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UC Application New Essays: “Personal Insight Questions”

On March 24, the University of California (UC) announced a drastic change to the essay section of the UC application. Effective immediately, freshman applicants will have the freedom to choose four questions to answer out of a possible eight. Each short-answer can be as long as 350 words.  So in simple terms the maximum word count has gone from 1000 words to 1400 words.

Although the UC has decided to rename the prompts, “Personal Insight Questions,” the reality is that students will now be required to write four admissions essays. On the one hand, the diversity of questions will hopefully make it easier for students to identify topics that they connect with. On the other hand, teenagers often struggle when given too many choices. And in our experience, the thought process, time and energy behind writing one 500 word essay is no different than writing one 350 word essay.

Our immediate and general reaction to the changes is that they are an improvement over the previous essays. The prompts for the previous essays were written in a way that targeted a specific segment of the applicant pool. The wording of those prompts was also rather confusing and often led to unoriginal responses.  The challenges that come with these changes are likely to impact students who struggle with writing or start the UC application late in the admissions season. We also worry that calling them “questions” vs. “essays” will leave some students assuming that they don’t have to take them as seriously as a proper personal statement/essay.

Below are the new prompts:

  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.
  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.
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  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?
  6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

The beauty in these new topics is that students finally have a choice in what they want to convey to the University of California. This will undoubtedly cause some students to panic, wondering if what they think is important is what the admissions officers want to read. The most important thing students can do is to spend some time this summer reflecting on their experiences and what these experiences reveal about them. This will lead them to identifying the four prompts that best suit their life experiences. Essays should always be approached as opportunities to highlight those things that are not readily evident on the rest of the application. This is where voice becomes so important and the UCs have taken one valuable step in letting that voice shine through.

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