top of page

College Essay Series: Writing the Community Improvement Essay (UC Prompt #7)

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.