As the school year was about to end, three friends gathered in the college counseling room at Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 public school near USC. Dozens of college pennants hung from the ceiling and the walls were plastered with posters with tips on how to prepare for and apply for college.
The friends talked about one of the biggest headaches on the University of California undergraduate application: the personal statement essay.
Senior Jocelyn Sandoval took hers out of her backpack.
"I think it showed my leadership and I think it showed how I react to certain situations and it kind of showed my potential, my ability to move on and work within certain circumstances," she said.
She must have nailed it: she'll be attending the University of California - Los Angeles in the fall.
Her friend, 11th grader Ariana Reyes, looks up to Sandoval's accomplishments because she also wants to attend UCLA, to study biology. But Sandoval's tips on how to write her personal statement won't help Reyes much: this year, the UC system announced that it's completely overhauling the essay section of its application.
While Sandoval wrote two essays when she submitted her application last year, Reyes and the hundreds of thousands of other high school seniors preparing their applications for this fall must write four.
“Oh my God, it’s a lot," Reyes said. "I’ve had to go deep into my thoughts. I think about it at night: what am I going to write?"
But while students like Reyes are nervous about the extra questions and about being the being the first class of applicants using the new prompts without clear examples of successful essays, UC officials and some college counselors say the changes could benefit students by giving colleges a better sense of who students are beyond their test scores.
But others worry that asking more of students will widen the gap between students who receive strong support preparing their applications and those who don't.
The old essay prompts asked students to describe how a particular experience and the world around them shaped who they are. But that style of broad question has fallen out of favor with college admissions offices, said UC spokesperson Claire Doan.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that [the old prompt was] too general, it doesn’t allow students to have a more focused platform, it doesn’t allow them to express themselves," Doan said. "In certain ways, it felt like it was more of a struggle."
Students will now choose among eight prompts designed to allow the students to portray the aspects of their life they feel are most relevant: they can write about how they've showed creativity or leadership skills, a favorite class or academic subject, or a challenge in life or educational barrier they've overcome.
“It’s less quantitative and [gets at] more of who they are, and it provides context for the entire application so you can explain what you’ve been through, what you’ve accomplished, why your grades were a certain way, or what you’re amazing at that isn’t reflected in other parts of the application,” Doan said.
The changes come at a time when admission to California's public colleges and universities is more competitive than ever. The UC system received over 206,000 applications for undergraduate admission in the most recent cycle – a record.
Private college counselor Kathryn Favaro said that the specificity of the prompts could allow students who are the first in their family to go to college or who’ve had other challenges explain how they’ve overcome them.
“Maybe a student has had a difficult home life and before never felt before that that was something they could even write about," Favaro said. "And now they’re seeing a prompt that’s very literally asking, maybe, why their academic record was affected and they can talk about that. And the school can take that into consideration and accept students who maybe aren’t as perfect in terms of their numbers but have amazing personal qualities."
On the other hand, Foshay Learning Center English teacher Kate McFadden-Midby said that the old, more general prompts often pushed disadvantaged students to write exclusively about the economic and social challenges they've faced. By requiring a range of essays, McFadden-Midby said, the UC system is opening opportunities for low-income students to show who they are as a person beyond just the obstacles they've faced.
But McFadden-Midby also worries that the expanded essay requirements will make it even harder for students who don't have support from parents or college counselors to put together a strong application.
"Not only do they not have these private college advisors," McFadden-Midby said, "but they also have parents who often don’t speak and write English really well and who most of the time haven’t gone to college so they don’t even know the ropes very much."
McFadden-Midby teaches Ariana Reyes and her classmates at Foshay, many of whom come from working-class families. To help close the gap between her students and those with the resources to access private coaching, she's requiring that they begin to draft their four essays as a summer assignment.
She's also planning to come to the school during her free time once this summer to help students on their first and second drafts, and she said she'll also schedule two Saturday personal statement writing workshops once the November 30 application deadline nears.
That's a wise strategy, said private college counselor Audrey Kahane.
“By early by early July I like to get students started on the essays to sit down take a look at prompts, think about how you might approach them and then set up a schedule for yourself," Kahane said. “It could be that you decide that you do two of these questions each week. Space it out. Make a calendar for yourself with deadlines and allow for first, second, and third drafts. And if you set up that kind of structure the stress level will go down because you know exactly what you need to do each week.”
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The University of California Application Essay Prompts
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking lead role in organizing an event or project.
Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities? Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community, or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?
Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem? How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so).
Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities inside or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?
Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?
Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?
If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?”
Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)?
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown, or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community.
Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community? Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community, or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you? What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge, or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.
When choosing your four prompts, keep in mind that you will want to cover a very broad range in your four essays.
If you find yourself repeating topics in a couple of the essays, you may want to diversify. For example, if you are writing an essay for the fourth prompt about an educational barrier, and also one for the fifth prompt about overcoming a significant challenge, make sure that the essays are different from each other. You want to say as much as you can about yourself, and you only have a total of 1400 words to do so, so don’t waste precious words repeating yourself!
Also, don’t necessarily start drafting ideas until you’ve thought about all of the prompts. Do any of these questions provoke an immediate, strong response from you? If yes, then definitely write about those. However, it is likely that you will not have immediate responses to four of the prompts, and that is perfectly fine. You can also approach the process from the opposite direction — what topics are important to you, and how can you use those topics as responses to some of these questions?
In general, remember that the UC system wants to see you as a real person. Think about what makes you special, use your own voice, and tell your own story!
Check out our blog post The Ultimate Guide to Applying to the University of California to get a comprehensive understanding of how to apply to the UC system.
For additional help, check out CollegeVine’s essay editing and application guidance services!