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College Essay Series: Writing the Educational Opportunity or Barrier Essay (UC Prompt #4)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Telling the story of an educational journey can be a chance to show how you take an active approach to your own learning. Whether you overcame a challenge or seized a new opportunity, writing about this topic tells the admissions reader about your ability to make the most of a college experience in the future.

In this installment of our weekly college essay blog series, which covers all eight essay prompts from the University of California Application, you’ll get some advice on approaching and writing a response for the fourth prompt:

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

Choose only one response and make sure it relates to your learning.

The topic of this essay must be academic in nature. Do not write about another topic here. A personal opportunity may be educational for you, but if it’s not academic then it doesn’t go under prompt four. This prompt is very clear that the readers are looking to hear about your learning.

Make sure to choose just one topic, either a barrier or an opportunity. Your response will be scattered if you try to discuss two topics in one essay.

Write about an educational opportunity.

Not all students get the same opportunities. Any time you got to acquire, practice, or apply knowledge outside of your typical classroom experience, you were taking advantage of an opportunity. By seizing this one, you showed that you appreciated the chance to do something extra and didn’t let it slip by.

If you’re in a specialized program at school, such as the App Academy or a visual arts track, you have an educational opportunity to discuss. If you attend a private school, you probably have a dozen potential topics to write about, such as outdoor education or social-emotional learning programs. Perhaps you participated in a summer program, which many students cannot attend due to cost or logistical issues. Similarly, an internship counts as long as it’s educational. Taking dual enrollment courses at a community college also qualifies as an extra opportunity. Even tutoring does, although it may not make for a very involved essay.

Any students who practiced research skills, especially college-level research, should go out of their way to put that in a college essay. Research skills are huge. Proven experience in a research setting tells colleges that you might do research on their campus too.

The key words from the prompt are *take advantage.* After you choose the perfect educational opportunity, make sure you include lots of ways that you made the absolute most of it. When other students had the chance to lay back or take it easy, you went the extra mile. Show that, and your essay will be powerful.

Or, write about an educational barrier.

Was there something that got in the way of you being the best student you can be? I love that there is an essay prompt where you can explain your academic story outside of the cold numbers on a transcript.

Identify your educational barrier. Maybe you were limited by family finances, and you couldn’t participate in the same programs as other students at your school. Maybe you had family obligations that kept you from completing all your homework in time. Maybe you took on a part-time job to support your family, and the reduced sleep affected your alertness in the classroom. Or, maybe you have a more complicated barrier, such as a mental health struggle or discrimination at school.

The most important thing to remember is that your task is to show how you overcame your barrier and eventually found an aptitude for learning and a readiness for college. Spend 10-20% of the essay explaining your barrier, but then move on quickly to show how you conquered the issue. This is what makes you qualified, of course, and not your barrier.

Tell a story and stay on track.

Whatever your topic is, no essay is complete if it’s just a list of things you did. You should show growth in your essay by clearly conveying where you started from, how you worked to overcome or take advantage, and where you ended up. Don’t get so caught up in the opportunity that you leave out your own personal transformation.

Make sure the lesson you learn or the change you experience in the essay is on-prompt. For example, many students accidentally turn the essay into a thank-you note. Of course, it’s a good thing when students recognize their privilege and/or show gratitude for their blessings, but the essay prompt just isn’t about privilege or gratitude. If you write an essay about how thankful you are, you have very likely gotten off-track.

Explain an academic change.

There is a great potential in this essay to describe an academic change that may be noticeable on the transcript. Call out the grade change explicitly, and don’t let it be implied. For example, if a student got all Bs in freshman year, and started getting As in sophomore year, the story they tell in this essay could explain how practicing time management strategies caused that shift. The essay doesn’t invalidate the Bs, but the context helps a lot.

If your educational barrier in high school was a learning disability that you learned to cope with, you face a tough decision about whether to disclose the disability to the college in your application. If you tell them, it could add valuable context. However, if you don’t tell them, you run less risk of your disability working against you, perhaps due to subconscious biases in the reader’s head. This is always an individual decision for each family, so I encourage you to reach out to me directly if you’d like to discuss whether you should disclose your learning disability in a college essay.

Whether you’re writing about your sleep disorder or your cardiothoracic surgical skills summer internship, UC4 is a perfect place for students to discuss their educational journey in high school. For most students, this is as personal and important a topic as their essay about creativity or volunteering.

Now you know about the educational barrier/opportunity 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 UC3, the skill or talent prompt. The next post is about UC5, the personal challenge 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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