How to Strategize the UC Essays

InGenius Prep

How to Strategize the UC Essays

As the November 1st deadline creeps closer and closer, students scramble to gather all of their early admission materials together. But even once you’ve hit send on your early Common App schools, it’s not over if you’re applying to one or more of the Universities of California. The UC school application filing period begins November 1st. To make sure you’ve got everything in place when the portal opens, you need to keep working thoroughly on your application components, especially the UC essays!

UC applications are only open from November 1st through November 30th. In thirty days, you have to pull together the best application imaginable that makes you stand out from your peers. Although the UC application filing period is only open for the month of November, prompts for the UC essays were released on August 1st. Taking advantage of this and preparing ahead of time will help you when completing your UC Essays. All nine UC schools use the same application and essays. These schools are:

  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UC Los Angeles
  • UC Irvine
  • UC Merced
  • UC Riverside
  • UC San Diego
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • UC Santa Cruz

For the UC essays, you must write four answers to the possible eight questions. Each response is limited to 350 words - not quite a full page single spaced! Since the UC essays act both as your personal statement and your supplemental responses, you need to make sure you choose topics which will highlight what makes you a must-have candidate, and elaborate on aspects that don’t come through in the rest of your application.

You might be wondering how to choose the essay prompts that bring out the best in you. Choose the questions that you feel are most relevant to you and your experiences. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The UC schools want to know who you are as a person, what you care about, and how you pursue your interests and goals. To help guide you through the writing process, we’ve outlined the prompts, dos and don’ts for your responses, and tips to make sure that you take full advantage of the essay component. 

Question 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.

The UC schools look for aspiring leaders who don’t just express their interests on paper, but have actively taken initiatives in their chosen fields. So, if you haven’t gotten a chance to really describe a project or your leadership of a meaningful group in the rest of your application, this prompt is right for you. When answering this question, keep in mind that a leadership experience can be more than just a position in a club, or on a team. There are often misconceptions that assume leadership just hinges on your title! Reflect instead on how you have changed your community, school, or a student group. It’s your impact that matters most, and that should rightfully stay the main focus of your essay. 

Leadership doesn’t have to occur at center stage. Choose the activity or organization where you believe you’ve had the biggest contribution. You can even think smaller scale with leadership and consider how you’ve influenced your inner circle. Think about your family. Do you have siblings that you look after? Show how you have gained from these experiences, and explain how you can contribute to the UC campuses. Admissions officers want to see aspects of your life that hold meaning to you and convey new, impressive information about you. So what matters is how you frame the leadership role.

If you do have an explicit leadership position, like varsity captain of your athletic team or student body president, think critically about the unique impact. The reality is, there are thousands and thousands of varsity captains and student body presidents. What did you do in your captain role that was different? How did you grow as a person? Try to not just repeat your activities list description – reach a bit deeper so that you can write a compelling response. Admissions officers should understand how you would be valuable to their school, so highlight the mark you’ve left accordingly.

Question 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.

The second question makes it clear that being creative doesn’t mean you have to be an artist! Think about what creativity means to you. If you’re a mathematician, you might love the expression of quadratic equations, and get excited to solve problems in a unique way. If you’re interested in theater, creativity could come to you in the form of building sets or playing a role. No matter how you express creativity, the main focus of your essay should remain on how being creative has shaped your thoughts and ideas.

Using anecdotes can effectively help you illustrate your points. Talk about the ways your creative outlet emerged, evolved, and how it might align with your career interest. Instead of saying “I love drawing,” you should frame your sentence in a way that explains to the reader how and why it matters to you. Mention if you’ve started or led clubs involving the activity or found a community through it with like-minded peers.

Finally, because you have the space, you should mention how you hope to continue this activity in college. The UC schools want to admit individuals who are specialized in their interests. Knowing that you would bring a unique perspective to a creative activity can assure them that you’re an impressive candidate.

Question 3:

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

If you are really proud of one of your abilities, now is the time to show it. The UC schools want students who bring a variety of backgrounds and interests, and choosing to write this essay is a good opportunity to show a new side of yourself. Your talent doesn’t have to be an external ability such as playing the piano or writing sonnets. Neither is it required that you have received an award for this talent!

You can write about an internal characteristic such as an easy facility for making friends with new people. Or it can be something quirky like being a phenomenal cartoonist. In fact, it is better if the skill you mention is unique because your UC essays need to establish you as a memorable candidate. For questions like this, you don’t want to answer with a typical talent, or an ambiguous characteristic. We can assure you that many of your peers are going to be talented writers, musicians, and singers. You need to bring your own exceptional spin. As for personal characteristics, asserting that a trait like kindness is your greatest asset is frankly boring and vague. Think about what differentiates you.

The main point of your essay should emphasize why this talent or skill is meaningful to you. Why are you particularly proud of this talent? Make sure you’ve addressed all parts of the prompt. Is it a natural skill, or did it take time to develop? Will you continue to use this talent in your future goals and career? What have you learned about yourself while pursuing this skill? Let the reader understand why this talent matters so much, and exactly why it’s an admirable ability.

Question 4:

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

If you don’t have many academic opportunities on your high school transcript, here is your chance to show how you’ve pushed yourself in light of your limiting curriculum. Maybe you took online classes or did outside research. Anything where you went beyond regular curriculum to find ways to expand your knowledge on a topic of interest counts for this prompt among the UC essays

If your school presented you with ample academic opportunities, you can tackle the other half of the question. Show how your intellectual curiosity has driven you to do more than just your assigned schoolwork. Since your academic passion is the topic for question 6, remember that you have another question for intellectual curiosity, so it may be best to use this to talk about educational barriers you’ve faced. Have you taken courses at a community college? Have you taken all the AP/IB/honors classes available at your school? Have you done a summer academic program? The UC schools want to see that you have challenged yourself academically and have an innate desire to expand yourself intellectually. 

Your essay shouldn’t just outline what you did. Admissions officers want to know what motivated the initiative, what you learned in the process, and how it might have prepared you for college. 

Question 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 an adversity question, so be careful here. Before you choose this topic, it is important to think about how your situation compares to your peers. Although everyone has challenges of their own, writing about not getting an allowance will not be seen as a “real” challenge to an admissions office. Other students in your applicant pool will have experienced homelessness, life threatening illnesses, and abuse. No matter what, watch yourself so that you do not sound privileged. If your adversity isn’t significant, I’d stay away from this question. The UC essays specifically ask for your “most significant challenge” – a temporary soccer injury doesn’t really apply here. Make sure your challenge would objectively be considered significant.

If you do choose this topic, now is the time to show the admissions office how you have persevered. Focus your writing on personal growth and how the experience changed you as a person. The question asks you to address what you’ve done to improve your situation, and also has an academic component. Consider your challenge in the context of your academic experience to fully answer this personal insight question. Was your schoolwork significantly affected due to the circumstance? Did you come back from an academic downfall? Has your situation inspired your choice of major or career goal? Remember that this is for your college application - your essay should focus on you, as opposed to generally narrating a story about the situation itself.

Questions 6:

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

This question is asking you to showcase your intellectual curiosity by elaborating on how you’ve pursued the field that calls out to you the most. Explain why you love this specific field and how it has influenced your worldview. Discuss your choice of major and explain how the UC schools can help you pursue your studies. Through anecdotes, exemplify the ways in which you’ve explored topics within the subject. Have you taken challenging courses in the discipline? Have you participated in relevant extracurriculars? Have you started any initiatives related to the field?

Admissions officers want to know that you’re not just interested in a program on paper. Show them that you have intellectual vitality! Your answer will be even stronger if the academic subject you discuss aligns with the theme of your application. When all of your activities relate to science research, it will confuse an admissions officer if you suddenly mention a burning passion for comparative literature! Make your story strong and clear. Don’t just tell them you enjoy research. Make sure you’ve conveyed your passion by outlining how your knowledge has grown through various courses and activities.

Question 7:

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

When first brainstorming this essay, think about what “community” means to you. Your community doesn’t need to be your neighborhood. It can be your team, your church, a school club, you name it! You can define community in a variety of ways but make it clear how you personally find significance in the word. The UC schools will be looking for students who can make meaningful contributions to their campuses. In your essay, you should showcase that you’re an individual who isn’t afraid to step up, involve others, and work to improve a part of the community you describe.

The key to writing this essay is ensuring that you highlight your impact in your answer. You could talk about your community lacking a proper recycling system and how you committed to installing one. You could also discuss how the members of your community worked together in resolving the issue. Don’t just say “we worked hard” – use strong action words and clear examples to convey exactly how you made changes. Showing the admissions officers where you fit within your community gives them a better idea of who you are and how you’ll add to the UC campuses.

Question 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?

if you have a strong essay that you’ve already written for another school that would be relevant here, you could consider including it here. If you’re at a loss, look around the UC website and see what they value. If their motto or principles resonate with you, then try to explain how and why. They are looking for not only the best applicants, but the candidates that embody what their school is all about.

You can start by asking yourself the following questions to see if this prompt is right for you:

  • Is there a part of you that’s unique that you haven’t been able to talk about in other parts of your application?
  • Have you started any initiatives or clubs that you would like to further highlight?
  • What is your passion?
  • What has been your biggest inspiration?
  • How do you spend your free time?

Choose a topic that can help distinguish you from other applicants and make you a memorable candidate in the schools’ eyes. Once you’ve written your essay, make sure that your response can’t fit any of the previous prompts. Ultimately, what’s important is to highlight a part of you that matters, elaborate on your goals and interests, and convey why you would be a valuable addition to a University of California school.

Additional Tips for Tackling the UC Essays

  • Make the choice that’s right for you – The UC essays have provided options; make sure you choose the four questions that will make you stand out! Focus on showing who you are and what makes you unique. If you don’t have a story that fits a particular prompt, choose a different one. The UC essays need to emphasize why you’re a must-have candidate. Make your selections accordingly.
  • Don’t repeat your activities list – The University of California application system provides 20 slots for you to talk about your extracurricular activities, 20 for volunteering experiences, 20 for employment opportunities, and another 20 for awards and honors. That’s up to 80 different possibilities that you can list. So, it’s all the more important to be sure your UC essays don’t overlap with information that you’ve described in those sections. Admissions officers have very limited time and don’t want to read about the same topic, so make sure you cover new information!

The UC essays hold a lot of importance in conveying what makes you tick while helping admissions officers understand how you will fit into their campuses. While you can’t tailor your essay individually if you apply to multiple UC schools, your essays can still demonstrate why you’re a strong and passionate student, and illustrate the ways you will bring value to the schools that admit you. Good luck!

Schedule a free consultation

to find out how we can help you get accepted.