common application

Part Three of a Three Part Series

Over the last few weeks I’ve shared a few tips on mastering the UC Application (be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2). To close out this series, today I’m sharing two of the most common essay mistakes I see UC applicants make.

Common Essay Mistakes

I’ve never counted, but I’ll estimate that I read over 100 different essays for the UC application each year. If that seems like a huge number, imagine being an admissions officer at UCLA, where over 112,000 students applied for fall admission last year. With such daunting numbers, I understand that students want to make sure their essays really help them stand out.

The freshman application prompt reads, “Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” The underlining is my own, because I want you to focus on those parts of this prompt.

Common mistake #1 – You try to cover everything and as a result, cover nothing.

Too frequently I read very big picture summaries of students’ lives that attempt to answer this prompt by hitting all the highlights: a paragraph about parents, a paragraph about your team, a paragraph celebrating your [grand] parents’ cultural influence on your life, a paragraph about the academic culture at your high school, and a paragraph about why you want to become a marine biologist.

It is challenging for most teens to convey an idea thoroughly and deeply in about 500 words, and it is practically impossible to convey five ideas thoroughly and deeply in 100 words each. Essays that try to do this often fail to go beyond surface-level reflection, and as a result feel generic to the reader.

Instead of cataloging your full profile, pick one aspect of your experience to focus on, and reflect on how that has directly led to one dream or aspiration you have for your future. This need not be career-related; I’ve read great essays about students’ goals to become a more intentional listener, friend, teammate, or feminist, and these can be even more effective than an essay about career ambitions in healthcare, education, or engineering. Whatever your topic, this essay should have a specific focus that develops throughout the piece, rather than skimming over multiple unrelated ideas.

Common mistake #2 – You write an analytical or celebratory essay rather than a personal statement.

I have read essays that offer beautiful tributes to family members or convey deep gratitude to a meaningful teacher or mentor.  While you might be able to write a moving piece that dives deeply into the sacrifices your grandfather made when he immigrated to the US or how friendly your doctor was to you when you were in the hospital, remember your audience and intention. This is your personal statement, intended to highlight an important personal strength of yours. Writing an essay about someone or something else is a missed opportunity.

This does not mean you cannot acknowledge the people in your life who have had a huge impact on you – the prompt clearly invites you to do just that. But your essay needs to focus on that impact on you. Specifically, on you. How do you live differently every day because of the influence of your parent/sibling/teacher/coach/friend? How will you carry that person’s legacy into your future?

The UC prompt for all applicants is equally broad, intentionally allowing for personalized interpretation. The best essays here are specific and deep rather than all-encompassing. Do not repeat your list of activities; think beyond your awards and accolades to a specific characteristic that may not already be celebrated elsewhere in your application. Feel free to interpret this prompt in any way that makes you feel excited about sharing your thoughts.

Together, these pieces are your chance to become more than data – to actually connect with the admissions officer and show them the person you will be on campus. Don’t miss this opportunity by sharing an extended résumé, a tribute to someone else, or a treatise on the value of your favorite profession.



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Written by Becky Leichtling
Becky Leichtling is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Becky is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education; prior to joining College Coach, Becky was a senior admissions officer at Tufts University and Carleton College.