so working with Dusan seemed like fate. I explained my anxieties, hoping he could fix them. He simply said, “Make the most of every moment and focus on yourself. This is how you win.”
The advice was almost annoyingly simple. And yet, his Zen-like philosophy emanated every time he watched from the sidelines. It turned out that he wasn’t trying to get me to win. He was trying to get me to enjoy tennis as I had not been able to for years. I won more, though not a whole tournament.
More importantly, I took the new perspective off the court, to AP English, my toughest class, when my mind would always wander to my mom. It took me tremendous effort to write essays and comprehend the material. I was so scattered that my teacher advised me to drop the class. But Dusan’s meditative philosophy helped. I stayed in the class, focused on each step, gradually improving, ultimately earning a 4 on the AP exam. When school was out, I got my reward: I could come home and sit next to my mom, and just be with her for a while.
Maria successfully handles three challenges in this question by wrapping them into one: her mother’s illness, a difficulty with AP English, and struggles with tennis. Her key idea comes in an unexpected place, right in the middle of the essay. But because she braids the whole piece around Dusan’s philosophy, this essay works. Let’s look closer:
Paragraph 1: She introduces us to the major challenge (the hook), her mother’s diagnosis. But then she quickly and clearly articulates how that manifested to her—low energy, exhaustion.
Paragraph 2: This paragraph has a clear thesis statement—tennis helped her—and then backs into a bit of context about tennis, which is necessary for us to understand the rest of the essay. It also articulates a goal—winning a tournament—which in this case ends up being a red herring. It’s not what the essay is about, but it tells us what Maria thought life might be geared toward at the time.
Paragraphs 3 and 4: In these paragraphs we see growth and change. A change literally occurs in that a new character enters Maria’s life in paragraph 3, her tennis coach; in paragraph 4, he gives her advice which goes on to affect her life.
Paragraph 5: This concluding paragraph very clearly (though not heavy-handedly) ties up all three challenges, telling us how the tennis philosophy served her through her school troubles. Maria might have reached the end of a draft and realized that she didn’t have a great resolution for her mother’s diagnosis. It’s such a big, existentially challenging question to try to tackle in 350 words. That’s why the brevity of her final line works so well: it acknowledges that she can’t fix that, but, using that Zen-like philosophy of her coach, admits that the best she can do at this point in time is to spend time with her sick mother, and that’s pretty good.
One of the toughest things about answering the Challenge Question is the risk of cliché. Often when we are facing major challenges—illness, grief, loss, anxiety, etc—we are dealing with emotions beyond the scope of language. That means that the language we use to talk about it, with other people, with therapists, and in an essay, can sound like platitudes. “Just be in the moment” is, in a vacuum, a pretty cheesy lesson, no matter how much truth is contained in it.
Maria does a good job here of acknowledging that the words her coach gave her were not enough. She characterizes his words (‘Zen-like philosophy’) and interprets them for us, telling us they weren’t about getting her to win but about giving her another kind of strength. It doesn’t matter if she’s gotten her coach’s intention right—what matters is that the admissions committee sees how Maria internalized those words, which would be cliché on their own, and made them into something particular and healing for her circumstance.
The Academic Passion Question
Here, again, is Question #6, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.
Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?
Nadia has a strong response to this question that we will use as an example:
The academic subject from which I draw the most inspiration is US Government and Politics. My interest in understanding the process through which our country’s government affects every individual stems from observing the material I learned in the classroom applied in a real world setting.
My interest in the subject encouraged me to enroll in the Advanced Placement course. One of the topics discussed that spoke to me most is the power of political participation. Inspired by this particular lesson, I practiced my activism by applying for an internship at the office of my district’s congressman, Matt Dababneh. There, I spent four months answering phone calls, filing papers, and reading letters, and learned the importance of community relations, social skills, and organizational skills needed to thrive in politics.
Following the completion of my internship, I continued my community involvement by joining my school’s student council, where I was selected by the administration to become class representative. My duties were similar to that of my internship, where I addressed complaints from students and moderated them directly to the administration. One example was when a group of students approached me regarding the lack of a mock trial class at our school. I gathered signatures, wrote a letter of request, and took the matter to the principal. My community participation led the school to offer a mock trial class to all middle and high school students.
At the University of California, I intend to pursue a major in Political Science to further my understanding of politics and the impact of each individual on policymaking. Furthermore, I am compelled to participate in student government upon my acceptance to UC schools in order to exercise my interests in a much larger and diverse community of students.
Nadia’s essay is short, efficient, and gets to the point—but it gets the job done. A word like “passion” can sometimes cause us to entertain flights of fancy, trying to convey something about the ineffable reasons we find poetry transcendent, or our abstract dreams of becoming a doctor in the wake of a grandparent’s death. Sometimes it is the right choice to use dramatic language to talk about a dramatic issue. But Nadia’s approach matches her personality. She’s a get-things-done kind of person. She developed an interest in politics, and went about chasing that career.
We can look more closely, still:
Paragraph 1: This is an example of an essay that opens with its thesis statement. Nadia doesn’t fuss about with a hook. She could—another student might open with the day they first saw the California state capitol—but her essay is just fine without that, because it’s clear and communicative. She also tells us that her interest stemmed from the intersection of theory and real-life application, which means that we can expect her essay to discuss the real-life application of politics.
Paragraphs 2 and 3: And indeed it does! Off the bat, Nadia tells us about working for Dababneh in paragraph 2, and in the ensuing paragraph, about her student council work. Giving us two different experiences is great because it shows a pattern of interest in the subject. It’s even better that Nadia draws a through-line—she talks about her experience at the Congressman’s office influencing her run for student government. That tells the admissions committee not only that there was change and growth, that key quality the middle of the essay must convey, but also that Nadia is aware of that change and growth and can make narrative sense of it.
Paragraph 4: Nadia concludes with a natural spin-it-forward take. At UC, she plans on continuing with these interests, and she knows exactly how.
As is the case with many of these responses, we wouldn’t want all of Nadia’s essays to read exactly like this. We’d want her to have a little bit more personal introspection in at least one of the others, even if that doesn’t come naturally to her. But this essay is spot-on in answering the question honestly and with good energy.
The Community Question
Here, again, is Question #7, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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?
We’re going to turn to Nadia again, here:
For most of my childhood, I was overweight. I was bullied by my classmates, who pushed and shoved me and called me “fatso” and “blimp.” When I was fourteen, I began eating healthier and exercising. It took two years to shed not only the weight but also the pain that had come with being a pariah. I did not want anyone else to suffer from the physical and mental pain that I endured as an overweight child.
In order to spread awareness about childhood obesity, I co-founded the Healthy Kids club, which organizes fundraisers and invites guest speakers to educate students about early-onset heart disease and diabetes, as well as how these diseases follow into adulthood and worsen with age. We worked to get healthier snacks in school, successfully banning certain junk foods like chips and soda, and regularly met with cafeteria staff to ensure health conscientious items remain on the menu.
In my junior year, we registered the organization as a 501c (3) nonprofit. Working with other schools in the Los Angeles area, we initiated a program called “An Apple a Day Fades it Away”, where we visited schools, handed out apples, and presented elementary school students with activity-filled days of education about the critical role healthy eating plays in lifelong health.
My own experience led me to found the group, and continues to inform our presentations. At each session with young people, I tell my own story. The ability to show students pictures of myself from five years ago, not being able to play sports or participate in PE due to asthma, and now the captain of a varsity team, means I can connect with students on a personal level. As I depart for college, I will ensure that the Healthy Kids Foundation remains a presence in my high school hallways, and I hope to create a chapter of it at the University of California, where I can draw on college students to serve as volunteers, spreading the message in even more communities.
Nadia’s doing a lot well here. Notice that in this essay, she did get pretty personal, which makes that hyper-efficient academics question more tenable.
Talking about her own vulnerability also serves another purpose: it gives her humility in a question that might often invite a sense of savior-like arrogance. Most of us, at eighteen, haven’t solved a major problem in the world; we might have put in some respectable work in our communities, though, and this question gives students a chance to articulate that.
Getting this question right requires a sense of scope and scale—students should be able to talk about a major issue they care about, and then explain how they’ve addressed it in their own communities, without pretending that they’ve solved the root cause of that entire issue. In other words, you should try to tap into a global issue and address how you dealt with it locally.
We’ll take a look at the play-by-play to see how Nadia’s achieving this effect:
Paragraph 1: Here, Nadia does have a hook—her own pain, frustration, and change—and by the end of the paragraph, she’s made the personal public, turning her pain into a force for larger good.
Paragraphs 2 and 3: These paragraphs document and detail what Nadia did in the group. Her trademark efficiency is back here. She’s clear about her accomplishments, which is a breath of fresh air for admissions officers, who often see vagueness when young people try to categorize what exactly they do with their extracurriculars.
Paragraph 4: Nadia concludes this by returning to her personal story, which bookends the essay nicely, and then she also does what she did in the academics question, spinning her interest forward.
The Everything Else Question
Here, again, is Question #8, with notes from the UC Admissions website about how to think about it:
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?
Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. 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?
From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.
For this last essay, let’s return to Arman:
I grew up in an insular ethnocultural community that is very proud of its “pure” heritage. As a biracial Mexican-American and Armenian individual attending an Armenian private school with “full Armenians” my entire life, I have often felt like an outsider. For example, I have heard many Armenians express serious disapproval about Armenians like my mother marrying odars, that is, foreigners. Unfortunately, this way of thinking insults my proud Mexican-American heritage, and leads me to wonder whether I am a disgrace or even a burden to my community. This thought process extends to my relationships with others. I am often wondering if race plays into how people interact with me.
Of course, I’ve experienced many occasions when Armenians wanted to learn about me or become friends initially based on my biracial status. But the bad has sometimes outweighed the good, causing my confidence to plummet.
I hope to develop a more positive self-concept at the University of California through interactions with diverse students and by studying my two heritages in a way I cannot in high school. Through ethnic studies classes—many of which were pioneered at UC schools—and extracurricular groups, I think I can have more conversations about race that have not been possible in my life thus far. By learning from professors and other student leaders, I will be able to facilitate complex, yet necessary conversations about race for others, in turn, so that members of my college community feel integrated and appreciated for their differences.
Arman uses this essay to talk about exactly what isn’t on his resumé. In another one of his essays, the Academic Passion question (Question #6), he did discuss his interest in cultural studies and global identities. But he hasn’t had a chance to discuss this element of his personal life yet, so here it goes. It’s a good way to make use of Question #8.
You might also take advantage of Question #8 to adapt your Common App PS, if you haven’t already been able to shorten and reuse that. This is a chance to communicate what hasn’t already found a home.
For one last time, let’s break down Arman’s essay:
Paragraph 1: Arman is primarily interested in communicating something personal as clearly as possible here, so he doesn’t mess around with a hook, but instead moves quickly to his thesis: ‘I have often felt like an outsider.’ He uses the rest of this question to provide informational context for a reader who doesn’t know what it was like to grow up Armenian-American and Mexican-American.
Paragraph 2: This is a middle paragraph that doesn’t quite show the “change and growth” we’ve been talking about, but it still works. In this case, Arman has set up one concept—his outsider status—in paragraph 1, and he uses paragraph 2 to briefly caveat it, acknowledging what his reader might be thinking. (“Is that really always the case?”) But he quickly moves it back to his territory.
Paragraph 3: Now, Arman spins things forward, and in a very rich manner. He not only says “I want to go to the University of California to pursue xyz,” but demonstrates that he has fully imagined how his life can change intellectually and personally from attending a UC school. He also shows that he knows something about the UC system, referencing its diversity and academic history.
It’s a short essay, well below word count, but it answers the question with intelligence and flourish, so hats off!
The Transfer Student Question
Students applying to transfer to the University of California must answer three of seven questions—the question list is the same as the above, minus the “Academic Passion” question. There is, for the fourth response, one required question all transfer applicants must address. Here it is:
Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.
Things to consider: How did your interest in your major develop? Do you have any experience related to your major outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, or participation in student organizations and activities? If you haven’t had experience in the field, consider including experience in the classroom. This may include working with faculty or doing research projects.
If you’re applying to multiple campuses with a different major at each campus, think about approaching the topic from a broader perspective, or find a common thread among the majors you’ve chosen.
Let’s see how Denise handled this question:
I have spent my first two years at Foothill Community College in Los Altos, California, learning about the technology industry, which is in our backyard. It has been an education both in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, I have focused on computer science, while out of the classroom I have completed internships to learn more about Silicon Valley, where I hope to make my career.
My computer science courses have prepared me technically for a career in the industry. From my class in IT systems to my honors distinctions as a Cisco securities technician and as a VMWare certified professional, I have the skills to find work at a technology company (as I did as an intern last summer at a software firm in San Jose). My hope is that by transferring to the University of California, I can add to these competencies a larger sense of the technology world, by learning about advancements across fields from virtual reality to artificial intelligence.
I have also prepared to pursue a second major in business at the University of California. I have taken courses in basic business law, where I learned more about the regulations technology companies are subject to, and in marketing, where I practiced explaining complicated scientific ideas to lay people and learned more about the psychology behind getting users’ attention and keeping it. In addition to my tech internship at the software firm last summer, I have also continued working with that company’s marketing department part-time. I interview companies who use this firm’s software and write up case-studies about their use-cases, which the company then uses to get more clients. All this has trained me to understand the day-to-day workings of businesses. I look forward to learning more about international business trends at the University of California, and to attending public talks led by business leaders around the state.
Denise tackles this question in three neat paragraphs:
Paragraph 1: She ties together her two interests, in computer science and business, and also states that she’s worked on them in and out of the classroom.
Paragraph 2: She devotes this paragraph to talking about technology. Her resumé and GPA are both a little stronger on business matters, but she’s articulated a clear interest in technology, which makes this paragraph ring authentically. It also recalls her other essay about her talent, and keeps a consistent picture.
Paragraph 3: Denise then does the same thing in her business paragraph. In both paragraphs, she makes sure to spin things forward, making it clear that she has goals that will be much more easily achieved if she can attend the University of California.
Part 3: Frequently Asked Questions
Question: How should I think about the activities section? Can I copy and paste my Common App activities?
Answer: Take a look at our Common App Activities Section guide for general help with tackling extracurriculars. You’ll notice that the UC application lets students go longer, listing up to 30 activities, whereas the Common App won’t let you write down more than 10 activities. The UC application also divides things into categories, including Coursework other than A-G, Educational Prep Programs, Volunteer & Community Service, Work Experience, Awards & Honors, and Extracurricular Activities.
Because the UC application allows for more entries—and a higher character count, 160 as opposed to 150—than Common App, we suggest writing the UC list first, then figuring out what your top 10 most important or meaningful activities are and cutting those down to size for the Common App.
Question: Should I apply to all the UCs? How should I choose, if I’m not applying to all of them?
Answer: The University of California makes it easy to apply to its campuses; all you have to do is click the boxes next to schools’ names. We advise you to apply to all the schools you’re even remotely interested in f you have the financial resources to pay each application fee.
To choose which schools to apply to, research introductions to the campus provided by the university admissions offices, try to visit, watch YouTube videos of campus tours, and speak with current students and alumni about their college experience. Those will give you a good sense of the qualitative elements that distinguish campuses from one another.
Question: I’m an out-of-state student. Do I stand a chance of getting in?
Answer: You do, but it’s harder. Each campus has different demographics. At UC Berkeley, about 60 percent of freshmen in the fall of 2017 were in-state students, whereas at UC Riverside, 88 percent were. Out-of-state applicants must have a 3.4 GPA or above, and never earn less than a C grade. You can find more information about the differences between applying as an in-state versus out-of-state student here, from the admissions office.
Question: I’m an international student. Should I apply to the UC system?
Answer: The University of California is a popular choice for international students for many reasons. These are big research schools, and some of the best in the world. Though international students make up a small percentage of UC students across all campuses—just over six percent—it’s still worth applying to as many of the campuses as you can.
Question: I attend a competitive high school in California—does this ruin my shot at getting into the highest ranked UCs (e.g. UC Berkeley; UCLA)?
Answer: There are longstanding questions among California residents about how the UCs make their decisions. There have been reports, for instance, about capping out-of-state admits to keep things from being too competitive for in-state students. We’ve also heard that UC schools prefer to admit international students because they pay full tuition. Nevertheless, one thing college counselors seem to agree on: UCs, even the ‘lower-tiered’ ones, make for very competitive safety schools.
In general, college admissions are getting more competitive because more people are applying to college. This is the case for in- and out-of-state applicants. But it seems like the UCs have responded to public criticism a few years ago by holding out-of-state applicants to high standards (requiring a baseline of a 3.4 GPA), and trying to give spots to more Californians.
Overall, though, students who attend better schools with more resources are expected to achieve higher academically and extracurricularly than their counterparts at schools with fewer AP classes, extracurriculars, etc. Holistic admissions means students are evaluated within their own context, based on whether or not they took full advantage of what was available to them. Many students from competitive public and private high schools across the state get in each year, so it's certainly possible to get into a Tier 1 UC regardless of where you attended high school.
Question: Does my declared major matter for getting into one UC or another?
Answer: Admissions committees don’t expect your major to stay stable between what you put on your application and what you end up studying, so in many cases you aren’t applying for admission to a particular department. The exceptions are engineering, which requires a separate application at UC Berkeley (and applying as an undeclared major as an engineer is very competitive); arts & architecture, engineering and applied science, nursing, and theater/film/television at UCLA; and dance, music, engineering and creative studies at UCSB. But if you feel strongly about one course of study or another, you might consider making that a topic or a mention in one of your essay responses. The admissions committee is looking for a clear story across your four essays, so if you’re interested in biology and medicine but write two essays about your high school English class, you might also want to balance that with an answer that explains your interest in medicine, or even how your love of reading dovetails with your interest in biology and medicine.