If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.
I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of these questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.
Too busy to read all those posts? No worries.
Start with these 10 basic tips to make sure
your UC essays hit the mark:
- Content: Use these essays to share more about your talents, accomplishments and experiences, and explain what they meant to you (eg What you learned about yourself). Pick prompts that allow you to feature what you want to add to your overall application; not simply ones that are easiest to answer. Say you worked as an intern in a science lab; this is your chance to explain what you did and learned. Or that you played classical piano since age six; this is where you can go deeper and share how that shaped you somehow beyond your playing ability.
- Impact: The best trick to making your essay engaging and meaningful is to include some type of related problem. For example, if you are writing about leadership (#1), look for examples from your past where you tackled some type of problem in a leadership role. (Problems=challenges, mistake, obstacle, setback, conflict, phobia, flaw, obsession, change, etc.) This can work for all eight prompts.
- Substance: Always include specific examples (moments, incidents or experiences from your life) to support your main points in these UC essays. If you don’t have at least one of these real-life details in each essay, it’s almost a done deal that your essay is far too general and will lack meaning. If possible, start your essay with one of these specific examples to grab your reader at the start; then explain their larger meaning and go from there. (Example: If you are talking about leadership, start with a specific “time” you acted as a leader in a group setting. Then explain what qualities you used, your thoughts about what leadership means to you, and why, and what you learned.)
- Meaning: In the second half of any of these UC essays you can’t go wrong if you shift from explaining your answer, and supporting it with real-life examples, into explaining WHAT YOUR LEARNED about YOURSELF in the process. This is how you can share something you did, and what you love, or how you are, and also expand into WHAT YOUR LEARNED in the process. If you want to shift even deeper, include a sentence or two on WHY IT MATTERS to you and the world that you learned that lesson.
- Hardship: If you have experienced any type of hardship in your life, such as a major financial setback in your family due to job loss, low income, deportation, mental or physical illness, or other reasons, make sure to use at least one of these prompts to share that with the UCs. The best one (in fact, it’s designed for this purpose) is #4, at least the second half asking about an “educational barrier you have faced.” You can also use #5 about a “significant challenge,” just make sure to include second part about how it affected your academics. The UCs want to know if it has been more difficult for you to achieve your success so far, and why. Also, if you will be a first-gen student (first in your family to attend college), tell them! (You can also use the “Additional Comments” section in the Other Academic History section to share personal obstacles to your success.)
- Majors: If you know what field you want to study or major in at the UCs, it would be a good idea to use one of these prompts to showcase that, and include what inspired you and why you want to pursue it, and how. (Colleges like to see this.) You could use almost any of the eight UC essays to share your intended field of study or major, or even the general field that interests you at this point. Find the prompts that most naturally allows you to work what you want to say into your related topic.
- Effort: These prompts can feel overwhelming at first. Read through all eight so you get a sense of the different topics and options. If any of them spark an idea of a related experience or point you want to showcase about yourself, consider writing about that one. At the same time, you can make a list of the experiences, accomplishments, talents or whatever you want to share with the UCs, and then find the prompt that makes it the easiest to write about them.
- Strategy: When you pick your four prompts for your UC essays, make sure the points you make, or the major experiences you share, don’t overlap. Ideally, you want these to highlight a variety of your experiences, accomplishments and talents, but also your defining qualities and values. Look for variety and balance among the four your write about. Make sure your essays are about YOU, and YOUR experiences, and not general discussions about your topic or others.
- Style: The UCs have made a huge effort to get out the word that these short essays do not need to be literary masterpieces. Of course, try to know the MAIN POINT you want to make in each one so they have a focus, and support that with specific details and real-life examples. Start with something specific, if possible, and then state the more general main point, and finally, share what you learned. Write in a casual, familiar tone; don’t try to impress with fancy descriptive language or big words; get out a rough draft and then go back and trim under 350 words and proof it for errors. Don’t sweat these!
- Formatting: When you copy and paste your four Personal Insight Question UC essays into the application, it only accepts plain text. That means any formatting you did will be lost. So, for indicating paragraphs, do not indent and instead break them up with a double space. Instead of italics (which won’t show), use quotation marks to indicate things like titles, foreign words, etc. Bolding also doesn’t show; instead use CAPS, but sparingly.
Extra Tip: If you need to explain anything about your academic performance (such as issues related to your grades or performance), don’t necessarily use these UC essays to explain why. Instead, there are two places to share these explanations in the “Additional Comments” section of the UC application: One is under “Other Academic History” and the other with the “Personal Insight Questions.” (Read how UC Berkeley advises applicants to use the Additional Comments section.)
In general, only use these two sections to explain unusual circumstances that you didn’t address in the four Personal Insight Question essays. Examples: changes in your grade patterns; a move in high school that prevented you from taking higher level courses; medical or psychological issues that affected your performance; financial issues (parental job loss; homelessness; low-income); immigration status issues, such as you are first generation (first in your family to attend college: MENTION THIS!) or deportation of family members; unexplained gaps in educational history, such as gap year or other absence. They are not essays so be direct and succinct; bullets points often work well.
If you want more help on specific Personal Insight Questions and UC essa, check out these 21 Tips for UC Personal Insight Questions that I wrote last year when they first came out. All the info and advice is still relevant and helpful.