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

Updated: Feb 22

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.