Updated: Feb 22
The University of California’s Personal Insight Questions -- I just call them “UC essays” -- require a different approach than the Common App Personal Statement. It’s not just because they’re shorter (UC essays are 350 words each) and it’s not just because there are more of them (students choose four of eight prompts to answer). The UC essays are their own beast! In short, a UC essay will answer the prompt about you, the student, and will show your growth over time. The more growth, the better.
To kick off my UC essay writing blog series, here are five tips you should consider when tackling these short but challenging essays:
Work on the UC essays first. Since English class doesn’t prepare students for personal writing, most students have never done the writing task of a college essay before. The writing task for UC essays is simpler and more direct, so it’s a perfect starting place. Additionally, students are in a better place developmentally to write the Personal Statement in August than in June. The summer before senior year is a time when students’ brains are growing. It doesn’t sound like two months should make much difference, but I see the change every year!
Lean into a unique interpretation. Students can set their own definitions of words they see in the prompt. If they ask about creativity, expand your mind to consider all the ways a person can express themselves. If they ask about a skill, think of all the action verbs a person does on a given day, and not just the ones related to work. If they ask about leadership, it’s totally up to you to decide what a leader is. The UC Application readers love this kind of thinking! There’s no call for creative flourish in the UC essays, so there’s no need for full narratives, extended metaphors, flashbacks, or other backflips. However, creative thinking is totally on the table, and it can help a student stand out from others who write about similar experiences.
Outline, in some form. Plan out your essay before you write. A simple bullet point outline will work for many students. I recommend organizing the outline by purpose instead of by content, which increases your chance of catching things (like “give background,” “explain relationship,” or “list AP scores”) that don’t belong in the essay. Examples of bullets a student might use in their outline include: “hook the reader with a quote from a frustrated teacher,” “show ADHD struggles in 9th grade math class,” and “list actions taken to improve focus in 10th grade.” Some students don’t think in lists and bullets. That’s perfectly fine. If this is you, consider a mind map. This is any visual representation that helps you get your thoughts out of your cluttered head and onto the page. This could be as literal as a flowchart or as creative as a physical map of a sunken city. Creative thinking is your friend!
Be direct, but still tell a story. In order to show growth over time, you’ll have to show yourself at the beginning and then at the end. In order to grow, you’ll need to face and overcome a challenge or two and learn a lesson in the process. You won’t be a perfect person during it all. You’ll show the human side of you, admitting to faults and showing how you’re improving yourself. Hopefully, you can hear that college essays are more closely related to creative writing than they are to autobiography. Don’t think your job is to list impressive facts or recount every detail of a day, week, or year of your life. If you do this, you’ll lose the reader! Embrace the elements of drama. A character (you) should face a conflict. There should be a rocky struggle, and the stakes should be high. Always zoom in to show the moments that matter, and don’t just tell the reader about them. I encourage you to take inspiration from books you love! How do your favorite authors show a character in the moment dealing with stress and changing over time?
After your first draft ... Revise! You’re not done. My students often go through at least eight drafts of each essay. Give yourself lots of time and space between each revision in order to get some perspective on what you’ve written. Be critical, patient, and kind to yourself. When you write your revisions, don’t be afraid to write over the word limit. You can always cut the words down later, but it’s harder to add in the thoughts you never wrote. Don’t ask too many people for help. Conflicting advice can interfere with your expression. When you ask for input on your essays, be critical and deliberate about whom you ask. English teachers sound like an obvious choice, but they actually have little experience with the college admissions process (because writing recommendations is an outside contribution) and they do not typically teach personal writing in the classroom. In fact, I know an English teacher who told me that when he reads his students’ college essays he only puts positive comments. (He didn’t want to put students in a bad situation by sending them home feeling distressed.)
Now that you’ve read my tips, it’s time to start brainstorming your own UC essays. Learn what the UC readers are looking for ahead of time so there are no surprises. Download our completely free UC Essay Preview Guide here:
Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Follow College Torch by joining our Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.