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College Essay Series: Writing the Talent/Skill Essay (UC Prompt #3)

Updated: Feb 22

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