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College Essay Series: Writing the Creativity Essay (UC Prompt #2)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

All students are able to write essays about creativity because they all express themselves. In fact, it’s stated directly in the second essay prompt of the University of California Application:

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.

In this entry of our UC Essay blog series, I offer some guidance on how to approach this open-ended prompt.

“Express your creative side” means what you say it means.

Choose your interpretation and stick the landing. If creativity is something straightforward for you, especially if you dedicate yourself to the visual or performing arts, go with a topic like painting, cello, or dance. However, if your list of activities doesn’t include a traditional art form like that, go to your journal and jot down all the ways you share, vent, teach, and otherwise communicate without an instrument in your hand. Anything goes as long as you can show it with your words, develop the response, and follow it through to the end.

The UC essay readers unabashedly love a unique response to their prompts. Examples of somewhat off-the-path responses include making sandwiches, planning parties, writing sticky notes to leave for friends, and coming up with spontaneous plans for your friend group.

If you’re not sure if you’re an artist, you probably are.

One of the most stressful questions I ask students on purpose is, “are you an artist?” Often, they are nervous to claim the word. They may say, “no, I’m a musician,” knowing quite well that music is art. Or they may say they hope to be an artist one day, which implies that they need a certain level of skill in order to have the word. I give you permission to let go of that self-talk and claim this word, because I suspect that facing whatever makes you nervous to say “I’m an artist” is the same thing that will reveal and help you develop your answer to the creativity prompt.

Young musicians may say that they don’t, in truth, control the music, because someone else wrote it. When I hear this, I ask them to think of two professional musicians they love. When these two artists play the same piece at different times, are they identical? What if one played the piece on a bad day and then again on a good day — would it be the same performance? Does changing the audience ever change the piece? It may be challenging to wrap your head around, but the answer is there. You are not a puppet for a composer: You express yourself with your instrument.

You should be releasing something.

“Expression” in English means, literally, to press out. Similarly, cows express milk, and you can express lime juice by cutting and squeezing a lime. Self-expression is a bit more figurative, but the idea is exactly the same. You have ideas, feelings, and perspectives in your head, and self-expression is when you press them out and share them with others. It is the task of this essay to show just how this happens, uniquely, for you.

So, what is it that you have inside to release? What of yourself, exactly, are you sharing with others?

Show, don’t tell.

This is true for all the prompts, but especially for UC2. When you find the exact language, including action verbs, for how you express yourself, your creativity is crystal clear to the reader. Challenge yourself to show the reader at least one and as many as three moments of you expressing your creativity in action. Your essay just won’t be as engaging without this.

Need examples of showing? Look back to stories from your favorite fiction authors, who stake their professional success on being able to engage readers with their language.

Don’t confuse this essay with the third prompt.

If your essay begins by showing how you began playing the trumpet by spitting and slobbering on the mouthpiece and ends by showing how you led your marching band section at the state competition, you’ve found a great response to the *third* UC essay prompt. That prompt asks students to describe a skill and show how they developed it.

If you mean to write a response for the UC2 creativity prompt, you should be thinking about self-expression. Thinking about expression within a good vs. bad binary framework is not only a skill-based approach to the topic, but it’s also a harsh outlook on something that could otherwise be fun. Let go of those thoughts, and focus on your expression instead.

Here are some final tips.

  1. You can still show growth over time in a UC2 essay, even though you’re focusing on your expression: How did you become more able to access and/or apply your self-expression as you grew older?

  2. It’s always a bit lonely when students write essays about working in a room by themselves, hunched over piano keys alone or glued to a computer screen. You should incorporate others -- especially the audience who receives your self-expression.

  3. Find verbs, and journal them beforehand. You need powerful verbs in order to write this essay. You specifically want verbs related to your creative mode, so I recommend searching YouTube for videos of people doing your activity and writing down every action verb that applies to what you watch.

Now you know about the creativity essay, but to craft your best PIQ responses you'll need to understand all the prompts so you can choose between them. Get my completely free UC Essay Planning Guide to see what the UC readers are looking for in all 8 UC essay prompts:

The previous post in our UC Essay blog series was about UC1, the leadership prompt. The next post is about UC3, the skill or talent prompt.

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.

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