UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.

The following content in this post is no longer relevant and is outdated!

About three years ago, I wrote a post to try to help students applying to the University of California find topics to answer Prompt 1 for their college application essay: Describe the World You Come From. Since I shared my advice in my Describe the World You Come From post, I have received more than a 100 comments from students. Most have specific questions, mainly trying to see if their idea of a “world” would make a great essay.

Since then, I tried to answer most of their questions. This year, I am so swamped with tutoring students, however, that I’m not able to answer all the questions right now. But I have noticed that many cover the same ground—even though the topics range from someone’s world of books, to playing tennis, to making cookies, to an ill family member, etc. So I pulled some of the questions that I thought are more common, along with my answers, in hopes they might answer questions still lingering out there. See below.

Most students say they feel stuck. Or they have an idea, but wonder if it’s really a world or if it’s too general or interesting enough for their essay. If that’s one of your concerns, I would suggest reading some of the Q&As below, and see if you find them of help. If you want to read more of these, just go to that Describe the World You Come From Post and scroll to the bottom–at last count there were 228 comments (including my replies). Even if you don’t have a specific question, just skimming through these comments is a great way to search for ideas for your own topics!

Also, check out 3 Sample UC Prompt 1 Essays for Describe the World You Come From. And, I have this Brainstorm the World You Come From post and this Show The World You Come From post to help you write your essay in a narrative style.

November is a big month for the UC application season, since these are due for undergraduates by the end of this month. You still have plenty of time, but the sooner you get cracking the better!

Here are some of the comments/questions from students and my answers. (I put the topic ideas in bold.) Remember, I’m just giving you my best opinion, so trust yourself when deciding what to write about. This is your world and your essay!

EricaHi, for the “world I come from” prompt, how specific can I get? I was thinking about writing about my hobby of drawing faces and how that connects to me. But I’m not sure if this is even answering the question.)

MeYour topic idea of writing about your hobby drawing faces is an excellent one, but not necessarily for this prompt. It would be a better choice for a prompt that asks you to describe a hobby, a passion, an accomplishment, that type of thing (more of a personal statement or Prompt #2 for UC app.).For this prompt, you are looking for a larger “world” or community that influenced you. If you loved drawing faces in a special place, such as an art room at school or a sun porch in your house, you could describe that as your world, and then go on to talking about how this “world” has shaped your love of art, etc. (Other words to think about instead of your “world” could be “community,” “environment,” “space,” or “habitat”–I believe it needs to somehow be a place, either literally or figuratively.) Hope this helps!

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AdityaFor the “world I come from” prompt, I just don’t understand exactly what it wants me to answer. I come from an Indian Family who doesn’t go to temple much but is deeply connected with my roots. I am very social and active in school, however I feel at peace with all the craziness that goes on in my life when I play Carrom (Indian Board Game) which I learned from my grand father. Could that be a good topic for this prompt?

Me:  Yes, your playing Carrom to find peace and connect with your roots would make a perfect topic for this prompt. What you want is to focus in on a piece of your “world”–such as this game–and then describe what it means to you and your development. I would start by recreating a moment of yourself playing the game: “It was my turn. I slid the round, red game piece over to the next square. Then I looked at my grandfather, who was pondering his next move….”, and then mention how it makes you feel, why it makes you feel that way, what it has taught you, not just about that game, but about life! In this prompt, you must remember not only to show the world you come from (which you will do by sharing this game and tradition), but the second part–describe how it has “shaped your dreams and aspirations.” If you talk about what you learned from this tradition, you also must include how you intend to use the values or lessons from this tradition in your future, that is, what you hope to do and accomplish. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers–go ahead and say that if you want–but at least touch on the idea of how you hope to apply them in your future endeavors as best you can. Congratulations! You have a wonderful topic here!! Now you just need to pound out a rough draft!! Best of luck! Janine
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Courtney: For the first prompt, I was thinking of writing about my volunteering at Girl Scouts and at a tennis program. Is that okay for this prompt?

MeHi Courtney, You can write about volunteering at Girl Scouts (that’s definitely a “world”) but the trick is to focus on something specific that happened, and then describe what you learned from that small experience. Make sure to also talk about how you would use the lessons you learned in your future endeavors. (Remember, this prompt has two parts, and the second asked how your world “shaped your dreams and aspirations.”) Good luck!
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AmitHi, I’d like to ask you your opinion on a couple of the topics I brainstormed. I’m not sure if they fit the categories described under this prompt. My first idea was to write about a social phobia I had and how it was an obstacle in my life and how I overcame it. The problem with it is that I’m not sure if it is categorized under my world. My second idea is about a volunteering experience I had at a food bank I volunteer at. Would this fit the prompt better?
Me: I believe a social phobia can definitely be a “world,” in that it can deeply affect your life. I think this could be a powerful topic. My advice would be to think of “a time” when you were dealing with this phobia and describe that first, then go on to explain the phobia and how you have handled it–and most importantly what you learned from dealing with it. Finally, don’t forget at the end to include how it “shaped your dreams and aspirations” for the future. The other topic–volunteering to help the needy–as wonderful as that it, typically leads to a more cliche essay. If nothing else, it’s over-done. Of course, if something life-affecting for you happened during this experience, it could be a great topic.
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Shreya: Hi janine, I kind of have an idea about what to say for the ”World i come form ” essay, but I’m not a 100% sure how to say it.from a very young age, I have watched my grandmother make these Indian sweets called “gulab jamuns”. The entire process of watching her make them, to eating them is something that is very personal to me and I feel resembles the life I wish to lead in the future. I am a big foodie, but i think this is one memory I would like to focus on- do you think i should go through with it?

MeYou totally get it!! Yes, focus on that one memory, and then expand upon what it meant to you, and highlight some values that have shaped you to this day. You could start with a simple anecdote (see my post on How to Write an Anecdote) that would “show” us “a time” your grandmother made these sweets with you. Include what they look like, smell like, feel like, taste like, and how they make you feel–so much wonderful fodder for descriptive writing. (The challenge is condensing that moment into about a paragraph or two at the most. One tip: Start in the middle of the action.) But after the anecdote, then you must explain to us what this interaction meant to you, what you learned from it, and how those lessons “shaped your dreams and aspirations” for the future. Best of luck!

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NakulHi. I’m really stuck on this prompt and the only thing that i can think of is talking about when my dad bought and uses the computer, he is so dumbstruck my it, that i want to work to better the task of using a computer. Do you think this could for the prompt?
Me: Yes, this could be a wonderful topic. Is the “world” you are describing that of technology? If you started with an anecdote or description of “a time” your dad struggled with his computer and how you tried to help him, that could illustrate your main point about the generation gap in your world. Then go on to talk about how you help or deal with your dad, how you feel about the tensions there, and what you learned in dealing with them. And don’t forget to discuss how you will apply those lessons in your future “dreams and aspirations.” Boom. Great essay!
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Hussam: Hey Janine. I’m finding this essay really difficult to answer. During my brainstorm sessions for a topic I came up with two idea: 1) Dinosaurs and 2) Automobiles. I have a passion for both, and the latter one made me decide to major in Mechanical engineering (not in the automotive specialization anymore though), however, I’m unable to define a particular ‘world’ that made me come to become a dinosaur/car fan.
I’ve always loved dinosaurs since I was a kid because of movies like Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time, and well, I would always buy dinosaur toys and half of my book collection is on paleontology and prehistoric animals. How would I be able to define ‘world’ in this context? I know for sure that one of my dreams is to visit as many museums with dinosaur exhibits as possible.
As for cars, I became fond of them when I moved to the UAE when I was 10, and it was essentially automotive haven. It was around that time that I also got into racing games and whatnot too, but again the trouble comes in defining ‘world’.

MeHi Hussam, I think you could write a great essay about your passion for dinosaurs. But first, I think you need to explore what it is about dinosaurs that intrigues you. The essay needs to be mainly about you. What core quality do dinosaurs bring out about you, or do they represent to you? Your interest in them could totally be a world! When you learn about them, aren’t you travelling back to another world, time, place? Pick “a time” or example of when you learned something about dinosaurs, whether at a museum or even a t.v. show and describe that moment (be specific, include descriptive details), and then background your interest in dinosaurs and what you have learned about your life and life in general from hanging out with them. What is it about the ancient world of dinosaurs that you love so much? Once you hit on that, share an example of a time you were in that world, and go from there. Good luck! It’s a great topic–you just need to use specific examples to illustrate the main point you make about dinosaurs and your passion for them. JR

 One more thing, Hussam. Another way to focus this essay about dinosaurs is to pick one dinosaur that particularly interests you, and again, explore why that is and what it says about you. Then expand the essay to all dinosaurs, etc. It’s important to focus essays, otherwise they get too general and boring.  
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EmilyWait, I am so confused. Should I be using an anecdote for this topic? I thought an anecdote would be more appropriate for the second essay prompt on the UC application. I’m writing about being a peer educator at Planned Parenthood.
Me: An anecdote is just a short description of something that happened, often called a “mini-story.” They are often used at the beginning of essays like these to give the reader an example of your main point, and engage them by putting them right in the moment. You can use this technique in one or both essays–it’s up to you. I like them because they not only work as strong “hooks” for the reader, but also cast your essay in a narrative (which means story-telling) style and tone. Who doesn’t love a good story? But it’s totally fine to start your essay in another style, if that works better for you. I have posts about how to write anecdotes under the topic listing at the right of this blog, if that helps.
As far your topic about being a peer educator at Planned Parenthood, I think an anecdote could work well. You could start by describing a little incident or experience you had while working with a woman there, and use that as the springboard to explain what you learned. But it’s totally your call as to what works best for the points you want to make about yourself in your essay. You could not use any anecdotes in your UC essays, or use an anecdotal introduction in just one, or in both. There are no rules; just what works best for you. Hope this clears up your confusion a bit! JR
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CynthiaHi Janine, One of my passions is hair dying. I have an unusual hair color that really stands out, and i have had several different colors. Could I write an essay on this and how it has helped me to embrace my uniqueness/creativity? Or does this make me seem superficial? My other idea was to write about my culture, with my parents both being from europe, but i don’t know how to make that a specific “world”.

MeI think your passion with dying hair could make a colorful essay. Haha! Seriously, it would mainly depend on what you had to say about hair dying and how it was a “world” for you. I believe there could be many life metaphors to hair dying, and that you could expound upon those. YOu need to decide what exactly you want this essay to say about you. I think the idea of personal expression and how you found the courage to explore that and step out as your unique, bold self could be a great essay. Maybe start be describing one of the first times you went for a crazy color, how you felt at first, the results, how you felt about them, and the reaction from friends/family—and then analyze that experience, and what you learned. Make sure include how your new sense of self will affect your future dreams/aspiration–or life goals. Good luck! JR

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Sandrine: Hello! I find this article to be very helpful; after reading my response to the question, I realized that I was being way too general, so I tried to focus on specific experiences, but couldn’t really find any. I am a reader and a writer, so would talking about a particular world that a book takes place in (for example, the world in S.E. Hinton’s books The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now) and how that has affected me in real life be appropriate for this prompt? Because the books have really impacted me, and even helped me with my depression. Thank you!

Me: Hi Sandrine, YES, I believe books can create a world, absolutely! I think you are wise to focus in one one book, or one author, or even one place in a book, that has felt as though it transformed you into a different world. I would think about how specifically books have created a world for you, and what quality of yours they have helped your develop (“shaped”). Then I would think of an example from a book you read that you could recreate with your introduction to put us in your place when you are being transformed to that other world (creative writing opp!! see my posts on how to write anecdotes!! Let us see how even a small piece of a book can change how you think, feel, etc.) Then you can talk about how that book and then work in how other books have created a world, and then go into how they have shaped you–and end with how you will continue to use that quality in your future. The key is to get specific, and use those specific examples to support the point you are making about your world and what it means to you. (Yes, explaining how these books have helped you cope with the “real” world could make a nice twist! Good luck! (Thank God for books, right!!) JR