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

Updated: Feb 22

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.