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Beginning in the fall of 2016, students applying to any institution within the UC system will be required to choose four “personal insight questions” from among eight options, responding to each of their chosen prompts in no more than 350 words. This new requirement gives students the opportunity to share more about themselves—1400 words compared to the 1000 previously allowed—and offers greater flexibility in what they choose to share with the admissions committee.

Drafting, editing, and sharpening your essays for the UC application will require a great deal of commitment on your part, but how do you decide where to begin? Choosing four topics from eight options seems daunting. To start, get away from the prompts and think about who you are. On a blank sheet of paper, jot down some of the things you want the admissions committee to know about yourself. You might consider extra-curricular activities, family backgrounds, challenging experiences, academic interests, areas of interest or curiosity, or relationships with friends and family. By writing down what you hope to share about yourself, you avoid the problem of being pigeon-holed by the prompts themselves. You’re guiding the process; the process is not guiding you.

After you’ve gotten an idea of what you hope to share, consider each of your options individually. Which of your ideas might fit into the prompts that you have at your disposal? As you take a look at each personal insight question, ask yourself: What would the full arc of your essay look like? How much might you be able to share in the space allotted? What does the question allow you to explain about yourself? Is this the best way for you to tell this part of your story?

While you’ll ultimately be writing four separate essays, and should approach them as such, they’re all a part of the same whole. It would be a mistake to write two essays on the same topic unless each essay talks about a different aspect of yourself within that topic. Be sure that each of your essays provides the admissions committee with distinctive pieces of your background and experience, highlighting the unique components of a unified, whole student.

Many colleges and universities require personal statements. But not all colleges and universities use the essays in the same way. Within the UC system, it’s important to understand that readers are reading for positive content only. You won’t be dinged for a typo or a misuse of a word; readers will be looking entirely at substance. Choose the substance of your experiences that best tells the story of who you are, and you’ll be well on your way to producing four excellent short-answer pieces for the UC application.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.