Updated: Feb 22
In this week’s installment of our college essay blog series, we’ll go over the seventh essay prompt from the University of California Application:
“What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”
This doesn’t need to be a community service essay.
Check the prompt: They want to see your community become a better place after you arrive. There’s no requirement that the essay be about a community service or volunteering activity. If you think back to all the rooms you’ve entered in the last four years, I hope you can agree that many of those rooms were better off with you in them.
Although you don’t need to write about earning community service hours in the essay, you do need to write about at least one specific action you contributed. The action is the main part of your answer, so make sure it’s significant. Embrace action verbs and avoid passive verbs (“was selected,” “was motivated,” “was overwhelmed”) and weak/vague verbs (“assisted,” “watched,” “learned,” “helped”).
If you decide you do want to write about community service in this essay, it may not be too late to find a volunteer activity, commit through senior year, and start right away.
Define your community.
You get to decide what your community is in this essay. Is it a small, close community like your immediate family? Is it an extended community, like a neighborhood, school, or small town? Maybe it’s a community where you maybe don’t know most of the people, but have a connection with them, like a shared interest, cultural identity, experience, or common purpose. Whatever your community is, make it crystal clear in the beginning of the essay so the reader can follow.
You’re certainly allowed to use large, extended, and even anonymous communities (like the internet gaming community or a national network of young writers) but I recommend weighing this option carefully against using a specific community that’s closer to home, which will allow you to speak in more concrete terms and show in-person interaction in real time. Then, at the end of the essay, you can even zoom out and show how your actions in the small group affected a larger, extended community.
Ultimately, context does matter, and it’s up to you to choose the community that’s most personal and appropriate for your essay.
Strike a balance between showing you and showing the community.
Describing your community in specific terms is a good thing: As you contribute, the community will get better, and you can show yourself making a larger difference by showing the community improving. However, more than anything else, all college essays must be essays about you. So, strike this balance, and make an active effort to insert yourself into the essay if you go back and find that the majority of it has been showing the people, places, and activities of the community.
A common example comes with the teaching or tutoring essay. As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it’s very difficult to describe my teaching without describing the students, especially if I want to convey how good of a job I was doing that day. So, in my teaching essay, I would definitely be correct to describe the students — their drooping eyes, frenzied pencils, eyes glancing at the clock, and so on — but I would have to make sure that I had at least as many actions describing what I did that took the students to that place. Maybe I see their drooping eyes, so I give them a five-minute and three-minute warning on their test, leading them to write in a frenzy; maybe I see them all struggling on one question, so I draw a hint or bonus question on the whiteboard; and maybe I see their eyes glancing at the clock, so I surprise the students by allowing them to use their notes for the final three minutes of the test. In this version, there’s no mistaking that this essay is about me, and the students are supporting characters.
Use the Before and After Picture strategy.
Most people have seen a billboard advertising plastic surgery by the freeway: The left side shows the person before the surgery; the right side shows the person after the surgery. Sometimes the person on the right looks so different that I wonder if they used the same model. I also wonder, if someone truly did get this dramatic set of procedures from the surgeon in the ad, how exactly that doctor convinced them to release their likeness in such detail on a billboard beside the 210 freeway.
These before-and-after ads are so memorable because they employ contrast and parallelism to suggest that a radical transformation occurred, without giving every painful detail of it. You can use a Before Picture and an After Picture in your own essay by showing things in the beginning how they once were (the community struggling, or you struggling to contribute effectively) and, near the end, how things looked after you contributed to the community. The images should have as much contrast as possible. They should also be parallel, where the image at the end directly informs about the transformation of the image at the beginning.
Just like with the ad, you must show images in detail. It won’t work to just tell the reader that things changed, or even how they changed. (Imagine if the plastic surgeon tried to do that on the radio.) Instead, use your words to paint a compelling picture or moment in time. This is what your English teacher has probably called “show, don’t tell.”
Write a robust Development section.
Unlike the plastic surgery ad, it won’t be enough for you to imply the action that happens between the Before and After Picture. If the Before and After Pictures are the bookends that introduce and close the story of you contributing to your community, then the Development in the middle of the essay is the part that contains the books. The Development part of the essay is where you show yourself contributing to the community with the action you brainstormed earlier.
Under the heading of your main contribution action(s), you can think of the smaller steps you took along the way. Write them all down and order them from least effective to most effective. This is your development story that will connect your Before and After Picture. It’s okay to give detail in this section, but make sure you don’t go on any tangents.
This part is the most important part of the essay, so make sure it takes up at least 100 words of the 350-word UC essay.
On a final note, watch for essays about cliches (e.g. a mission trip) and essays that reveal privilege (e.g. swooping in to save a community you don’t know much about). If you’re not sure if your essay topic is a cliche or showing privilege, ask a teacher or adviser for their opinion.
Now you know about the community improvement 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:
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.