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College Essay Series: Writing the Leadership Essay (UC Prompt #1)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

The first college essay prompt of the eight University of California Personal Insight Questions (PIQs) is about leadership. Many students receive the prompt with alarm, especially those students without formal leadership positions, not to mention the students who are on the shyer end of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. But, not to worry! This essay prompt is meant for everyone. Read on for guidance on writing your first draft of the UC1 leadership essay.

Prompt #1: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

You CAN write a great essay.

As I wrote in the opening entry to our UC Essay blog series, UC Application readers love a unique interpretation of the prompt, so reflect on your own personal contribution to a group, team, or community -- regardless of title or position.

Imagine two competing UC1 essays: The first showcases a tennis captain leading drills; the next shows a younger player learning how to help the players around her to push through tough drills when they’re feeling exhausted. Even without her having the formal position, I like the second essay much more because it more clearly demonstrates the student’s leadership in action.

This isn’t a question just for extroverts, and the UC Application readers aren’t necessarily trying to direct you to discuss your leadership positions. I’m a big believer that introverts should have their time in the sun, but they do need to be able to articulate their contribution as well as the extroverted student.

Admittedly, some answers are weaker than others. Avoid passive responses, the most common culprit being the leading-by-example essay. Avoid a thesis about winning the big game, and other cliches. Avoid essays about other people. And, at all costs, avoid negativity.

Brainstorm in your journal: In your different communities, what was your individual contribution, regardless of whether it was noticed by others? What would have happened if you weren’t there? What were the challenging moments, and what did you do during them?

Choose one answer to the prompt.

As a general rule, one developed answer to a prompt is more compelling than three answers, even if they’re well organized. As you brainstorm, be ready to cut down your choice of topics to just one.

In essay workshops with my students, I ask them to write a thesis for each essay before they write their first draft. The thesis is one clear sentence that catches the entire main point of the essay. It should be concise, specific, and offer a strong answer to the prompt. For the leadership essay, you want to make sure that your prompt shows how you contributed to the group and why it matters. That’s already a lot of content -- if you’re answering thoroughly -- so don’t water it down by trying to fit in more than one response.

Compare two theses:

  1. At the National Conference for Roman History, I stopped my teammates from fighting and giving into drama so that they could learn to be patient while they built their chariot from scratch and resourceful as they found materials in the campsite, asking for help when we needed it.

  2. At the National Conference for Roman History, I brought out the resourcefulness of my team by encouraging them to explore the campsite and take pictures of the materials they found.

Number two would be a much easier essay to write. It’s a lot more likely that you could fit a developed answer under that thesis, focusing only on “encouraging” and “resourcefulness.” Furthermore, following the second thesis is much less likely to take the essay in a strange, tangential direction.

Even though you’ll choose just one response to the prompt, your answer will have multiple components that you will use to develop the thesis.

Make a list of the action verbs you did.

As you develop the thesis, you are also showing your development as a leader.

You want to choose very active verbs because passive ideas will show you as a passive leader. You should avoid verbs that are passive even in concept, such as “learn,” “assist,” and “understand.” When you choose a verb, make sure you’re applying it actively. For example, “listen” can be an incredibly active contribution if you write it that way.

Brainstorm by writing out the action verbs for all the ways you performed the thesis. Write as many as you can and, when you’re done, choose your favorites for the essay.

Show change over time.

When you’ve got your list of action verbs, put them in order from least effective to most effective. If you don’t have any actions where you flopped or failed, go back and add some of those. You should have a nice range of actions in order to show your leadership growing over time. UC essays are all about growth over time!

The UC essays are not a place for standalone bragging. (When UC Admissions tells you to brag, it’s only because so many students are uncomfortable talking about themselves in any positive light.) If you spend the whole essay vaunting your leadership accomplishments, you won’t have grown at all. You have to start from a low place in order to show maximal growth by the end of the essay.

Plus, that’s human, and everyone loves to read about real humans.

At the end, say what’s next.

It’s great to unpack an example, but you can show even more growth over time by saying what happened after the example. It can be out of the context of the activity, only thinking about the action verbs. For example, if you were encouraging resourcefulness at the campsite, you could show how you continued to encourage resourcefulness in your AP Physics study group or in your debate summer program.

If it’s brief, you could even say what’s next in your future. How could you apply this kind of leadership to your own community in the spring? Or, what would your leadership look like on a UC campus? This could be a strong closing sentence for a UC1 leadership essay.

Now you know about the leadership 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:

The next post in our UC Essay blog series is about UC2, the creativity prompt. Or, read our previous post: 5 Tips for Writing Stellar UC Essays.

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.

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