How To Write The University of California Essays (2019-2020)




Welcome to the 2019-2020 essay prompts for UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, and UC Merced! Here's everything you need to know.


(You can refer to the University of California admissions website if you want to see how exactly they're presenting their essay prompts for this year, but you'll need to create an account and begin the application to view the prompts.)


The UC school system has its own application, and all nine schools (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, UC Merced) accept the same application with the same essay questions.


You’ll need to respond to 4 of the 8 questions listed below, in essays of 250-350 words. This is a pretty big writing assignment, and you have a lot of freedom in which topics you choose, so spend some time brainstorming.


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.


Let me say right off the bat that this isn’t a great question. Even if you’ve demonstrated incredible leadership, The University of California has better essay prompts for you, so you’re welcome to read on, or skip ahead to the next question.


OK. This appears to be a good question for student-entrepreneurs—kids who’ve created impactful projects. As always, however, you need to make sure you’re going beyond your activities list—don’t just tell us about a project you’ve listed elsewhere on your application. (The UC schools don’t accept the Common App, but they have a place on their application where they ask you to describe your “activities and awards.”)


Think very small here, and to focus on specific examples of leadership. Remember: essays are stories. This is your chance to tell a good one about a specific time you took the reins. All this being said, if the strongest leadership story you can muster is about helping a fellow student with his or her homework one time, you should probably choose another prompt—unless somehow it’s a really great story.


The hard thing about questions like this, as always, is resisting the temptation to brag, and finding a way to tell your story without sounding like you’re making yourself out to be a hero. Don’t sensationalize or exaggerate your accomplishments. Be matter-of-fact when talking about your achievements. Focus on a specific anecdote. Give us a clear sense of why a specific leadership experience mattered to you.


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.


Remember how I said there were better questions about leadership? Here’s one. Rather than tell the story about a time you were a leader-hero, why not answer this one? Frame your accomplishments in terms of your creativity, rather than in terms of your leadership. If you’ve started a business, non-profit, or club, it’s on your activities list and we know that you are “a leader” (at least on paper). But are you creative? How did you come up with your idea? How did you make it happen?


This response doesn’t have to be about leadership, of course. It doesn’t need to be about problem solving, and it doesn’t need to relate to your future major.


Try not to write a boring, formulaic essay in response to this prompt, since it’s a little disappointing to read an essay about creativity that isn’t creative.


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


I’ve said this a few times already: don’t repeat what’s on your activities and awards list. Definitely don’t talk about your awards. They appear elsewhere, and how would you feel if someone you just met started talking about his or her gold medals and trophies? It doesn’t make you look well-adjusted.


You might want to check out my guide to the Pomona College essays, where I discuss how to talk about your skills. It’s tough to do this without sounding braggy. “How has your talent or skill helped you in or outside the classroom?” Are they serious? I just can’t imagine how answering this question would make anyone look confident and mature.

The only effective response to this prompt would be about mundane or even downright pointless skills. Pomona, when it asks about talents, specifies that you are welcome to discuss "useless skills." You’re welcome to do so for the UC schools as well. Don’t be flippant; make sure you have something meaningful to say about your mundane or useless skill. For example, I have a friend who can list in chronological order just about every hit rock, soul and pop album released between 1964 and 1982. This ability has no practical application in his professional life as far as I can tell, but it says a great deal about who he is and how his mind works. And it's a far more endearing detail than any of the awards and accolades he's received in life.


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


This is one of those questions where, for some, not answering is the best way to demonstrate self-awareness and maturity.


You’re being asked to talk about educational opportunities and barriers. Before you answer this question, ask yourself: have you received noteworthy educational opportunities and/or faced barriers to pursuing your education? If you got a big-deal scholarship, or got into a charter school after taking an IQ test or something, there may be a story there. (Although, “I have a high IQ” isn’t a great story.) If you spent your junior year caring for a sick parent or grandparent, or suffered a physical or mental health issue yourself, that’s definitely a barrier to education.


But, on the other hand, if the opportunities you’ve had in terms of education have to do with your parents’ ability to pay for a fancy school, choose a different question. If, for you, "barriers to education" means commuting forty-five minutes to school, or something like that, again, there are plenty of other questions to answer. Self-awareness is at the top of the list of qualities that schools like Berkeley, UCLA and the other UC schools are looking for in their applicants. Make sure you’re in touch with the opportunities you’ve been given, and impediments you’ve 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?


See my comments on the previous question. If you’ve faced some real challenges, and if you have enough distance from them to write with perspective (and to feel comfortable writing about them, of course), this may be a question for you. But think long and hard about the challenges you’ve encountered. If they aren’t very serious in the big scheme of things, don’t try to exaggerate them, and to convince your readers you had a hard time.


This is a tempting question to answer if you want to explain a low grade, for example. Let's say you got a C+ in ninth grade English. Be careful: the question wants to know about "the most significant challenge you faced": so if you got that C+ because your cat died the day before the final exam, or because your teacher was a jerk, don't write about it. Everybody has teachers they don't like and all pets die at some point. (Sorry to be grim.) These are not life's greatest challenges.


As with “talents” questions, “challenges” questions sometimes put applicants in a tricky situation. Make sure it doesn’t sound like you’re blaming others unfairly, or complaining.


If you have an entertaining story about a challenge, which says a lot about who you are, but which isn’t a serious example of hardship, you can absolutely write about it. But use humor and be self-aware. In other words, make it clear that you are cognizant of the fact that your inability to parallel park, apply makeup properly, or beat your little brother in Fortnite doesn’t constitute a “real” challenge.


6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.


If you’re a nice pointy student, here’s your chance to talk about how all your intellectual activities over the past three years have served to further your passion for… fill in the blank (architecture, art history, astrophysics). Presumably, if you’re this kind of kid, you plan on majoring in an academic field related to what you’re writing about, so discuss your choice of major as well, and say what you plan on doing at the UC school(s) you’re applying to.


You can also answer this question by talking about an academic subject you have no intention of majoring in, provided that it’s interesting, and that you can clearly point to your experience with the subject. (If you plan on majoring in history, but you had a really good bio teacher freshman year, that probably isn’t enough of a reason to talk about biology.) Maybe you plan on majoring in psychology at The University of California, but what you really want to do later in life is art therapy, and you’ve gained some experience in the subject, and have a real, demonstrable passion for art generally (you were in the art club, or you exhibited your work somewhere, or you did something else that is at least mildly remarkable with art). Talk about art.


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


I know I keep saying this, but beware of sounding braggy, and make sure you’re demonstrating self-awareness.


I keep saying these things because there are a good number of high schoolers out there who are effectuating real, significant societal change, and who are fighting in extremely ambitious ways to make their communities and even their country a better place. Look at what the students from Parkland have done. Keep kids like them in mind as you evaluate your own accomplishments in your community. (I know, this is intimidating. But remembering them will help you maintain perspective as you write.)


Here’s a bad example of “making one’s community a better place”—the kind of thing you should not write about. When I was in high school, I was elected student body president, and I succeeded in getting our “student room” equipped with an electric kettle (for tea, ramen noodles, what have you). My fellow students were pretty psyched. But let me tell you: describing this kind of accomplishment would be a pretty pathetic response to the question that’s being asked here. In the big scheme of things, ramen noodles rank pretty low.


8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?


Great question! Take the following phrase very seriously: “Beyond what has already been shared in your application.” Don’t talk about anything on your activities and awards list.


I know it’s tempting to write about your greatest achievements, but they’re already on your application. This is a great opportunity to talk about something new and different, in order to help your admissions committee get to know the real you a little better.


Think small and personal for this one. This is your chance to talk about that hobby of yours that doesn’t have any direct relation to your academic and professional future, or one of your personal quirks that maybe doesn’t matter much in the big scheme of things, but says a lot about who you are.


The way the question is phrased makes it sound like you need to show off here (“what do you believe makes you stand out”). Don’t give in to the temptation to brag. Or, if you do, brag about a useless personal talent, or make the bold claim that what makes you stand out as an applicant is that you’ve read every Stephen King novel ever written, or that you can do a near-perfect Elvis Costello impression. Think: humor and self-awareness.


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