California Dream Schools - Advice on UC Essays

Are you California dreamin’?

In a little over a week, you may be one step closer to turning your California dreams into a reality--by applying to the University of California system, whose college application deadline is November 30. But before you can catch the ocean breeze and live out your college days in sunshine and palm trees, you have to write four short responses.

What kind of questions will you need to answer? Well, here they are. At the top of the page, the site states that each prompt has equal weight in the decision-making process. While this is true in an ideal world, you should recognize that not all questions will yield the best responses from you.

In other words, you can’t just blindly decide to answer the first four questions. You need to actually consider which prompts will get you to write with passion. Also, you must consider which prompts will elicit the most unique stories. When you look at the website, notice too that each prompt actually provides some helpful pointers. It will be in your best interest to consider what advice the admissions staff offers you.

Remember: these responses cannot be simple rehashes of your resume. Instead you need to identify specific moments about which you can write compelling narratives. And do not forget: 350 words is the maximum limit after you have revised your response. You should be aiming to write about 500-600 words with your initial drafts and cutting down from there. If you think 350 words at the start, you will surely lose precious details and insights that will need to exist in your final draft.

Let’s review some ways to approach each question:

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.

Many students participate in school-related clubs and organizations. These are fine for this response, but a more impressive essay will explore you leading a club, organization, camp, business, etc. of your own creation.

Also, you will want to focus on just one instance when you helped others. And as noted in the questions that follow, leadership is not simply a title. So for those of you who think you have no leadership experience, don’t get restricted by labels. This prompt can really sell you to the admissions committee. Colleges love strong leaders.

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.

Okay, this is not the time to respond with poetry. Or with a “creative” response. Notice that the prompt says “describe” how you express your creative side. Keep your response to the essay format because that will be the best way to explain yourself. Otherwise, your creative ability should be as strange and interesting as you can imagine. Just make sure, of course, it is appropriate for applying to college.

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

This is pretty similar to prompt #2. Except now they want you to compose a narrative that shows how a talent has grown over time.

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

I imagine many students will opt out of this question. While it may be tricky to pinpoint an educational opportunity or barrier that seems worthy of explanation, you should consider the question in the broadest sense. Still, I’d refrain from talking about AP or IB classes as an “opportunity.”

Students may also gravitate towards describing a summer internship or research program. These aren’t bad, but they will be common. The best response often will be something that is not traditionally considered “educational” -- such as meeting someone from a unique background or arguing with someone who has different views.

Remember: you can’t just say that you had the opportunity; you need to explain how you utilized it to your advantage. So this prompt will require deep reflection, and admissions officers love reflection.

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?

This is common for many admissions questions. You can probably just cut down a previously existing essay for this.

6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

This prompt is a perfect moment to really explain your passion for your future major and career. Colleges want to accept students who absolutely care about what they will be studying. They want students who will be the frontrunners of their given fields. So focusing on a particular instance when you fell in love with your favorite subject and how it has changed your life will be really beneficial.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

The team player question. The initiative question. This one is pretty common, so I’ll just say that the more unique and creative your angle, the better off you’ll be.

8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

If you have a story that you’d like to share with UC, and none of the other prompts really seem appropriate for telling the story, then here is your chance. This prompt is the most direct appeal you can make to the admissions committee, but you need to make it one that really shines. Don’t get cheesy and say, “I’m going to make the next iPhone.”

In total, you will need to write 1400 words. And each response should read like a micro story about your life and experiences. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box; it will be necessary to make these common questions yield interesting and unique answers.

At B2A, we have several services to help students with the college admissions process. Check them out and let us help you get accepted into your dream school!

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