With the University of California (UC) schools being among the best in public universities and colleges in the nation (even beating out some elite private universities as well), it is no surprise that some of the UC schools have rigorous and highly competitive entrance process, and for good reason. Hosting nearly a quarter of a million undergraduates, UC campuses attract students from within California, as well as attendees from around the United States and the rest of the world.
The percentage of applicants admittedly to the University of California school system annually ranges from around 16 percent for UCLA and 17 percent for UC Berkeley to about 36 percent for UC Irvine and 51 percent for UC Santa Cruz (according to 2017 figures). Seven of the nine undergraduate campuses rank in the top 100 schools, with six of nine in the top 50. And each year brings greater competition as increasing numbers of international students are looking to receive a world-class university education in California’s public school system.
However, there is one big upside to applying for UC schools. Because only one application must be filled out for the entire UC school system, candidates can put all of their time and energy into polishing one application and writing a UC admission essay that will impress the admissions officers.
How much does the admissions essay account for admission to UC schools?
The “Personal Insight Questions” are the UC admissions committees’ collective response to receiving an increasing number of applications (nearly 200,000 freshman and transfer applications in 2016). Due to this extremely high number of applications, there was no way to base admission solely on test scores and GPAs, and therefore these essays questions (more appropriately “essay prompts”) were created to differentiate the high-grade-earners and great test-takers from those students who show remarkable passion and have a compelling story. The Personal Insight Questions are therefore your opportunity to show who you are being your grades and transcript and to tell your personal story.
This “holistic admissions” process means that qualitative aspects of your life and profile are considered. This includes your ability to capitalize on opportunities, the extracurricular activities you have been involved in, and other “meta” elements that not only reflect your potential for achievement in a college and university setting but also give admissions officers a chance to choose the kinds of candidates who reflect the UC schools’ values. So to answer the question “How important are these admissions essays?”—the answer is “very important.” Some sources estimate that these qualitative elements make up as much as 30% of admissions decisions, meaning that it is probably a good idea to put a lot of thought and effort into your UC essay responses.
The 2020-2021 UC Application Essay Questions
The University of California application allows candidates to apply to all UC campuses at once and consists of eight essay prompts—more commonly known as the “Personal Insight Questions.” Applicants must choose FOUR of these questions to answer and are given a total of 350 words to answer each question. There are no right or wrong questions to choose,but you should consider a few factors when deciding which questions will suit your situation best.
Before discussing some tips for answering the University of California admissions essay questions, let’s take a lot at the Personal Insight Questions for 2020-2021 and some tips recommended by the UC on their admissions page.
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.
Brainstorming: Leadership is not restricted to a position or title but can involve mentoring, tutoring, teaching, or taking the lead in organizing a project or even. Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? What were your responsibilities?
Potential scenarios: Have you ever resolved a problem or dispute in your school, church, or community? Do you have an important role in caring for your family? Were there any discrete experiences (such as a work or school retreat) in which your leadership abilities were crucial?
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.
Brainstorming: What do you think about when you hear the word “creativity”? Do you have any creative skills that are central to your identity or life? How have you used this skill to solve a problem? What was your solution and what steps did you take to solve the problem?
Potential scenarios: Does your creativity impact your decisions inside or outside the classroom? How does your creativity play a role in your intended major or a future career? Perhaps your aspirations for art, music, or writing opened up an opportunity in a school project that led you on your current academic path.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Brainstorming: Do you have a talent or skill that you are proud of or that defines you in some way? An athletic ability; a propensity for music; an uncanny skill at math? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Think about talents that have not been officially recognized or for which you have not received rewards but that are impressive and central to your character and story, nonetheless. Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?
Potential Scenarios: Have you used your talent to solve a problem or meet a goal at school? Have you ever been recognized by a teacher or peer for your secret talent? Has your talent opened up opportunities for you in the world of school or work? If you have a talent that you have used in or out of school in some way and you would like to discuss the impact it has had on your life and experiences, this is a good question to choose.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Brainstorming: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. If you choose to write about barriers, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you use to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?
Potential scenarios: Perhaps you have participated in an honors or academic enrichment program or enrolled in an academy geared toward an occupation or a major. Did you take advanced courses in high school that interested you even though they were not in your main area of study? There are many elements that can serve as “opportunities” and “barriers”—too little time or resources could serve as a barrier; a special teacher, a very memorable course, or just taking the initiative to push your education could all qualify for taking advantages of opportunities.
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?
Brainstorming: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. List all of the challenges and difficulties you have faced in the past few years, both in and out of school. Why was the challenge significant? What did it take to overcome the obstacle(s) and what did you learn from the experience? Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?
Potential scenarios: Challenges can include financial hardships, family illnesses or problems, difficulties with classmates or teachers, or other personal difficulties you have faced emotionally, mentally, socially, or in some other capacity that impacted your ability to achieve a goal. If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Brainstorming: Do you have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something for which you seem to have unlimited interest? What have you done to nourish that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom—volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs. What have you have gained from your involvement?
Potential scenarios: Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that? If you have been interested in a subject outside of the regular curriculum, discuss how you have been able to pursue this interest—did you go to the library, watch tutorials, find information elsewhere? How might you apply it during your undergraduate career?
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Brainstorming: A “community” can encompass a group, team or a place—it could be your high school, hometown or even your home. You can define community in any way you see appropriate, but make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community? If there was a problem or issue in your school, what steps did you take to resolve it? Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
Potential scenarios: Have you ever volunteered for a social program or an extracurricular focused on making a difference? Perhaps you led a campaign to end bullying or reform a routine activity at your school. You don’t need to be the leader of a movement to be involved. Perhaps you took on more of an individual responsibility to make certain students feel more welcome at your school.
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?
Brainstorming: If there’s anything you the admissions committee to know about you but didn’t find a question or place in the application to write about it this is a good prompt to choose.
Potential scenarios: What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? Is your experience simply so out of the ordinary that you feel it would not properly answer any of these questions? What do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? This is your chance to brag a little.
Factors to keep in mind when answering the UC application questions
Create a coherent picture of yourself without repeating information
Unlike the Common App essay, which gives applicants a 650-word personal essay to make a big, cohesive personal statement, the UC application is designed to elicit smaller, shorter statements, encouraging the applicant to give focused answers without repeating the same information. This means that you need to remain consistent and cohesive—keeping in mind the “holistic” nature of these essays—while also making sure that each answer offers new information and insights about you.
Choose questions that “speak to you” and let you illustrate different aspects of your experience and character
Because of these shorter, more focused responses, the UC essay can feel a bit more natural than the Common App or other admissions essays that ask you to squeeze your most significant life experiences into one essay. This format also allows candidates to choose questions that show several distinct angles—character, personality, ability to overcome adversity, personal strengths, and weaknesses, etc. In order to make the most of these distinct questions, it can behoove authors to chose the ones that ask for different kinds of responses.
For instance, it might be best to avoid answering both questions #2 and #3 as they both involve a talent/ability. If you do answer both of these questions, try to approach them from different angles, showing how you used your talent or skill to accomplish an impressive feat or overcome an obstacle. The same goes for questions #4 and #5–if you choose question #4, it could be better to discuss how you used an advantage or opportunity and then discuss a difficulty that you overcame in question #5. Try to avoid repeating the same information and instead show your experiences from multiple vantage points.
Show, don’t tell!
When writing any kind of essay, apply the golden rule of “showing over telling.” Writers should strive to create a more immediate connection—a more “objective correlation”—between words and the reader’s understanding or feeling. But this rule is much easier to understand than to follow, and a whole lot of beginning writers telling about what one did or how one felt with showing it. It is especially important in the UC admissions essay to show, rather than tell or make a list, as you don’t have a lot of room to “provide evidence” to back up the main theses you are asserting in each mini-essay.
A good way to think about this difference is to think about “summary” (telling) versus “description” (showing). When summarizing, one often gives an overview of the situation, using vague nouns and adjectives to describe events, objects, or feelings. When describing, one uses vivid detail to give the reader or listener a more immediate connection to the circumstances—the details ultimately provide evidence for what the writer or speaker is saying, rather than filling in the gap with vague or cliché language.
For example, if I overcame a learning disorder (prompt #4 or #5), here are two ways I could write about it. Note the difference between these two passages:
TELLING: “I have overcome an educational barrier by getting good grades despite having a learning disorder. Although it hindered my studies, my learning disorder did not stop me from doing very well on assignments and exams. I even joined a variety of clubs, such as debate club, honors society, and the track team…”
SHOWING: “My highest hurdle in life has always been my dyslexia. Imagine looking at a page of your favorite book and seeing the words written backward and upside-down. Now imagine this is every book, every page, every word on every exam. This is my experience. But through this land of backward words I have fought with a million tears and thousands of hours, studying at the library after classes, joining the debate team to improve my sight-reading, and eventually joining the school honors society, the biggest achievement of my academic life…”
Outline your answers to all questions before writing them out
Creating a scaffolding for your essay before building always makes the writing process smoother. Draw up a separate mini-outline for each question to determine whether you’re truly writing two different essays about related topics, or repeating yourself without adding new information or angles on the original. Include the most important elements, such as events, people, places, actions taken, and lessons learned. Once you have outlined your answers, compare them to see if there is any overlap between answers, and if there is, decide at this early stage whether you need to cut some details or whether you can blend these details together and expand on them to show the admissions committee the most full picture of yourself possible.
Use Your Common Application Essay to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions
Because the Common Application Essay is used for most schools in the United States, if you are writing this admissions essay, you will be writing a personal statement that fulfills many of the requirements needed for the UC admissions essay. Therefore, it may be helpful to compose and prepare your essays in the following manner:
- Compose your Common App essay
- Shorten your Common App essay to fit one UC Personal Insight Question, if applicable
- Write the three additional UC essays and complete the UC Activities section (which is longer than the Common App Activities section)
- Reuse your UC Activities list for Common App Activities and your remaining UC essays for Common App supplemental essays
Frequently Asked Questions about UC Admissions
Q: Should I apply to all the UC schools? How should I choose if I’m not applying to all of them?
Answer: The University of California allows you to apply to all of its schools by simply clicking the boxes next to schools’ names. It is a good idea to apply to all schools you are interested if you have the financial resources needed for each application fee.
Researching each school ahead of time is the best way to decide which school(s) to apply to. Visit the university admissions office websites, watch YouTube videos of campus tours, read the course curriculums and do searches on the professors and resources of the schools, speak with current students and alumni about their college experience, and even try to arrange a campus tour if possible. Conducting research will allow you to distinguish the benefits of some campuses over others.
Q: Is it more difficult for out-of-state students to get accepted to UC schools?
Answer: Out-of-state students have a slightly more difficult path to entering UC schools. At UC Berkeley, about 60 percent of freshmen in the fall of 2017 were in-state students, whereas at UC Riverside, 88 percent were. Out-of-state applicants must have a 3.4 GPA or above, and never earn less than a C grade. Find more information about the differences between applying as an in-state versus out-of-state student at the admissions office website.
Q: Should international students apply to the UC system?
Answer: The University of California is a renowned school system and internationally, and having some of the biggest and best research institutions in the world, are a popular choice for thousands of international students. Although just over six percent of students at all UC schools are international students, it is still worthwhile for international students to apply.
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