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How to Write the “Most Significant Challenge” UC Essay

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by CollegeVine co-founder Vinay Bhaskara in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


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The University of California system requires you to answer four out of eight prompts for its essays. Prompt five asks applicants:


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? (350 words)


As with any college essay, this prompt is an opportunity to convey a strong personal voice while communicating personal values and strengths that may not readily apparent in other parts of their application. In this article, we will discuss what the prompt is asking, how to approach writing your essay, and advice for navigating difficult topics. 


Understanding the Prompt


The first step in answering this prompt is identifying a challenge to reflect on. You’ll want to focus on a challenge that’s personal, genuine and authentic. A common issue that students struggle with is selecting a challenge that is appropriate in scale for the purposes of this essay. Choosing a challenge that may come across as minor in the eyes of admission officers, such as losing out on extracurricular opportunities because of COVID, for example, likely wouldn’t impress your reader in the same way that a more specific, personal challenge would. Navigating COVID as a challenge is going to be a completely overused response to this prompt, and if you want to stand out you should reflect more deeply on a challenge that is unique to you. 


You don’t want your challenge to come off as tone-deaf. For example, writing about a time that your parents refused to purchase something for you would not reflect very well on you and make you sound spoiled. On the flip side, you also don’t want to choose an outsized challenge that doesn’t resonate you. Your topic should be genuine and authentic.


Additionally, because this prompt specifically calls out an impact to your academic achievement, it’s a little bit more restrictive than the similar prompt in the Common Application. To be clear, you don’t have to write about something that directly affected your academics; however, you should be able to relate the process of overcoming this challenge back to your academic performance.


Avoiding Common Pitfalls


Focusing Only on the Challenge


We’ve already talked about writing a tone-deaf essay, but another trope you want to avoid is what we call a sob story. Writing an essay solely about the challenge and all the pain that it’s caused you is a good place to start an essay, but pain and struggle shouldn’t be where you end. A key element of the prompt is the act of overcoming the challenge and reflecting on that process and where you ended up. If you can’t end this essay in a better place than where you started, you’re not going to have a strong response to this prompt. 


Blaming Others


Additionally, avoid blaming others for your challenges. For example, if you struggled with a particular academic subject, focus on the specific aspects of that subject that challenged you and how you worked to overcome them. It’s easy to blame a bad teacher for a poor academic performance, and it is possible that the teacher might have objectively not been good. 


But think back to the purpose of the supplemental prompts. Colleges want to understand the person behind the application and how they think and relate to the people around them. Shifting blame to your teacher, even if it is  wholly deserved, could signal a lack of personal responsibility or immaturity to the admissions team. Remember that colleges are looking for students who will add to the vibrant campus community, which of course also includes their faculty and the other students.



Regardless of what you choose as your challenge, it’s important to think critically about how you will frame it within the context of your essay. Difficult topics like mental and physical health can be quite effective essay topics as they’re deeply personal and often quite substantial. However, as you begin to think through your essay, remember that two huge elements of the prompt are overcoming the challenge and reflecting on how it has impacted you academically. 


Remember to start with the end in mind. When we say start with the end in mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the challenge is now over. Colleges understand that challenges like mental health and chronic pain often don’t go away. It is important that, in the case of a challenge that you are constantly navigating, you clearly and effectively convey how you’ve overcome it or, in some cases, the ongoing steps you take to mitigate it. 


Ultimately, college is rigorous and challenging in itself, and no college or university wants to set you up for failure if they’re not confident that you can succeed. If you cannot effectively demonstrate that the challenge is no longer a risk to your success and wellbeing, consider choosing a different topic.


Looking for more information on how to attack the UC supplemental essays? Check out this post for a comprehensive guide on how to answer each of the eight prompts!