College Essay Series: Writing the Outstanding Characteristic Essay (UC Prompt #8)

In this week’s installment of our college essay blog series, we’ll go over the eighth and final essay prompt from the University of California Application:

“Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?”


This essay prompt is a bit less straightforward than the others, so it sometimes throws students for a loop. However, this essay can be an excellent opportunity for students to discuss personal experiences that don't fit well into any of the other prompts.



What to discuss?


Students shouldn’t use this space to try to impress the reader or write what they think colleges want to hear! I often encourage my students to think about this prompt like a free prompt. After all, it is much more open-ended than the other prompts, and a lot of topics are appropriate to discuss here.


Students should tell a story from their life that really captures who they are, and they should show how they grew from that experience. UC8 can be the perfect place to tell a story that doesn't seem to fit under any of the other prompts. Maybe they had a personal experience that seems too minor to use in a UC5 response. Or maybe they had an experience in a team setting that wasn’t necessarily UC1 leadership. Or maybe they learned a lesson that wasn’t necessarily a UC6 academic lesson. Whatever topic they use, students should make sure UC8 is truly the best place for it. It can feel silly to read a UC8 essay that could actually be an answer to one of the first seven prompts.


Some students have a personal story they feel their college application would be incomplete without -- some experience, identity, perspective (and so on) that has shaped who they are as a person -- and UC8 may be the best place to tell that story.



Don’t repeat items from your application.


Students’ applications have a lot of content in them! Students detail all activities (extracurricular, volunteer, paid work, honors/awards, additional classwork) in the UC activities section, including writing a description of up to 500 characters for each activity. They self-report every A-G class (academic courses vetted by the UC system) from their entire transcript, and, if they’re including test scores, they self-report those as well. They also write three other UC essays that shine a light on their life outside of school.


Considering that, what else is there to discuss in a UC8 prompt? The answer is, any topic where it is valuable to see the experience through the student’s eyes. Often, this is a great time to write about a significant personal topic or experience that doesn’t fit under the other essay prompts. The colleges are trying to get to know students on a personal level, so even if it doesn’t seem at first like this kind of topic paints a picture of a “strong candidate,” the truth is that it really actually might, if the topic lets us get to know the student in a more authentic way and shows their personal growth in high school.


Something else to remember is that the UC App doesn’t ask for teacher recommendations. So, if a student feels like an important perspective will be lost without these letters, they can try to show the reader whatever that is, in words -- without, of course, giving the teacher a voice in the essay.



Remember to tell a story.


The prompt may sound like it wants you to brag, but it really doesn’t. (This feeling may be compounded by any well-meaning teacher who told you that the college application is your moment to brag about yourself.) Personal college essays are always about showing your own growth over time, and bragging simply doesn’t promote your growth.


Instead, tell a story where you figure something out, navigate a problem, overcome a challenge, make a change after an enlightening experience, or otherwise grow and change as the essay moves on. This kind of growth is not only more engaging for the reader, but it also shows you on a trajectory that suggests you’ll continue your growth during and beyond your college years.


After you tell your story, you should include a brief section where you unpack it for the reader and say explicitly what you learned, what it means for you, and what it means for the future.



If appropriate, cut down your Common App personal statement.


It’s definitely a point of frustration for students that, after working hard on their 650-word personal statement for the Common App, the UC App asks for four separate, distinct 350-word essays. The good news is that, sometimes, there’s some overlap between a student’s personal statement and the UC8 prompt. In this case, students can cut down their 650-word essay to create a UC8 response.


Remember that not any essay can go in the UC8 space. The essay should clearly address what makes the student qualified or outstanding. Crafting a new first sentence that clearly answers the prompt often makes a world of difference, but the essay as a whole should also be on-prompt. Additionally, the personal statement allows for a lot of creativity and narrative storytelling that isn’t appropriate for the UC essays; so, when editing, leave out those creative parts, including any complex organizing device or metaphor. Lean into the parts of the statement that show growth over time, including any actions that led to personal development.


Sometimes, the personal statement just doesn’t fit well in this space, or doesn’t work well in the full context of the UC App, including the other UC essays. In this case, students should write a new essay and not try to force a square peg into a round hole.



If you’re considering working with a college counselor on your college applications, please book a virtual consultation session with me. Talking through your essay topics and making a plan with a professional can speed up the process and give you confidence to create strong college applications with compelling essays.


This was the final post in our UC essay blog series. Take a look through our previous posts for tips on responding to the other UC essay prompts, including the previous prompt: UC7, the community improvement essay.




Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college counselor at College Torch. He helps students with all aspects of college admissions. You can reach him by emailing him at robert@collegetorch.com or by booking a consultation here. Parents are also able to join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.


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