The number one mistake students make on this essay is showing (or worse, telling about) a talent that’s been mostly easy for them in high school. College essays should show change over time, so it’s important to write an essay that shows you struggling, improving, and working for your success.
In this installment of our 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 third prompt:
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Don’t misread the question.
The key words in the prompt are “develop” and “demonstrate.” The prompt wants you to focus on a skill or talent that you worked on over time, got better at, and used for some purpose that’s meaningful to you.
Develop: The focus of the essay should be on your improvement. All personal college essays should be about growth over time, but especially this one. The essay will not work well if you don’t show a journey of improvement.
Demonstrate: The skill should be one that you apply. Ideally, the applications will be increasingly challenging, relevant, and/or significant.
Don’t get caught up on the “greatest talent or skill” part. Write about something you do that matters to you, and don’t worry about it if you’re better at other things. This essay is all about your journey of improvement, so make that your focus.
Brainstorm to choose the skill.
The question doesn’t ask, “what are you better at than everyone you know?” Actually, it doesn’t even ask what you’re good at! Your topic can be anything you’ve done where you’ve shown improvement, regardless of what other students around you are doing.
You might start by brainstorming around the areas of your life where you feel confident. Jot these in your journal. Underneath each, write the individual actions that go into each of the items. You can write very concrete actions (e.g. write, run, code, or listen) or more conceptual actions (e.g. empathize, compare, or show patience). If you start to see any recurring actions, or if any jump out to you as feeling very authentic, consider them as potential skills for your essay. If the action sounds unusual, consider it with an open mind, since what seems weird at first might actually be a creative approach to the essay prompt.
If you have an obvious topic to write, go for it. If not, a creative answer may win you some points.
Start low so you can go high.
Would Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have worked if Charlie were wealthy? Would Jasmine still have married Aladdin if he wasn’t a thief? Would Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts have been just as magical if he hadn’t started the book living in a cupboard under the Dursleys’ stairs? Just like these characters had to start from rough situations so we could best appreciate their journeys, you too need to be struggling with your talent or skill for part of the essay.
Last year, you probably weren’t planning to put your moments of failure into your college essays. However, showing a failure, incident, or embarrassing moment gives the reader a sense of where you started. Then, when you show how you persist and grow to be better, the reader will be impressed by the growth you make.
Do not brag the whole time or focus only on your successes. It doesn’t work!
Development is key.
Your development section, where you show how you improved at the skill, should be 100 words (out of the 350 word UC essay) at a bare minimum. It will probably be longer! It’s critical to fully answering this prompt.
I recommend starting by jotting down as many components of your development as you can think of. Think about action verbs. For example, with a cooking skill, you might have “chop,” “cut,” and “mince.” Break down vague verbs like “train” and “practice” into specific verbs that capture exactly what goes into your training.
Then, put the verbs in order of increasing difficulty. “Chop,” “cut,” and “mince” are probably already in order, but where does “saute” go? What about the parts that require patience, are those harder or easier? This will be a personal decision for you, and it will help the reader understand your growth. In the essay, you’ll give the development in this order, showing yourself becoming more and more capable.
In film, this sequence is called a montage. Maybe a character is training for an athletic event, getting a makeover, or learning to navigate a new job or relationship. Montages on screen are quick, effective, and memorable. They allow a character to transform in under sixty seconds. Why not use this strategy for yourself in your college essay?
Show an “after picture.”
The end of the essay is your time to be proficient and successful with your skill. However, you shouldn’t just tell the reader how awesome you are. That would probably come off as bragging. It’s much more effective to describe an example or give a full moment where you demonstrate the skill. Make sure to give enough detail in the moment that the reader can tell that the things that were once challenging for you are no longer so. Let us also get a sense now of how your skill is impacting your community and others around you.
When you couple the three parts together -- the struggle, the development, and the after picture -- you will be showing a clear journey of growth into a person with a “greatest skill” to share.
Now you know about the greatest skill 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 UC2, the creativity prompt. The next post is about UC4, the educational opportunity or barrier 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.