How to Write the University of California Essay Prompts 2020-2021
The University of California (UC) school system is the most prestigious state university system in the United States, and includes nine undergraduate universities: UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Riverside, UC Merced, and UC Irvine. Six of these campuses ranked in the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 college ranking, most notably Berkeley and UCLA at 20. Total enrollment at University of California schools sits above 250,000, with each campus having around 25,000 undergraduate students.
University of California schools have their own application portal, and the deadline is November 30th, a full month before the Common Application is due. Every school is included in this application, so it is easy to apply to multiple UCs, finances permitting. The application requires you to answer four of the eight personal insight questions, with a 350-word limit on each prompt. The prompts may seem daunting at first, but we here at CollegeVine are here to help you tackle these essays to the best of your ability! Want to know your chances at the University of California schools? Calculate your chances for free right now.
University of California Application Essay Prompts
Note: There is only one application for all the UC schools. Therefore, your responses will be sent to every single University of California school that you apply to. Hence, avoid making essays school-specific (unless you are applying to only one school).
To choose which questions to answer, first browse the eight prompts as a list, and sort them into one of three categories: “definites,” “possibilities,” and “avoid at all costs.” With “definites,” after reading the prompt, you immediately know what you will say and how you will say it. With “possibilities,” a few vague ideas swirl in your head, which you think can be sorted out and possibly develop into a great essay. With “avoid at all costs,” you want to have nothing to do with these essays.
Afterwards, jot down bullet point ideas for the questions you for sure want to write about. Then, select out of the “possibility” questions that would, in combination with your “definites,” produce the most well-rounded essay profile, which would both highlight your few key strengths as well as reveal your complexities and breadth of character. While doing so, it is important to base your decision on not only your immediate liking for the topic, but also on the available substance (anecdotes). Repeat this process until you are faced with only four questions.
This is just one way to approach choosing prompts. Since for some, the process happens organically, do not feel constrained to the method above. Just remember:
- Do not rush into prompts at first glance. Make sure that you have jotted down potential ideas for all but the ones you want to avoid, and ultimately write about the one with the most substance.
- Your answers should be able to highlight what is most important to you.
The Eight Essay Prompts
Here, the admissions officers want to see your leadership experience as more concrete than a “president” or “treasurer” title on your resume. They are looking for how you have fostered mentorship, creative tension, and group action in your organization. Leadership roles are not limited to titled positions or to the school environment.
For example, just because you were only a member in the chess club does not mean you cannot have taken leadership in organizing a tournament or fundraiser. If you have indeed occupied a leadership role, convince the admissions officers that you have used the position to positively influence others.
By defining creativity as, but not limited to, problem-solving, novel thinking, and artistic expression, this prompt expands creativity to encompass all academic fields. Therefore, do not be put off by this prompt if you are not in a traditionally “creative” role (i.e., artist or poet). The prompt’s emphasis on problem-solving allows you to draw narratives from (seemingly) mundane everyday tasks such as creating a contraption to massage your tennis elbow.
Here are some examples:
- In math, devising a non-textbook method to proving theorems
- In politics, integrating new quantitative methods in technology to gauge voter proclivities
- In English, scouting for “locations of inspiration” to write your next short story
- In history, writing a journal piece detailing a unique way to view Hitler’s invasion of Poland
- In science, finding ways to offer affordable care to HIV patients
All these examples, if explained well, demonstrate creativity. Ideally, you would want to finish your essay by detailing how you will apply such creative thinking in college and beyond.
Although it would be easy to list all the awards you have won in the activity you are best in, this prompt is looking for something deeper and more meaningful. It is perfectly fine to describe an activity you are dedicated to, but also think about the character and personality traits that tie into the activity, such as tenacity, honesty, and compassion. The key is to elucidate why this activity is worth putting all your time into, and how your personality strengths are exhibited through this activity. Describe the beauty and the meaning of the activity, convincing the admissions officers that this activity rightly takes precedence over everything else.
Do not be put off by this prompt if you have not won any big awards. All the prompt asks for is what you think is your greatest talent or skill.
Make sure to also address how you have developed and demonstrated this talent. Do you put in small amounts of practice every day, or strenuous hours for a couple short periods each year? Why do you allocate your time this way? How have you shown off your talent or skill to other people? Have you won competitions, done performances, gotten into showcases, or shined artistically? Here are a few examples:
Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for life. For example, participation in an honors enrichment program or enrollment in an academy geared toward a profession, or even a particularly enlightening conversation with an adult — just to name a few.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you have faced, what personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How has the process shaped you as a person? An added plus would be talking about passing it forward and helping those in your purview obtain the knowledge you did from your experiences.
Choose to write only about one of the two.
Here is an example for educational opportunity:
Here is an example for educational barrier:
The word “challenge” is extremely broad in scope and could range from financial hardships to familial circumstances to personal illness to learning disabilities. This prompt asks you to connect this obstacle with your academic situation, so it should have had an impact on your performance in school.
“Academic achievement” stretches far beyond grades on exams. It could mean your intellectual goals or your struggle to balance homework with your part-time job, and perhaps the strain in your relationships with peers and teachers due to such time constraints. As a result, think of the challenge first before deliberating whether it could be linked to something academic-related.
Make sure to talk about what you learned from the challenge, detailing growth and maturity along the way. You may not have risen above the challenge yet, and may have even been defeated, or may be conquering it right now. In all cases, development must exist, so be sure to document them. What has become different because of this challenge? Here are some examples:
First, reflect on an academic subject that makes you happy to study. What have you done in and/or outside of the classroom to learn more about it? Did you watch Too Big to Fail and brought it as discussion material to your economics teacher’s office hours? How do you plan to advance in your chosen subject if you do not intend to major in it? If you could create a college class that looked and sounded like your chosen subject, what would the class be called? What would the curriculum be like?
Remember to include concrete accomplishments such as research, internship, volunteer experience, homemade project that you pitched to the school board, etc. Do not forget to explain how your love for the subject drives the work you do, because the why can easily get lost in describing the what. Here are a few examples:
Your community, which includes your school, could be as small as your local grocery store, your nearby pet adoption center, or even the adult baseball team that practices nearby. It could also be as large as your country or your ethnicity. Remember to illustrate your role in this community and why you identify with this community the most. This will lead you to talk about your underlying motives for the service you have done, and in turn, demonstrate the positive influence you have made. Do not be afraid to talk about your actions even if they did not produce a sweeping change; as long as the effort was genuine, change is change, no matter the scale.
Additionally, touch on what you learned from others through this service action or initiative, and how you will continue to learn from other community members in the future. Here are a few examples:
This is the most open-ended any question can get. Of course, you can literally write about any and everything. However, the key is to ensure that whatever form you choose for it to be, the content’s focus can be summarized into two sentences that describe the uniqueness of your candidacy.
We highly recommend this particular process for this type of open-ended essays, but this same procedure could be used for any prompt.
For essays with a more focused question, alternatively, you could reverse the above process to check whether your essay has indeed fulfilled its purpose. Namely, write out the essay first, have another person read it and ask them to summarize it in a couple sentences. If what they express is how you wanted them to perceive you, then you have succeeded. If not, you should tweak your anecdotes and analysis to ensure that they convey your primary message.
Here are two examples for this open-ended prompt:
- A favorite rock in a forest on which you have gotten inspiration for most of your English essays
- A quirky skill or pet peeve that has saved you during unexpected times
Good Luck on Your Essays!
With hundreds of thousands of applicants each year, many receiving top scores and grades, getting into top UC schools is no small feat. This is why excelling in the personal-insight questions is key to presenting yourself as a worthwhile candidate. Answering these prompts can be difficult, but ultimately very rewarding, and CollegeVine is committed to helping you along that journey.
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