Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

The University of California (UC) system comprises many of America’s best public universities (schools from the UC system are six of Admissions Hero’s top 20 public colleges). All of the major UC schools have strong programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, and the flagship schools (UCLA and UC Berkeley) also have extremely competitive liberal arts, business, and arts majors.

You can apply to every UC school with the same application, and so for every UC school, you have one answer you can give to each of two prompts. Because you have 1000 shared words between the two prompts, there is a bit of strategy involved as to the length of each essay. If you have a stronger or more detailed answer for one of the prompts, it is okay to write more for that essay but ideally, you should devote roughly 550 words to that essay and 450 to the other one. Under no circumstances should you have one essay longer than 600 words and the other one shorter than 400 words.

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations. (1000 words for both prompts combined)

This essay addresses many of the themes that the prompts for the Common App do, and since the UC schools do not use the Common App, you don’t have to worry about any overlap with those essays. This prompt is really asking you to talk about some of your major influences as well as your ability to work with and interact with a group. You can certainly use your family as the base for your essay, but you should be careful to really dive deep down into your personal feelings and motivations. Many applicants choose to write about their family, which means that your essay will have to be extremely well written or delve deeply into your personality in order to separate from all of the other essays covering similar themes.

Writing about your school can be a good strategy if you attend a school that has an economically and racially diverse student body. However, if you attend a competitive school with mostly affluent students, it might be difficult to write an essay that will play well with admissions counselors. Writing about a more nuanced and specialized community, perhaps related to some sort of hobby or extracurricular passion, gives you an opportunity to really show off unique and distinctive elements of your personality. For example, you could write an essay about how your participation in the Model United Nations officer corps inspired you to pursue an education and career in international relations. Alternatively, you could discuss how your participation in several online forums for World of Warcraft inspired you to study computer programming so that you can build a “crowdsourced” video game in the future. So long as you are able to write a a detailed and distinctive essay, pretty much any type of “world” that you come from is fair game. The one exception is community’s that are defined simply by personality traits (and not interaction) such as race or sexual orientation. Since these are personal qualities, you can likely write a more effective essay on these topics in response to the second prompt.

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud, and how does it relate to the person you are? (1000 words for both prompts combined)

Unlike the first prompt, this essay is far more personal, and you really shouldn’t detail your participation or membership in a group or community unless it you have achieved something substantial in it. As we mentioned before, this prompt could be a place to address intrinsic qualities such as challenges dealing with your race or sexual orientation. You have some leeway as to how you want to approach the discussion of the quality, but be sure to discuss why it makes you proud. That pride can result directly from the quality itself, or indirectly from actions that you have taken or experiences you have had as a result of a personal trait (such as dealing with racism or experiencing gender discrimination).

You can also discuss an achievement in an extracurricular activity, however ideally you should write about a different one if you used an extracurricular activity for the first prompt. The “achievement” doesn’t be some sort of award or high achievement; it just has to be something that provides a compelling platform to discuss yourself. In fact, the most personalized descriptive stories often can arise from seemingly mundane achievements. For example, an essay written about your victory at the state tennis championships can obviously be impressive, but an essay discussing your pride at working for three years to rise from fifth to fourth singles on the tennis team and how the work you put into that made you value persistence can be just as good. The key is to make sure that you can point to specific character developments that arose from your achievement, no matter how small.

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins