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In this article, I'll dissect the eight UC essay prompts in detail. What are they asking you for? What do they want to know about you? What do UC admissions officers really care about? How do you avoid boring or repulsing them with your essay?
I'll break down all of these important questions for each prompt and discuss how to pick the four prompts that are perfect for you. I'll also give you examples of how to make sure your essay fully answers the question. Finally, I'll offer step-by-step instructions on how to come up with the best ideas for your UC personal statements.
feature image credit: Boston Public Library /Flickr
University of California Changes Due to COVID-19
As a result of the coronavirus, the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to stop requiring the ACT and SAT as part of admissions applications. This was done in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the changes will remain permanent, even after the pandemic is over. This decision has been in the works for years, and it's being done to make the admissions process fairer to all students.
You can learn more about the University of California testing changes here .
What Are the UC Personal Insight Questions?
If you think about it, your college application is mostly made up of numbers: your GPA, your SAT scores, the number of AP classes you took, how many years you spent playing volleyball. These numbers only reveal so much. The job of admissions officers is to put together a class of interesting, compelling individuals—but a cut and dried achievement list makes it very hard to assess whether someone is interesting or compelling. This is where the personal insight questions come in.
The UC application essays are your way to give colleges a sense of your personality, your perspective on the world, and some of the experiences that have made you into who you are. The idea is to share the kinds of things that don't end up on your transcript. It's helpful to remember that you are not writing this for you. You're writing for an audience of people who do not know you, but are interested to learn about you. The essay is meant to be a revealing look inside your thoughts and feelings.
These short essays—with a 350 word limit—are different from the essays you write in school, which tend to focus on analyzing someone else's work. Really, the application essays are much closer to a short story. They rely heavily on narratives of events from your life, and on your descriptions of people, places, and feelings.
If you'd like more background on college essays, check out our explainer for a very detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application .
Now, let's dive into the eight University of California essay questions. First I'll compare and contrast these prompts. Then I'll dig deep into each UC personal statement question individually, exploring what it's really trying to find out and how you can give the admissions officers what they're looking for.
Once upon a time, there was a mouse who really, really wanted to get into your college.
Comparing the UC Essay Prompts
Before we can pull these prompts apart, let's first compare and contrast them with each other. Clearly, UC wants you to write four different essays, and they're asking you eight different questions. But what are the differences? And are there any similarities?
The Actual UC Essay Prompts
#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.
#2: 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.
#3: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
#4: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
#5: 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?
#6: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
#7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
#8: Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
How to Tell the UC Essay Prompts Apart
- Topics 1 and 7 are about your engagement with the people, things, and ideas around you. Consider the impact of the outside world on you and how you handled that impact.
- Topics 2 and 6 are about your inner self, what defines you, and what makes you the person that you are. Consider your interior makeup--the characteristics of the inner you.
- Topics 3, 4, 5, and 8 are about your achievements. Consider what you've accomplished in life and what you are proud of doing.
These very broad categories will help when you're brainstorming ideas and life experiences to write about for your essay. Of course, it's true that many of the stories you think of can be shaped to fit each of these prompts. Still, think about what the experience most reveals about you.
If it's an experience that shows how you have handled the people and places around you, it'll work better for questions in the first group. If it's a description of how you express yourself, it's a good match for questions in group two. If it's an experience that tells how you acted or what you did, it's probably a better fit for questions in group three.
For more help, check out our article on coming up with great ideas for your essay topic .
"And that's the last time I went to a psychic."
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How Is This Guide Organized?
We analyze all eight UC prompts in this guide, and for each one we give the following information:
- The prompt itself and any accompanying instructions
- What each part of the prompt is asking for
- Why UC is using this prompt and what they hope to learn from you
- All the key points you should cover in your response so you answer the complete prompt and give UC insight into who you are
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 1
The prompt and its instructions.
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 a 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?
What's the Question Asking?
The prompt wants you to describe how you handled a specific kind of relationship with a group of people—a time when you took the reigns and the initiative. Your answer to this prompt will consist of two parts:
Part 1: Explain the Dilemma
Before you can tell your story of leading, brokering peace, or having a lasting impact on other people, you have to give your reader a frame of reference and a context for your actions.
First, describe the group of people you interacted with. Who were and what was their relationship to you? How long were you in each others' lives?
Second, explain the issue you eventually solved. What was going on before you stepped in? What was the immediate problem? Were there potential long-term repercussions?
"We couldn't decide between butter and cream cheese frosting in the final round of the baking competition!"
Part 2: Describe Your Solution
This is where your essay will have to explicitly talk about your own actions.
Discuss what thought process led you to your course of action. Was it a last-ditch effort or a long-planned strategy? Did you think about what might happen if you didn't step in? Did you have to choose between several courses of action?
Explain how you took the bull by the horns. Did you step into the lead role willingly or were you pushed despite some doubts? Did you replace or supersede a more obvious leader?
Describe your solution to the problem, or your contribution to resolving the ongoing issue. What did you do? How did you do it? Did your plan succeed immediately or did it take some time?
Consider how this experience has shaped the person you have now become. Do you think back on this time fondly as being the origin of some personal quality or skill? Did it make you more likely to lead in other situations?
What's UC Hoping to Learn about You?
College will be an environment unlike any of the ones you've found yourself in up to now. Sure, you will have a framework for your curriculum, and you will have advisers available to help—but for the most part, you will be on your own to deal with the situations that will inevitably arise when you mix with your diverse peers. UC wants to make sure:
- That you have the maturity to deal with groups of people
- That you can solve problems with your own ingenuity and resourcefulness
- That you don't lose your head and panic at problems
"And that's how I saved Christmas with a single crushed can!"
How Can You Give Them What They Want?
So how can you make sure those qualities come through in your essay?
Pick Your Group
The prompt very specifically wants you to talk about an interaction with a group of people. Let's say a group has to be at least three people.
Raise the Stakes
Think of the way movies ratchet up the tension of the impending catastrophe before the hero swoops in and saves the day. Keeping an audience on tenterhooks is important—and makes the hero look awesome for the inevitable job well done. Similarly, in your essay the reader has to fundamentally understand exactly what you and the group you ended up leading were facing. Why was this an important problem to solve?
Balance You vs. Them
Personal statements need to showcase you above all things. Because this essay will necessarily have to spend some time on other people, you need to find a good proportion of them-time and me-time. In general, the first, setup, section of the essay should be shorter, since it will not be focused on what you were doing. The second section should take the rest of the space. So, in a 350 word essay, maybe 100-125 words go to setup, while 225-250 words to your leadership and solution.
Find Your Arc
Not only do you need to show how your leadership met the challenge you faced, but you also have to show how the experience changed you. In other words, the outcome was double-sided: you affected the world, and the world affected you right back.
Make your arc as lovely and compelling as a rainbow.
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 2
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?
This question is trying to probe the way you express yourself. Its broad description of "creativity" gives you the opportunity to make almost anything you create that didn't exist before fit the topic. What this essay question is really asking you to do is to examine the role your brand of creativity plays in your sense of yourself. The essay will have three parts.
Part 1: Define Your Creativity
What exactly do you produce, make, craft, create, or generate? Of course, the most obvious answer would be a visual art, a performance art, or music. But in reality, there is creativity in all fields. Any time you come up with an idea, thought, concept, or theory that didn't exist before, you are being creative. So, your job is to explain what you spend time creating.
Part 2: Connect Your Creative Drive to Your Overall Self
Why do you do what you do? Are you doing it for external reasons—to perform for others, to demonstrate your skill, to fulfill some need in the world? Or is your creativity private and for your own use—to unwind, to distract yourself from other parts of your life, to have personal satisfaction in learning a skill? Are you good at your creative thing or do you struggle with it? If you struggle with it, why is it important to you to keep doing it?
Part 3: Connect Your Creative Drive With Your Future
The most basic way to do this is if you envision yourself actually doing your creative pursuit professionally. But this doesn't have to be the only way you draw this link. What have you learned from what you've made? How has it changed how you interact with other objects or with people? Does it change your appreciation for the work of others or motivate you to improve upon it?
"As the sole living practitioner of the ancient art of rock bodybuilding..."
Nothing characterizes higher education like the need for creative thinking, unorthodox ideas to old topics, and the ability to synthesize something new. That is what you are going to college to learn how to do better. This essay wants to know whether this mindset of out-of-the-box-ness is something you are already comfortable with. They want to see:
- That you have actually created something in your life or academic career
- That you consider this an important quality within yourself, and that you have cultivated your skills
- That you can see and have considered the impact of what you've done on yourself or on the world around you
Think outside the box—unless there are donuts in the box.
How can you really show that you are committed to being a creative person?
Be Specific and Descriptive
It's not enough to vaguely gesture at your creative field. Instead, give a detailed and lively description of a specific thing or idea that you have created. For example, I could describe a Turner painting as "a seascape" or I could call it "an attempt to capture the breathtaking power and violence of an ocean storm as it overwhelms a ship." Which painting would you rather look at?
Give a Sense of History
The question wants a little narrative of your relationship to your creative outlet. How long have you been doing it? Did someone teach you or mentor you? Have you taught it to others? Where and when do you create?
Hit a Snag and Find the Success
Anything worth doing is worth doing despite setbacks, this question argues—and it wants you to narrate one such setback. So first, figure out something that interfered with your creative expression. A lack of skill, time, or resources? Too much or not enough ambition in a project? Then, make sure this story has a happy ending that shows you off as the solver of your own problems. What did you do to fix the situation? How did you do it?
Your essay should include some thoughtful consideration of how this creative pursuit has shaped you, your thoughts, your opinions, your relationships with others, your understanding of creativity in general, or your dreams about your future. (Notice I said "or" not "and"—350 words is not enough to cover all of those things!)
"And that's when I knew I was destined to become a master confectioner!"
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Dissecting Personal Insight Question 3
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 in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?
Basically, what's being asked for here is a beaming rave. Whatever you write about, picture yourself talking about it with a glowing smile on your face.
Part 1: Narrative
The first part of the question really comes down to this: tell us a story about what's amazing about you. Have you done an outstanding thing? Do you have a mindblowing ability? Describe a place, a time, or a situation in which you were a star.
A close reading of this first case of the prompt reveals that you don't need to stress if you don't have an obvious answer. Sure, if you're playing first chair violin in the Symphony Orchestra, that qualifies as both a "talent" and an "accomplishment." But the word "quality" really gives you the option of writing about any one of your most meaningful traits. And then, the words "contribution" and "experience" open up the range of possibilities that you could write about even further. A contribution could be anything from physically helping put something together, to providing moral or emotional support at a critical moment.
But the key to the first part is the phrase "important to you." Once again, what you write about is not as important as how you write about it. Being able to demonstrate the importance of the event that you're describing reveals much more about you than the specific talent or characteristic ever could.
Part 2: Insight and Personal Development
The second part of the last essay asked you to look to the future. The second part of this essay wants you to look at the present instead. The general task is similar, however. Once again you're being asked to make connections— how do you fit this quality you have or this achievement you accomplished into the story of who you are?
A close reading of the second part of this prompt lands on the word "proud." This is a big clue that the revelation this essay is looking for should be a very positive one. In other words, this is probably not the time to write about getting arrested for vandalism, unless you can spin that experience into a story about how you've been on the straight and narrow path ever since.
Even if your vandalism was really, really, cool, don't write about it.
What's UC Hoping to Learn About You?
Admissions officers have a very straightforward interest in learning about your accomplishments. By the end of high school, many of the experiences that you are most proud of don't tend to be the kind of things that end up on your resume.
They want to know what makes you proud of yourself. Is it something that relates to performance, to overcoming a difficult obstacle, to keeping a cool head in a crisis, to your ability to help others in need?
At the same time, they are looking for a sense of maturity. In order to be proud of an accomplishment, it's important to be able to understand your own values and ideals. This is your chance to show that you truly get the qualities and experiences that make you into a responsible and grown-up person, someone who will thrive in the independence of college life. In other words, while you might really be proud that you managed to tag 50 highway overpasses with graffiti, that's probably not the achievement to brag about here.
Unless you were hired to paint the overpasses. Then definitely brag about it.
The trick with this prompt is how to show a lot about yourself without listing accomplishments or devolving into cliche platitudes. Let's take it step by step.
Step #1: Explain Your Field
Make sure that somewhere in your narrative (preferably closer to the beginning) you let the reader know what makes your achievement an achievement. Not all interests are mainstream, so it helps your reader to understand what you're facing if you give a quick sketch of, for example, why it's challenging to build a battle bot that can defeat another fighting robot, or how the difficulties of extemporaneous debate compare with debating about a prepared topic.
Keep in mind that for some things the explanation might be obvious. For example, do you really need to explain why finishing a marathon is a hard task?
Step #2: Zoom in on a Specific Experience
Think about your talent/quality/accomplishment in terms of experiences that showcase it. Conversely, think about your experiences in terms of the talent/quality/accomplishment they demonstrate. Since you're once again going to be limited to 350 words, you won't be able to fit all the ways in which you exhibit your specific piece of awesomeness into this essay. This means that you'll need to figure out how your ability can best be shown through one event when you displayed it. Or if you're writing about an experience you had or a contribution you made, you'll need to also point out what personality trait or characteristic it reveals.
Step #3: Find a Conflict or a Transition
The first question asked for a description, but this one wants a story—a narrative of how you do your special talent, or how you accomplished the thing you were so great at. The main thing about stories is that they have to have:
- A beginning: This is the setup, when you weren't yet the star you are now.
- An obstacle or a transition: Sometimes a story has a conflict that needs to be resolved: something that stood in your way, a challenge that you had to figure out a way around, a block that you powered through. Other times, a story is about a change or a transformation: you used to believe/think/be one thing and now you are different/better.
- A resolution: When your full power/self-knowledge/ability/future goal is revealed.
"And that's how I negotiated peace with the aliens of Tarkon V."
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 4
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? [sic]
Cue the swelling music, because this essay is going to be all about your inspirational journey. You will either tell your story of overcoming adversity against all (or some) odds, or of pursuing the chance of a lifetime.
If you write about triumphing over adversity, your essay will include:
A description of the setback that befell you: The prompt wants to know what you consider a challenge in your school life—and definitely note that this challenge should have in some significant way impacted your academics rather than your life overall.
The challenge can be a wide-reaching problem in your educational environment or something that happened specifically to you. The word "barrier" also shows that the challenge should be something that stood in your way: if only that thing weren't there, then you'd be sure to succeed.
An explanation of your success: Here, you'll talk about what you did when faced with this challenge. Notice that the prompt asks you to describe the "work" you put in to overcome the problem—so this piece of the essay should focus on your actions, thoughts, ideas, and strategies.
Although the essay doesn't specify it, this section should also at some point turn reflexive. How are you defined by this thing that happened? You could discuss the emotional fallout of having dramatically succeeded, or how your maturity level, concrete skills, or understanding of the situation has increased, now that you have dealt with it personally. Or, you could talk about any beliefs or personal philosophy that you have had to reevaluate as a result of either the challenge itself, or of the way that you had to go about solving it.
If you write about an educational opportunity, your essay will include:
A short, clear description of exactly what you got the chance to do: In your own words, explain what the opportunity was, and why it's special.
Also explain why you specifically got the chance to do it. Was it the culmination of years of study? An academic contest prize? An unexpected encounter that led to you seizing an unlooked-for opportunity?
How you made the best of it: It's one thing to get the opportunity to do something amazing, but it's another to really maximize what you get out of this chance for greatness. This is where you show just how much you understand the value of what you did, and how you've changed and grown as a result of it.
Were you very challenged by this opportunity? Did your skills develop? Did you unearth talents you didn't know you had?
How does this impact your future academic ambitions or interests? Will you study this area further? Does this help you find your academic focus?
"When I had a chance to go to Wizarding School..."
Of course, whatever you write about in this essay is probably already reflected on your resume or in your transcript in some small way. But UC wants to go deeper, to find out how seriously you take your academic career, and how thoughtfully you've approached either its ups or its downs.
In college, there will be many amazing opportunities, but they aren't necessarily simply there for the taking. Instead, you will be responsible for seizing whatever chances will further your studies, interests, or skills.
Conversely, college will necessarily be more challenging, harder, and potentially much more full of academic obstacles than your academic experiences so far. UC wants to see that you are up to handling whatever setbacks may come your way with aplomb rather than panic.
Define the Problem/Opportunity
Not every challenge is automatically obvious. Sure, everyone can understand the drawbacks of having to miss a significant amount of school due to illness, but what if the obstacle you tackled is something a little more obscure? Likewise, winning the chance to travel to Italy to paint landscapes with a master is clearly rare and amazing, but some opportunities are more specialized and less obviously impressive. Make sure your essay explains everything the reader will need to know to understand what you were facing.
Watch Your Tone
An essay describing problems can easily slip into finger-pointing and self-pity. Make sure to avoid this by speaking positively or at least neutrally about what was wrong and what you faced. This goes double if you decide to explain who or what was at fault for creating this problem.
Likewise, an essay describing amazing opportunities can quickly become an exercise in unpleasant bragging and self-centeredness. Make sure you stay grounded—rather than dwelling at length on your accomplishments, describe the specifics of what you learned and how.
"But learning to be a wizard wasn't easy..."
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 5
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?"
It's time to draw back the curtains and expand our field of vision, because this is going to be a two-part story of overcoming adversity against all (or some) odds.
Part 1: Facing a Challenge
The first part of this essay is about problem-solving. The prompt asks you to point at something that could have derailed you, if not for your strength and skill. Not only will you describe the challenge itself, but you'll talk about what you did when faced with it.
Part 2: Looking in the Mirror
The second part of Topic B asks you to consider how this challenge has echoed through your life—and more specifically, how your education has been affected by what happened to you.
In life, dealing with setbacks, defeats, barriers, and conflicts is not a bug—it's a feature. And colleges want to make sure that you can handle these upsetting events without losing your overall sense of self, without being totally demoralized, and without getting completely overwhelmed. In other words, they are looking for someone who is mature enough to do well on a college campus, where disappointing results and hard challenges will be par for the course.
They are also looking for your creativity and problem-solving skills. Are you good at tackling something that needs to be fixed? Can you keep a cool head in a crisis? Do you look for solutions outside the box? These are all markers of a successful student, so it's not surprising that admissions people want you to demonstrate these qualities.
"I realized that if I wanted to become the Junior Champion Snake Shifter, I would have to do something drastic."
Let's explore the best ways to show off your problem-solving side.
Show Your Work
It's one thing to be able to say what's wrong, but it's another thing entirely to demonstrate how you figured out how to fix it. Even more than knowing that you were able to fix the problem, colleges want to see how you approached the situation. This is why your essay needs to explain your problem-solving methodology. Basically, we need to see you in action. What did you think would work? What did you think would not work? Did you compare this to other problems you have faced and pass? Did you do research? Describe your process.
Make Sure That You Are the Hero
This essay is supposed to demonstrate your resourcefulness and creativity. The last thing you want is for you to not actually be the person responsible for overcoming the obstacle. Make sure that your story is clear that without you and your special brand of XYZ, people would still be lamenting the issue today. Don't worry if the resource you used to affect a good fix was the knowledge and know-how that somebody else brought to the table. Just focus on explaining what made you think of this person as the one to go to, how you convinced them to participate, and how you explained to them how they would be helpful. This will shift the attention of the story back to you and your doings.
Find the Suspenseful Moment
The most exciting part of this essay should be watching you struggle to find a solution just in the nick of time. Think every movie cliché ever about someone defusing a bomb —even if you know 100% that the guy is going to do it, the movie still ratchets up the tension to make it seem like, well, maybe... You want to do the same thing here. Bring excitement and a feeling of uncertainty to your description of your process to really pull the reader in and make them root for you to succeed.
You're the superhero!
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 6
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Things to consider : Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can't get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — 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)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?
This question is really asking for a glimpse of your imagined possibilities.
For some students, this will be an extremely straightforward question. For example, say you've always loved science to the point that you've spent every summer taking biology and chemistry classes. You can just pick a few of the most gripping moments from these experiences and discuss the overall trajectory of your interests, and your essay will be a winner.
But what if you have many academic interests? Or what if you only discovered your academic passion at the very end of high school? Let's break down what the question is really asking into two parts.
Part 1: Picking a Favorite
At first glance, it sounds as if what you should write about is the class where you have gotten the best grades, or the class that easily fits into what you see as your future college major or maybe even your eventual career goal. There is nothing wrong with this kind of pick—especially if you really are someone who tends to excel in those classes that are right up your interest alley.
But if we look closer, we see that there is nothing in the prompt that specifically demands that you write either about a particular class or an area of study where you perform well.
Instead, you could take the phrase "academic subject" to mean a wide field of study and explore your fascination with the different types of learning to be found there. For example, if your chosen topic is the field of literature, you could discuss your experiences with different genres or with foreign writers.
You could also write about a course or area of study that has significantly challenged you, and where you have not been as stellar a student as you want. This could be a way to focus on your personal growth as a result of struggling through a difficult class, or the way you've learned to handle or overcome your limitations.
Part 2: Relevance
The second part of this prompt, like the first, can also be taken in a literal and direct way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with explaining that because you love engineering and want to be an engineer you have pursued all your school's STEM courses, are also involved in a robotics club, and have taught yourself to code in order to develop apps.
On the other hand, you could focus on the more abstract, values-driven goals we just talked about. Then, the way you explain how your academics will help you can be rooted not in the content of what you studied, but in the life lessons you drew from it.
In other words, for example, your theater class may not have created a desire to be an actor, but working on plays with your peers may have shown you how highly you value collaboration. And the experience of designing sets was an exercise in problem-solving and ingenuity. These lessons would be useful in any field you pursue and could easily be said to help you achieve your lifetime goals.
My favorite subject is underwater basketweaving.
If you are on a direct path to a specific field of study or career pursuit, admissions officers definitely want to know that. Having driven, goal oriented, and passionate students is a huge plus for a university. So if this is you, be sure that your essay conveys not just your interest but also your deep and abiding love of the subject, and maybe even include any related clubs, activities, and hobbies that you've done during high school.
But of course, more traditionally, college is the place to find yourself and the things that you become passionate about. So if you're not already committed to a specific course of study, don't worry. Instead, you have to realize that in this essay, like in all the other essays, the how matters much more than the what. No matter where your eventual academic, career, or other pursuits may lie, every class that you have taken up to now has taught you something. You learned about things like work ethic, mastering a skill, practice, learning from a teacher, interacting with peers, dealing with setbacks, understanding your own learning style, and perseverance.
In other words, the admissions office wants to make sure that no matter what you study you will draw meaningful conclusions from your experiences, whether those conclusions are about the content of what you learn or about a deeper understanding of yourself and others. They want to see that you're not simply floating through life on the surface, but that you are absorbing the qualities, skills, and know-how you will need to succeed in the world—no matter what that success looks like.
Focus on a telling detail. Because personal statements are short, you simply won't have time to explain everything you have loved about a particular subject in enough detail to make it count. Instead, pick one event that crystallized your passion for a subject, or one telling moment that revealed what your working style will be, and go deep into a discussion of what it meant to you in the past and how it will affect your future.
Don't overreach. It's fine to say that you have loved your German classes so much that you have begun exploring both modern and classic German-language writers, for example, but it's a little too self-aggrandizing to claim that your 4 years of German have made you basically bilingual and ready to teach the language to others. Make sure that whatever class achievements you describe don't come off as unnecessary bragging rather than simple pride.
Don't underreach. At the same time, make sure that you have actual accomplishments to describe in whatever subject you pick to write about. If your favorite class turned out to be the one you mostly skipped to hang out in the gym instead, this may not be the place to share that lifetime goal. After all, you always have to remember your audience. In this case, it's college admissions officers who want to find students who are eager to learn and be exposed to new thoughts and ideas.
"This is how I realized my passion for horticulture."
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 7
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?
This topic is trying to get at how you engage with your environment. It's looking for several things:
#1: Your Sense of Place and Connection
Because the term "community" is so broad and ambiguous, this is a good essay for explaining where you feel a sense of belonging and rootedness. What or who constitutes your community? Is your connection to a place, to a group of people, or to an organization? What makes you identify as part of this community—cultural background, a sense of shared purpose, or some other quality?
#2: Your Empathy and Ability to Look at the Big Picture
Before you can solve a problem, you have to realize that the problem exists. Before you can make your community a better place, you have to find the things that can be ameliorated. No matter what your contribution ended up being, you first have to show how you saw where your skills, talent, intelligence, or hard work could do the most good. Did you put yourself in the shoes of the other people in your community? Understand some fundamental inner working of a system you could fix? Knowingly put yourself in the right place at the right time?
#3: Your Problem Solving Skills
How did you make the difference in your community? If you resolved a tangible issue, how did you come up with your solution? Did you examine several options or act from the gut? If you made your community better in a less direct way, how did you know where to apply yourself and how to have the most impact possible?
"And that's how I saved the children of MiceTown."
Community is a very important thing to colleges. You'll be involved with and encounter lots of different communities in college, from the broader student body, to your extracurriculars and classes, to the community outside the University around you. UC wants to make sure that you can engage with the communities around you in a positive and meaningful way.
Make it personal. Before you can explain what you did in your community, you have to define and describe this community itself—and you can necessarily only do that by focusing on what it means to you. Don't speak in generalities, but instead show the bonds between you and the group you are a part of through colorful, idiosyncratic language. Sure, they might be "my water polo team," but maybe they are more specifically "the twelve people who have seen me at my most exhausted and my most exhilarated."
Feel all the feelings. This is a chance to move your readers. As you delve deep into what makes your community one of your emotional centers, and then as you describe how you were able to improve it in a meaningful and lasting way, you should keep the roller coaster of feelings front and center. Own how you felt at each step of the process: when you found your community, when you saw that you could make a difference, when you realized that your actions have resulted in a change for the better. Did you feel unprepared for the task you undertook? Nervous to potentially let down those around you? Thrilled to get a chance to display a hidden or underused talent?
"After brokering peace between the two rival cat clans of my neighborhood, I feel like I can do anything!"
Dissecting Personal Insight Question 8
Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
Things to consider : If there's anything you want us to know about you, but didn't find a question or place in the application to tell us, now's your chance. 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?
From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don't be afraid to brag a little.
If your particular experience doesn't quite fit under the rubrics of the other essay topics, or if there is something the admissions officers need to understand about your background in order to consider your application in the right context, then this is the essay for you.
Now, I'm going to say something a little counterintuitive here. The prompt for this essay clarifies that even if you don't have a "unique" story to tell, you should still feel free to pick this topic. But, honestly, I think you should only choose this topic if you have an exceptional experience to share, and that any everyday challenges or successes of regular life could easily fit one of the other insight questions instead.
What this means is that evaluating whether your experiences qualify for this essay is a matter of degrees. For example, did you manage to thrive academically despite being raised by a hard-working single parent? That's a hardship that could easily be written about for Questions 1 or 5, depending on how you choose to frame what happened. Did you manage to earn a 3.7 GPA despite living in a succession of foster families only to age out of the system in the middle of your senior year of high school? That's a narrative of overcoming hardship that easily belongs to Question 8.
On the flip side, did you win a state-wide robotics competition? Well done, and feel free to tell your story under Question 4. Were you the youngest person to single-handedly win a season of BattleBots? Then feel free to write about it for Question 8.
This is pretty straightforward. They are trying to identify students that have unique and amazing stories to tell about who they are and where they come from. If you're a student like this, then the admissions people want to know:
- What happened to you
- When and where it happened
- How you participated or were involved in the situation
- How it affected you as a person
- How it affected your schoolwork
- How the experience will be reflected in the point of view you bring to campus
The reasons that the university wants this information are:
- It gives context to applications that otherwise might seem mediocre or even subpar
- It can help explain times in a transcript where grades significantly drop
- It gives them the opportunity to build a lot of diversity into the incoming class
- It's a way of finding unique talents and abilities that otherwise wouldn't show up on other application materials
Let's run through a few tricks for making sure your essay makes the most of your particular exceptionalism.
Double-Check Your Uniqueness
There are many experiences in all of our lives that make us feel elated, accomplished, and extremely competent, that are also near-universal. This essay isn't trying to take the validity of your strong feelings away from you, but I think it would be best served by stories that are on a different scale. Wondering whether what you went through counts? This might be a good time to run your idea by a parent, school counselor, or trusted teacher. Do they think your experience is widespread? Or do they agree that you truly lived a life less ordinary?
The vast majority of your answer to the prompt should be telling your story and its impact on you and your life. But the essay should also point toward how your particular experiences set you apart from your peers. One of the reasons that the admissions office wants to find out which of the applicants has been through something unlike most other people is that they are hoping to increase the number of points of view in the student body. Think about, and include in your essay, how you will impact campus life. This can be very literal—if you are a jazz singer who has released several acclaimed albums, then maybe you will perform on campus. Or it can be much more oblique—if you are disabled, then you will be able to offer a perspective that differs from the able-bodied majority.
Be Direct, Specific, and Honest
Nothing will make your voice sound more appealing than writing without embellishment or verbal flourishes. This is the one case where what you're telling is just as—if not more—important than how you're telling it. So the best strategy is to be as straightforward in your writing as possible. This means using description to situate your reader in a place/time/experience that they would never get to see firsthand. You can do this by picking a specific moment during your accomplishment to narrate as a small short story, and not shying away from explaining your emotions throughout the experience. Your goal is to make the extraordinary into something at least somewhat relatable—and the way you do that is by making your writing down to earth.
"Is it accurate to say that I saved the entire world?" "No."
Writing Advice for Making Your UC Personal Statements Shine
No matter what personal insight questions you end up choosing to write about, here are two tips for making your writing sparkle:
#1: Be Detailed and Descriptive
Have you ever heard the expression "show, don't tell"? It's usually given as creative writing advice, and it will be your best friend when you're writing college essays. It means that any time you want to describe a person or thing as having a particular quality, it's better to illustrate with an example than to just use vague adjectives. If you stick to giving examples that paint a picture, your focus will also become narrower and more specific. You'll end up focusing on details and concrete events, rather than not particularly telling generalizations.
Let's say, for instance, Adnan is writing about the house that he's been helping his dad fix up. Which of these do you think gives the reader a better sense of place?
My family bought an old house that was kind of rundown. My dad likes fixing it up on the weekends and I like helping him. Now the house is much nicer than when we bought it and I can see all our hard work when I look at it.
My dad grinned when he saw my shocked face. Our "new" house looked like a completely rundown shed: peeling paint, rust-covered railings, shutters that looked like the crooked teeth of a jack-o-lantern. I was still staring at the spider web crack in one broken window when my dad handed me a pair of brand new work gloves and a paint scraper. "Today, let's just do what we can with the front wall," he said, and then I smiled too, knowing that many of my weekends would be spent here with him, working side by side.
Both versions of this story focus on the fact that the house was dilapidated and that Adnan enjoyed helping his dad do repairs. But the second does this by:
Painting a picture of what the house actually looked like by adding visual details ("peeling paint," "rust-covered railings," "broken window"), and through comparisons ("shutters like a jack-o-lantern," "spider web window crack")
Showing emotions by describing facial expressions ("my dad grinned," "my shocked face," "I smiled")
Using specific and descriptive action verbs ("grinned," "shocked," "staring," "handed")
The essay would probably go on to describe one day of working with his dad, or a time when a repair went horribly awry. Adnan would make sure to keep adding sensory details (what things looked, sounded, smelled, tasted like), using active verbs, and illustrating feelings with spoken speech and facial expressions.
If you're having trouble checking whether your description is detailed enough, read your work to someone else. Then, ask that person to describe the scene back to you. Are they able to conjure up a picture from your words? If not, you need to beef up your details.
It's a bit of a fixer-upper, but it'll make a great college essay!
#2: Show Your Feelings
All good personal essays deal with emotions. And what marks great personal essays is the author's willingness to really dig into negative feelings as well as positive ones. As you write your UC application essays, keep asking yourself questions and probing your memory. How did you feel before it happened? How did you expect to feel after, and then how did you actually feel after? How did the world that you are describing feel about what happened? How do you know how your world felt?
Then write about your feelings using mostly emotion words ("I was thrilled/disappointed/proud/scared"), some comparisons ("I felt like I'd never run again/like I'd just bitten into a sour apple/like the world's greatest explorer"), and a few bits of direct speech ("'How are we going to get away with this?' my brother asked.")
There's "it was exciting." And then there's "I felt at once exhilarated and terrified, as if I had just jumped out of an airplane for the first time."
This should give you a great starting point to attack the UC essay prompts and consider how you'll write your own effective UC personal statements. The hard part starts here—work hard, brainstorm broadly, and use all my suggestions above to craft a great UC application essay.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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- Master of Fine Arts
The UC Davis graduate creative writing program is a two-year master of fine arts degree rooted in the study and creation of literature that reaches toward the other arts with the goal of presenting students with a wide range of aesthetic approaches and models for being a writer. Students may specialize in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, as well as multi‐genre, multi‐media, or hybrid forms of literary art.
Graduate Program Requirements
Creative Writing: Fiction
In this informal workshop, you will learn how to write an effective piece of short fiction. Having been introduced to key elements like plot, character, dialogue, setting and so on, you will compose your own short story in three stages, sharing each installment with the group as you go. You will also read and discuss some classic short stories and tackle brief in-class writing exercises. Suggested reading: Ron Carlson Writes a Story , by Ron Carlson, Graywolf Press (paperback).
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Creative writing, about the program, learn more about the program.
A two year master of fine arts degree rooted in the study and creation of literature that reaches toward the other arts with the goal of presenting students with a wide range of aesthetic approaches and models for being a writer. Students may specialize in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, as well as multi‐genre, multi‐media, or hybrid forms of literary art.
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Admissions and Fellowship Information
UC Davis General Admission Requirements Program Admissions Requirements
Program contact information, primary program contacts.
Program Coordinator Sarah Yunus [email protected]
Program Chair Katie Peterson 530-752-2281 | [email protected]
Department Chair Claire Waters (530) 752-9349 | [email protected]
Advisor: General Hsuan Hsu English (530) 752-1696 | [email protected]
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You are here, writing workshops, what is a writing workshop.
Well, it depends on the workshop! Some workshops might include writing and editing, while others might be a brief introduction to a writing-related topic. At UC Davis, we host a variety of different workshops throughout they academic year. A selection of past workshop titles include:
- Writing a grant proposal
- Writing a literature review
- Overcoming writer's block
- Collaborative writing
- The dissertation: getting started, getting done
- Managing a committee: Strategies for effective negotiation and communication with multiple committee members
- Careers in science writing and communication
Workshops are led by University Writing Program faculty, Graduate Writing Fellows, or both.
What workshops are being held this quarter?
There are typically 3-5 workshops per quarter. Please view the GradPathways calendar of events to see upcoming workshop titles, times, and locations . Note that, for some workshops, registration is required.
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The UC Davis graduate creative writing program is a two-year master of fine arts degree rooted in the study and creation of literature that
About the Program Our innovative MFA program includes both studio instruction and literature courses. Writers can take workshop courses in
Greetings! Creative Writing classes at UC Davis are unique and rewarding experiences, and we encourage you to watch the following videos before opening up
PhD in Literature · MFA in Creative Writing · Admissions - MFA Creative Writing
In this informal workshop, you will learn how to write an effective piece of short fiction. Having been introduced to key elements like plot, character
The Creative Writing Program of the UC Davis Department of English is expanding its reading series with online and in-person readings by visiting writers
A two year master of fine arts degree rooted in the study and creation of literature that reaches toward the other arts with the goal of presenting students
Writers concentrate in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or “hybrid” (multi-genre) forms. They take at least four graduate workshops, and they're
What is a writing workshop? · Writing a grant proposal · Writing a literature review · Overcoming writer's block · Collaborative writing · The dissertation: getting
Class Information ; Instructor: Cahalan, Courtney ; CRN: 23323 ; Time: MWF 1:10-2:00 ; Location: 116 Veihmeyer ; GE Areas: Writing Experience
All Courses for Spring, 2023 ; 100F-3, Clemmons, Zinzi, MW 12:10-1:30pm, 308 Voorhies ; Creative Writing: Fiction.