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4 Tips for Writing the University of California Essays

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Gabbi Tobias College Admissions Advisor

Written by Gabbi Tobiason November 6th, 2023

I came to College Coach after being a decision maker in college admissions. I began my career at High Point University where I read and evaluated thousands of applications from territories across the US, including the Midwest and the West Coast. I led essay workshops and case studies to educate prospective families on the college admissions process. Dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion during my time at High Point, I implemented and led the office’s Diversity Recruitment Board, which focused on recruitment, yield, and retention of students from underrepresented communities. And as a recruited collegiate lacrosse player I understand the pressures and demands that the recruitment process entails. Not only have I worked with recruited athletes, but I myself have experienced the process firsthand!
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by Gabbi Tobias, former admissions officer at High Point University For so many students, writing the main Common App or Coalition App essay is the most stressful part of the college application process. Something about crafting one long (up to 650 words) essay is daunting for even the most confident of writers. If you are applying to the University of California campuses, however, you are in for a treat, as they approach the essay portion of the application a little differently. Rather than asking applicants to write one lengthy essay, the UC system requires students to choose four “personal insight questions” from eight options; the response to each prompt may be no longer than 350 words. This gives applicants the ability to represent themselves in four different ways, letting admission officers learn more about each student than a traditional essay or personal statement often allows. As you write, keep in mind that the personal insight questions are just that: personal. Since you’re able to choose which topics best suit you, you’ll get to highlight the unique components of yourself that you want to showcase. Choose stories that will give the reader insight on the important aspects of your life, such as your personality, goals, interests, accomplishments, abilities, relationships, and core values. While each of these essays are separate and should be treated as such, it is important that they work together to create one cohesive voice that showcases your core values. Start brainstorming A simple way to begin tackling these questions is to start with your UC activity list, the section of the UC application that asks you to list all of your extracurriculars. What are some of your most important activities and biggest accomplishments? The way you spend your time outside of the classroom reveals more about you than you think. From there, start to think about different personality and character traits that you can tie back to each activity and/or accomplishment. The UC system also has a helpful website where you can see each prompt, as well as guidance on how to approach each of the questions. While it can be good to base some of your essays off your activities and accomplishments, you may have some more personal stories you feel compelled share—and that’s okay! The UCs don’t mind if you write about any struggles that you have faced, whether related to mental health, physical health, learning differences, or anything personal that you are willing to share. In fact, they have a few prompts that encourage students to write about challenges or obstacles they have faced. UC reviewers are accepting of and open to stories about the tough times that made you the strong person you are today. Start writing! Here are some tips to remember as you put pen to paper:
  • Think of these essays as interviews and answer them as such. You should approach the UC questions as concisely and directly as possible. Similar to an interview, the readers are focused on you answering the question and providing insight and value as to why your answer is true. Since you only have 350 words to answer each question, it’s important that you just get to the point. To answer each of the prompts, think of what some refer to as “the 6 Ws” (who, what, where, when, why, and how) as the details behind each answer. From there, start to do a little self-reflecting on why each of these details are significant.
  • Focus on content, not style. When answering the personal insight questions the reader is less concerned with how you format the essay and more concerned with how you answer the question. The UC system is unique as the readers are reviewing for positive content only. A misspelled word or simple typo will not hold you back in the application process—but it is still in your best interest to proofread your essays.
  • Don’t repeat the same information! Yes, having a theme in an application can be a good thing, but you don’t want to come off as repetitive. Readers only get 1,400 words to learn about you, so it’s important to diversify the content you present so you don’t come off as one-dimensional. You can do this by picking prompts that differ from each other or by writing about a variety of activities and accomplishments across your prompts.
  • Connect the dots. Why is the information you presented important? What does the information tell the reader about what you can bring to a UC campus? You want to talk about being captain of the volleyball team? Great! Walk the reader through what you have learned from this accomplishment and how this relates to the person you are today. Most importantly, how have you grown from being involved in this activity?
If you need more direction on how to approach each individual UC prompt, check out this episode of our college podcast, Getting In: A College Coach Conversation: Answering the University of California Essay Questions.

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