How to Write the University of California Essays 2023-2024
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.
The University of California system has its own application portal, as well as its own deadline of November 30th—a full month before the Common Application is due. All nine universities use one application, so it is easy to apply to multiple UCs at the same time.
The application requires you to answer four of eight personal insight questions, with a 350-word limit on each prompt. This may seem daunting at first, but we provide this guide to make the prompts more approachable and to help you effectively tackle them!
University of California Application Essay Prompts
Note: There is only one application for all the UC schools, so your responses will be sent to every University of California school that you apply to. You should avoid making essays school-specific (unless you are applying to only one school).
You might want to start by deciding which four of the eight prompts you plan on answering. The eight prompts are:
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.
As you begin selecting prompts, keep the purpose of college essays at the forefront of your mind. College essays are the place to humanize yourself and transform your test scores, GPA, and extracurriculars into a living, breathing human with values, ambitions, and a backstory. If a specific prompt will allow you to show a part of who you are that is not showcased in the rest of your application, start there.
If nothing immediately jumps out at you, try dividing the prompts into three categories: “definites,” “possibilities,” and “avoids at all costs.” “Definites” will be prompts that quickly spark up a specific idea in you. “Possibilities” might elicit a few loose concepts, anecdotes, or structures. And “avoids” are prompts where you honestly cannot see yourself writing a convincing essay. Next, take your “definites” and “possibilities” and jot down your initial thoughts about them. Finally, look at all of your ideas together and decide which combination would produce the most well-rounded essay profile that shows who you are as an individual.
Of course, this is just one way to approach choosing prompts if you are stuck. Some students might prefer writing out a list of their values, identifying the most important ones in their life, then figuring out how to showcase those through the prompts. Other students select prompts based on what they are excited by or through freewriting on every prompt first. Do not feel constrained by any one method. Just remember:
- Do not rush into prompts at first glance (though trial writing can be very valuable!).
- Make sure that you consider potential ideas for many prompts before making final decisions, and ultimately write about the one with the most substance.
- The prompts you select should allow you to highlight what is most important to you.
Check out our video to learn more about how to write the UC essays!
The 8 UC Personal Insight Questions
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.
“Leadership Experience” is often a subheading on student resumes, but that is not what admissions officers are asking about here. They are asking for you to tell them a specific story of a time when your leadership truly mattered. This could include discussing the policies you enacted as president of a school club or the social ties you helped establish as captain of a sports team, but this prompt also gives you the freedom to go past that.
Leaders are individuals with strong values, who mentor, inspire, correct, and assist those around them. If you don’t feel like you’ve ever been a leader, consider the following questions:
- Have you ever mentored anyone? Is there anyone younger than you who would not be the person they are today without you?
- Have you ever taken the initiative? When and why did it matter?
- Have you ever been fundamental to positive change in the world—whether it be on the small scale of positively impacting a family member’s life or on the large scale of trying to change the status of specific communities/identities in this world?
- Have you ever stood up for what’s right or what you believe in?
Leadership is a concept that can be stretched, bent, and played with, but at the end of the day, the central theme of your essay must be leadership. Keeping this in mind, after your first draft, it can be helpful to identify the definition of leadership that you are working with, to keep your essay cohesive. This definition doesn’t need to appear within the essay (though, if you take on a more reflective structure, it might). Some examples of this include “being a positive role model as leadership,” “encouraging others to take risks as leadership,” and “embracing my identities as leadership.”
Here are some examples of how a leadership essay might look:
- You’ve always loved learning and challenging yourself, but when you got to high school it was clear that only a certain type of student was recommended to take AP classes and you didn’t fit into that type. You presented a strong case to the school counselors that you were just as prepared for AP classes as anyone else, enrolled in your desired classes, and excelled. Since then, AP classes have become more diversified at your school and there has even been a new inclusion training introduced for your district’s school counselors.
- When you were working as a camp counselor, the art teacher brought you two of your campers who were refusing 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 a role model for both campers.
- As a member of your school’s Chinese organization, you were driven by your ethnic heritage to devote 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 culture.
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.
Like the last prompt, this prompt asks about a specific topic—creativity—but gives you wiggle room to expand your definition of that topic. By defining creativity as problem-solving, novel thinking, and artistic expression, this prompt basically says “get creative in how you define creativity!”
Additionally, this broad conception of creativity lets you choose if you want to write about your personal life or your academic life. A robotics student could write about their love of baking on the weekends or their quick thinking during a technical interview. A dance student could write about their love of adapting choreography from famous ballets or their innovative solution to their dance team’s lack of funds for their showcase. You have space to do what you want!
That said, because this prompt is so open, it is important to establish a focus early on. Try thinking about what is missing from your application. If you are worried that your application makes you seem hyper-academic, use this prompt to show how you have fun. If you are worried that you might be appearing like one of those students who just gets good grades because they have a good memory, use this prompt to show off your problem-solving skills.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to describe any skill in creative pursuits as you answer this prompt. The prompt asks you how you express your “creative side,” alluding to creative instinct, not creative talent. You could write about how you use painting to let out your emotions—but your paintings aren’t very good. You could write about dancing in the shower to get excited for your day—but one time you slipped and fell and hurt your elbow. Experiences like these could make for a great reflective essay, where you explore the human drive towards creative expression and your acceptance that you personally don’t have to be creatively inclined to let out creative energy.
- A math student writing about a time they devised a non-textbook method to proving theorems
- A creative writer describing how they close-read the ups-and-downs of classical music as an attempt to combat writers’ block and think of emotional trajectories for new stories
- An engineering student writing about cooking as a creative release where numbers don’t matter and intuition supersedes reason
- A psychology student writing about the limitations of quantitative data and describing a future approach to psychology that merges humanism and empiricism.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
This is the kind of prompt where an answer either pops into your head or it doesn’t. The good news is that you can write a convincing essay either way. We all have great talents and skills—you just might have to dig a bit to identify the name of the talent/skill and figure out how to best describe it.
Some students have more obvious talents and skills than others. For example, if you are intending to be a college athlete, it makes sense to see your skill at your sport as your greatest talent or skill. Similarly, if you are being accepted into a highly-selective fine arts program, painting might feel like your greatest talent. These are completely reasonable to write about because, while obvious, they are also authentic!
The key to writing a convincing essay about an obvious skill is to use that skill to explore your personality, values, motivations, and ambitions. Start by considering what first drew you to your specialization. Was there a specific person? Something your life was missing that painting, hockey, or film satisfied? Were you brought up playing your sport or doing your craft because your parents wanted you to and you had to learn to love it? Or choose to love it? What was that process like? What do these experiences say about you? Next, consider how your relationship with your talent has evolved. Have you doubted your devotion at times? Have you wondered if you are good enough? Why do you keep going? On the other hand, is your talent your solace? The stable element in your life? Why do you need that?
The key is to elucidate why this activity is worth putting all your time into, and how your personality strengths are exhibited through your relationship to the activity.
Do not be put off by this prompt if you have not won any big awards or shown immense talent in something specific. All the prompt asks for is what you think is your greatest talent or skill. Some avenues of consideration for other students include:
- Think about aspects of your personality that might be considered a talent or skill. This might include being a peacemaker, being able to make people laugh during hard times, or having organization skills.
- Think about unique skills that you have developed through unique situations. These would be things like being really good at reading out loud because you spend summers with your grandfather who can no longer read, knowing traffic patterns because you volunteer as a crossing guard at the elementary school across the street that starts 45 minutes before the high school, or making really good pierogi because your babysitter as a child was Polish.
- Think about lessons you have learned through life experiences. A military baby might have a great skill for making new friends at new schools, a child of divorce might reflect on their ability to establish boundaries in what they are willing to communicate about with different people, and a student who has had to have multiple jobs in high school might be talented at multitasking and scheduling.
Make sure to also address how you have developed and demonstrated your selected talent. Do you put in small amounts of practice every day, or strenuous hours for a couple of short periods each year? Did a specific period of your life lead to the development of your talent or are you still developing it daily?
The purpose of college essays is to show your values and personality to admissions officers, which often includes exploring your past and how it informs your present and future. With a bit of creativity in how you define a “talent or skill,” this prompt can provide a great avenue for that exploration.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This prompt offers you two potential paths—discussing an educational opportunity or barrier. It is important that you limit yourself to one of these paths of exploration to keep your essay focused and cohesive.
Starting with the first option, you should think of an educational opportunity as anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for life and your career. Some examples could include:
- participation in an honors program
- enrollment in an academy geared toward your future profession
- a particularly enlightening conversation with a professional or teacher
- joining a cultural- or interest-based student coalition
- plenty of other opportunities
The phrasing “taken advantage of” implies the admissions committee’s desire for students who take the initiative. Admissions officers are more interested in students who sought out opportunities and who fought to engage with opportunities than students who were handed things. For example, a student who joined a career-advancement afterschool program in middle school could write about why they were initially interested in the program—perhaps they were struggling in a specific subject and didn’t want to fall behind because they had their sights set on getting into National Junior Honor Society, or their friend mentioned that the program facilitated internship opportunities and they thought they wanted to explore therapy as a potential career path.
On the other hand, if an opportunity was handed to you through family connections or a fortuitous introduction, explore what you did with that opportunity. For example, if a family member introduced you to an important producer because they knew you were interested in film, you could write about the notes you took during that meeting and how you have revisited the producer’s advice and used it since the meeting to find cheap equipment rentals and practice your craft.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you have faced, consider the personal characteristics and skills you called upon to overcome the challenge. How did the process of overcoming your educational barrier shape you as a person? What did you learn about yourself or the world? An added plus would be talking about passing it forward and helping those in your purview obtain the knowledge you did from your experiences.
Some examples of educational barriers could include:
- limited access to resources, materials, technology, or classes
- lacking educational role models
- struggles with deciding on a passion or career path
- financial struggles
One example of an interesting essay about educational barriers:
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. Afterward, 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.
Either way that you take this prompt, it can be used to position yourself as motivated and driven—exactly the type of student admissions officers are looking for!
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?
This prompt is three-pronged. You must 1) identify a challenge 2) describe the steps you have taken to overcome the challenge and 3) connect the challenge to your academic achievement.
When approaching this prompt, it is best to consider these first and third aspects together so that you identify a challenge that connects to your academic life. If you simply pick any challenge you have experienced, when you get to the third part of the prompt, you may have to stretch your essay in ways that are unconvincing or feel inauthentic.
That said, remember that “academic achievement” reaches far beyond grades and exams. It can include things like:
- Deciding your career goals
- Balancing homework, jobs, and social/familial relationships
- Having enough time to devote to self-care
- Figuring out how you study/learn best
- Feeling comfortable asking for help when you need it
You should begin brainstorming challenges and hardships that you have experienced and overcome. These could include financial hardships, familial circumstances, personal illness, or learning disabilities. Challenges could also be less structural—things like feeling like you are living in a sibling’s shadow, struggles with body image, or insecurity. While it is important that your challenge was significant, it matters much more that you discuss your challenge with thoughtful reflection and maturity.
Some ways to take this prompt include:
- Writing about how overcoming a challenge taught you a skill that led to academic success — for example, a high-achieving student who struggles with anxiety was forced to take time off from school after an anxiety attack and learned the importance of giving oneself a break
- Writing about a challenge that temporarily hindered your academic success and reflecting on it — for example, a student who experienced a death in the family could have had a semester where they almost failed English because reading led to negative thought spirals instead of plot retention
- Writing about how a challenge humbled you and gave you a new perspective on your academics — for example, a student with a part-time job who helps support her family missed a shift because she was studying for a test and realized that she needed to ask her teachers for help and explain her home situation
As you describe the steps you have taken to overcome your selected challenge, you will want to include both tangible and intangible steps. This means that you will need to discuss your emotions, growth, and development, as well as what you learned through overcoming the challenge. Was your challenge easy to overcome or did it take a few tries? Do you feel you have fully overcome your challenge or is it a work in progress? If you have fully overcome the challenge, what do you do differently now? Or do you just see things differently now? If you were to experience the same challenge again, what would you have learned from before?
Here are some detailed 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 protecting 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 of 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.
The first step for approaching this prompt is fun and easy—think about an academic subject that inspires you. This part of the essay is about emotional resonance, so go with your gut and don’t overthink it. What is your favorite subject? What subject do you engage with in the media in your free time? What subject seeps into your conversations with friends and family on the weekends?
Keep in mind that high school subjects are often rather limited. The span of “academic subjects” at the university level is much less limited. Some examples of academic subjects include eighteenth-century literature, political diplomacy, astronomy, Italian film and television, botany, Jewish culture and history, mobile robotics, musical theater, race and class in urban environments, gender and sexuality, and much more.
Once you’ve decided what subject you are most interested in and inspired by, think about a tangible example of how you have furthered your interest in the subject. Some common ways students further their interests include:
- Reading about your interest
- Engaging with media (television, film, social media) about your interest
- Volunteering with organizations related to your interest
- Founding organizations related to your interest
- Reaching out to professionals with your academic interest
- Using your interest in interdisciplinary ways
- Research in your field of interest
- Internships in your field of interest
While you should include these kinds of tangible examples, do not forget to explain how your love for the subject drives the work you do, because, with an essay like this, the why can easily get lost in describing the what. Admissions officers need both.
A few examples:
- You found your US 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.
- Last year you fell in love with the play Suddenly Last Summer and decided to see what career paths were available for dramatic writing. You reached out to the contact on your local theater’s website, were invited to start attending their guest lecturer series, and introduced yourself to a lecturer one week who ended up helping you score a spot in a Young Dramatic Writers group downtown.
- 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.
With regards to structure, you might try thinking about this essay in a past/present/future manner where you consider your past engagement with your interest and how it will affect your future at a UC school or as an adult in society. This essay could also become an anecdotal/narrative essay that centers around the story of you discovering your academic interest, or a reflective essay that dives deep into the details of why you are drawn to your particular academic subject.
Whatever way you take it, try to make your essay unique—either through your subject matter, your structure, or your writing style!
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
College essay prompts often engage with the word “community.” As an essay writer, it is important to recognize that your community can be as large, small, formal, or informal as you want it to be. Your school is obviously a community you belong to, but your local grocery store, the nearby pet adoption center you volunteer at, your apartment building, or an internet group can also be communities. Even larger social groups that you are a part of, like your country or your ethnicity, can be a community.
The important part of your response here is not the community you identify with but rather the way you describe your role in that community. What do you bring to your community that is special? What would be missing without you?
Some responses could include describing how you serve as a role model in your community, how you advocate for change in your community, how you are a support system for other community members, or how you correct the community when it is veering away from its values and principles.
Here are some fleshed-out examples of how this essay could take shape, using the earlier referenced communities:
- A student writes about the local grocery store in his neighborhood. Each Sunday, he picks up his family’s groceries and then goes to the pharmacy in the back to get his grandmother’s medication. The pharmacist was a close friend of his grandmother’s when she was young, so the student routinely gives the pharmacist a detailed update about his grandmother’s life. The student recognizes the value in his serving as a link to connect these two individuals who, due to aging, cannot be together physically.
- An animal-loving student volunteers one Saturday each month at the pet adoption center in their city’s downtown district. They have always been an extremely compassionate person and view the young kittens as a community that deserves to be cared for. This caring instinct also contributes to their interactions with their peers and their desire to make large-scale positive social change in the world.
Your response to this prompt will be convincing if you discuss your underlying motives for the service you have done, and in turn, demonstrate the positive influence you have made. That said, 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. This essay is more about values and reflection than it is about the effects of your efforts.
Lastly, if you are discussing a specific service you did for your community, you might want to touch on what you learned through your service action or initiative, and how you will continue to learn 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. Over time, 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.
Be authentic and humble in your response to this essay! Make sure it feels like you made your community a better place because community is a value of yours, not just so that you could write about it in a college essay.
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. You have the freedom to write about anything you want! That said, make sure that, no matter what you do with this prompt, your focus can be summarized into two sentences that describe the uniqueness of your candidacy.
The process we recommend for responding to open-ended prompts with clarity involves the following steps:
1. On a blank piece of paper, jot down any and every idea — feelings, phrases, and keywords — that pop into your head after reading this prompt. Why are you unique?
2. Narrow your ideas down to one topic. The two examples we will use are a student writing about how her habit of pausing at least five seconds before she responds to someone else’s opinion is emblematic of her thoughtfulness and a student whose interest in researching the history of colonialism in the Caribbean is emblematic of their commitment to justice.
3. Outline the structure of your essay, and plan out content for an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
4. Before you start writing your essay, write one or two sentences that summarize how you would like the admissions officers to perceive you based on this essay. These sentences will not be in your final product, but will help you to maintain a focus. For our examples, this would be something like “Natalie’s habit of gathering her thoughts before responding to other people’s opinions allows her to avoid undesired complications and miscommunications in her social interactions. 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 social environments that she will face in the professional world.” A summary for the student writing about their interest in the history of colonialism could be “Jonathan has always been highly compassionate and sympathetic by nature. When they found out about the historical injustices of colonialism in the Caribbean through the book The Black Jacobins, they realized that compassion is what is missing from politics. Now, they are inspired to pursue a political science degree to ultimately have a political career guided by compassion.”
5. Finally, write an essay dedicated to constructing the image you devised in step 4. This can be achieved through a number of different structures! For example, Natalie could use an anecdote of a time when she spoke too soon and caused someone else pain, then could reflect on how she learned the lesson to take at least five seconds before responding and how that decision has affected her life. Jonathan could create an image of the future where they are enacting local policies based on compassion. It is important to keep in mind that you do not want to be repetitive, but you must stay on topic so that admissions officers do not get distracted and forget the image that you are attempting to convey.
As exemplified by the examples we provided, a good way to approach this prompt is to think of a quality, value, or personality trait of yours that is fundamental to who you are and appealing to admissions officers, then connect it to a specific activity, habit, pet peeve, anecdote, or another tangible example that you can use to ground your essay in reality. Use the tangible to describe the abstract, and convince admissions officers that you would be a valuable asset to their UC school!
Where to Get Your UC Essays Edited
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.
If you want to get your essays edited, we also have free peer essay review, where you can get feedback from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by editing other students’ essays.
You can also receive expert essay review by advisors who have helped students get into their dream schools. You can book a review with an expert to receive notes on your topic, grammar, and essay structure to make your essay stand out to admissions officers. Haven’t started writing your essay yet? Advisors on CollegeVine also offer expert college counseling packages. You can purchase a package to get one-on-one guidance on any aspect of the college application process, including brainstorming and writing essays.