The Role That Essays Play in the UC Admissions
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Vinay Bhaskara in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
Why Your Essays Matter
Essays are a critical component of your application to the University of California (UC) system. Since the UC system no longer considers standardized tests, like the SAT, ACT, AP, or IB examinations, when reaching admissions decisions, there are fewer data points with which admissions officers can assess candidates.
A complete application for admission to the UC system consists of three main components:
- Academic Performance: All of the schools you have attended, coursework you have taken, and the grades you received.
- Extracurricular Involvement: A list of your activities and awards.
- Essays: Four responses to the personal insight questions.
Since there are fewer components to the application for admission, essays account for up to 35% of the admissions decision at the most competitive UCs, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA. The essays are still an important component of your application to less competitive but still selective UCs, such as UC Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Davis, and Riverside. And although UC Santa Cruz and Merced will mostly base their decision on your academic performance, your essays are still relevant to their admissions decisions.
There are many applicants to the UC system who are all equally qualified and have similar academic and extracurricular profiles. For these students, the essays will likely be the single source of information by which admissions officers differentiate between otherwise comparable applicants before making admissions decisions. In this situation, you want the admissions officers to affirmatively choose you over another applicant.
How to Approach Your Essays
Since there is no dominant personal statement that you will submit, it is helpful to approach the UC application essays as if they form a portfolio. Each essay should speak to different aspects of your character, commitments, responsibilities, values, and goals. Your essays should provide context, analysis, and self-reflection, and they should not read like a resume or be overly linear or chronological in structure. If you would like to highlight an accomplishment of yours in an essay, you should make sure that you provide context, craft a compelling narrative, and balance description with sufficient analysis and self-reflection.
Understanding and Selecting Prompts
There are eight personal insight questions to choose from, and you must provide four responses that are each a maximum of 350 words. Broadly speaking, the personal insight questions fall under two categories.
The first category of personal insight questions focuses on personal qualities and includes prompts 1, 2, 5, and 7:
- Prompt 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.
- Prompt 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.
- Prompt 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?
- Prompt 7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
The second category of personal insight questions focuses on your accomplishments and interests and includes questions 3, 4, 6, and 8:
- Prompt 3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Prompt 4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- Prompt 6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
- Prompt 8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
To strike a good balance across all four essays, we recommend that you respond to two questions regarding your personal qualities and two questions regarding your accomplishments and interests. Ultimately, you should select the prompts that you are most confident and excited to respond to and that present a holistic view of who you are.
For more information on writing the application essays for admission to the University of California, review the article on How to Write the University of California Essays.