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UPDATE: 2015 – The UC propmts have not changed since this article was originally posted in 2011.
How to Respond to the UC Essay Prompts
Many students are quite interested in applying to one or many of the campuses within the University of California system (or the “UC system” for short). That’s not too surprising as 6 of the 9 campuses (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, & UC Irvine) are ranked in the top 40 of the US News & World Report’s “Best National Universities.” The UC system has always had one main application that all the campuses share. Incoming freshmen must respond to two essay prompts on the UC application in order to apply for undergraduate admission. Each applicant must respond to both essay questions within a maximum of 1000 words total. These words may be allocated as the student wishes as long as the shorter one is greater than 250 words.
Assuming this makes sense to you, I’d like to discuss the two prompts, what they’re asking the student, and how best to respond to them. Here are the two questions:
- Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
- Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
When my students read these prompts, they usually look dumbfounded and then start to slowly ask all the questions that come into their heads. Because these questions tend to be repeated each year with my new set of students, I thought you might benefit from some of the answers.
“There are too many words in this essay question.”
Anytime an essay question confuses you, break it down into parts so that you understand everything it’s asking. The writers of these essay questions usually add words and ideas that they think will help the student start brainstorming.
“What’s a prompt?”
A prompt is an essay question.
“What is #1 really asking?” “Describe my world?”
To summarize, #1 is really asking WHO WILL YOU BECOME? It wants to know how your surroundings—the people or the environment–have helped shape who you want to become. Often students can relate to this one by thinking about why they have chosen a certain path—Why have they decided to study a certain major and want to become an engineer, a doctor, a psychologist, a social worker, a business executive, an English teacher, a politician or a church leader? What/Who made them want to become an athlete, an artist, a singer, a cook, a journalist?
What is #2 really asking?”
To summarize, #2 is really asking WHO ARE YOU NOW? It wants to know how some experience or quality or characteristic really describes who you are. Here you want to show a personality trait through an anecdote. This one will be more related to your personal statement on other applications.
“Tell us about a talent?” “I thought I’m not supposed to TELL anything Danielle—You say to SHOW it.”
You’re right. You don’t want to spend time in an essay TELLing anyone who you are. That is why they followed up that question with “…how does [this quality, talent, accomplishment] relate to the person you are?” They want you to describe the type of person you are by through SHOWING them through example.
“This sounds like they want a laundry list of things.”
No, the UC (or any college for that matter) does not want a laundry list of all your extracurricular activities. Save those for the right section on the application.
“How am I supposed to choose which one is longer and which is shorter?”
Generally, one essay can become your personal statement for other applications. Since almost all personal statements on other applications give you a 500-600 word count limit, make this one your longer one. Your other one would be around 300-400 words.
“Should I write two 500 word essays or one long and one short?”
You can allocate the words as you wish. In my experience, students have chosen one to be 500-600 words and one to be 300-400 words.
“If I’ve already written my personal statement, can I use it for one of these answers?”
Yes see above.
UC Prompt Tips
In the past, the UC application has been very difficult to navigate and even more difficult to locate the essay questions. In recent years, however, they have really turned this around and students can read a page about the prompts, review tips for writing, and watch a YouTube video. Here is the website: http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/admissions/how-to-apply/personal-statement/index.html