How to Write the University of California Essays 2021-2022

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 consistently rank in the top 50 national universities, with Berkeley and UCLA ranking in the top 25. Total enrollment at University of California schools sits above 250,000, with each campus having around 25,000 undergraduate students. Want to know your chances at the University of California schools? Calculate your chances for free right now.


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! 

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:


  1. 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.
  2. Your answers should be able to highlight what is most important to you.

Check out our video to learn more about how to write the UC essays!

The Eight 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.

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.

A few examples:


  • As the president of the orphanage club on campus, you distributed clothing to homeless people and had a long conversation with one particular man about how his life fell apart after he was slapped with an exorbitant medical bill. You were shocked and deeply moved by his story and decided to pursue medicine in order to make it affordable.


  • As a camp counselor, you faced two kids who refused to get along. To mediate the conflict, you spent long hours before bed talking to them individually, learning about their personal lives and family situation. By understanding where each camper came from, you were better equipped to help them reach a compromise and became both campers’ role model.


  • As a member of your school’s Chinese organization, you were driven by your ethnic heritage to devote all your lunch breaks to ensuring the smooth presentation of the Chinese culture show. You coordinated the performers, prepared refreshments, and collected tickets. You got through a great performance, even though a performer didn’t show and some of the food was delivered late. You weren’t on the leadership board or anything, but exhibited serious leadership, as both nights of the culture show sold out and hundreds of both Chinese and non-Chinese people were able to come together and celebrate your ethnic heritage.

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.

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.

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

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:

  • A star on your school’s tennis team, you have been playing ever since you were seven. Now, as the varsity MVP, you have led your team to a first place finish in the regional conference and have placed second at the state level. As the captain, you have settled numerous feuds between players, as well as spiked team morale toward the end of the seasons. In this case, you could discuss the valuable leadership and teamwork experience you have gained through playing on the tennis team.


  • As a flute player who has not yet won any big competitions or played in any honor ensembles, you visited the local senior center to entertain the residents each week without fail. There, you found great meaning in your flute playing — sharing your love of music with others.

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 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:

You applied to a specialized program in your school and was accepted. It allowed you to work intensely in a specific STEM field such as engineering, and landed you an internship with local engineering companies, in addition to giving you an opportunity to work with elementary school students in budding engineering programs.

Here is an example for educational barrier:

As a student at a school that did not offer any honors classes, you enrolled in online lectures to learn the subject you were passionate about — Human Geography. Afterwards, you spoke to your school administrators about high-achieving students needing higher-level courses, and they agreed to talk to the local community college to start a pipeline for students like you.

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?

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:

  • Your parents underwent a bitter, drawn-out divorce that deeply scarred you and your siblings, especially your little brother who was attending elementary school at the time. He was constantly distraught and melancholy and seemed to be falling further and further behind in his schoolwork. You took care of him, but at the cost of your grades plummeting. However, through this trial, you committed yourself to protect your family at all costs. You focused on computer science in high school, hoping to major in it and save up enough money for his college tuition by the time he applies. Through this mission, your resolve strengthened and reflected in your more efficient and excellent performance in class later on.


  • Your race was the most significant challenge you faced growing up. In school, teachers did not value your opinion nor did they believe in you, as evidenced by their preferential treatment to students of other races. To fight back against this discrimination, you talked to other students of the same race and established an association, pooling together resources and providing a supportive network of people to others in need of counseling regarding this issue.


6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

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:

  • You found your AP United States government class fascinatingly complex, so you decided to campaign for a Congressional candidate who was challenging the incumbent in your district. You canvassed in your local community, worked at the campaign headquarters, and gathered voter data whilst performing various administrative duties. Though the work was difficult, you enjoyed a sense of fulfillment that came from being part of history.


  • The regenerative power of cells amazed you, so you decided to take AP Biology to learn more. Eventually, you mustered up the courage to email a cohort of biology professors at your local university. One professor responded, and agreed to let you assist his research for the next few months on the microorganism C. Elegans.


  • You continued to develop apps and games even after AP Computer Science concluded for the year. Eventually, you became good enough to land an internship at a local startup due to your self-taught knowledge of various programming languages.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

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:

  • Passionate about classical music, you created a club that taught classical and instrumental music at local elementary schools. You knew that the kids did not have access to such resources, so you wanted to broaden their exposure as a high school senior had done for you when you were in middle school. You encouraged these elementary schoolers to fiddle with the instruments and lobbied for a music program to be implemented at the school. Whether the proposal gets approved or not, the kids have now known something they might never have known otherwise.


  • Working at your local library was mundane at times, but in the long run, you realized that you were facilitating the exchange of knowledge and protecting the intellectual property of eminent scholars. Overtime, you found ways to liven up the spirit of the library by leading arts and crafts time and booking puppet shows for little kids whose parents were still at work. The deep relationships you forged with the kids eventually blossomed into a bond of mentorship and mutual respect.

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?

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.

  1. On a blank piece of paper, jot down any and every idea, feeling, phrases, and keywords that pop into your head after reading this prompt.
  2. Narrow your ideas down to one topic — for example, your habit of pausing at least five seconds before you respond to a conversation in writing or in real life.
  3. Outline the structure of your essay, and plan out content for introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.
  4. Now, before you start writing the actual essay, condense into one to two sentences how you would like the admissions officers to perceive you after reading the essay. Piggybacking on the previous example: Natalie’s ability to force herself to thoroughly gather her thoughts before responding to any question or provocation allows her to avoid gaffes and undesired animosity during heated verbal exchanges. This has not only helped her maintain strong relationships with all the staff members of the clubs she leads, but will also help her navigate the political environment that she will face in the professional world.
  5. Your entire essay should be dedicated to constructing the image you devised in step 4. At least 50% should be directly or indirectly referring to elements mentioned in your two-sentence summary. This allows you to avoid spending too much time recounting various anecdotes and lose track of what kind of personality you originally wanted to portray to the admissions officer.
  6. Happy writing!

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. Check out these UC essay examples for more writing inspiration.


Want help on your college essays to get into your dream schools? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses, as well as our Essay Manager.

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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.

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