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Writing and Storytelling for UC Application Essay Prompts

by Will Geiger, on Oct 10, 2016 6:33:00 PM


“Just be yourself!” I told a student just the other day.

When I think about it, I have used that same line many times. I know it is the type of advice that is easier said than done, but there is a lot of truth to it. For high school students, the admissions process is a stressful and pivotal time of their life. It can be one of the first times when students make a major decision about what is important to them. How do I learn best? Do I want to be far away from home? What do I want to do with my life? These are all questions that students ask themselves in the admissions process and they are important questions.

Ideally the admissions process is an opportunity for exploration and reflection (and not simply a year of stress and anxiety about “getting into” college). Students can learn a little more about themselves, how they learn, and what they are passionate about.

As a college counselor, I try talk through some of these questions with students so that they are actively considering the deeper questions about who they are and what they want. The college essays are also an important part of this exploration and reflection process. The most effective way of thinking about essays is approaching and answering prompts with stories. One of the goals of storytelling is to reveal character and to show that past actions are indicative of future commitments and the ability to succeed in college. One important thing that colleges need to know about students is their ability to understand how past experiences have helped them change and grow. Storytelling, when students focus on specific moments and identify actions and choices they’ve made, is the most effective method for conveying this to college admission officers. This can be incredibly instructive for students as they ask bigger more introspective questions about themselves and their future.

When working with students applying to the University of California system, this means that your conversations can really be aligned with the essay questions. These questions are great because they align themselves well to storytelling. They are very specific and focus on asking to describe and elaborate (as opposed to just answering the question). The UC Application approach to essays is a little bit different as students are given eight choices and asked to choose four different essay prompts to respond to (you can find the prompts at the end of the post). These essays can be no longer than 350 words, so keep that in mind. Along with each of the UC prompts below, you will find a few strategies on how to best tackle each short essay.

Because there are so many potential permutations among the UC essay prompt medley, my suggestion is that students should think about ALL of the essay options. This way, they will be able to get a sense of each question and which combination of essays best relates to them. The most efficient way of considering eight different essays is something called the “three sentence story”. The three sentence story consists of a magnet, a pivot, and a glow:

1. A magnet is the first line of a story, which aims to “hook” the reader in.
2. The pivot is the point in a story where a student’s actions reveal their character or personal growth.
3. The glow is the last line of the essay in which a student wants to leave a lasting impression with the reader.

After writing three sentence stories for these prompts, students will be better able to hone in on and select the four questions that are most meaningful and relevant to them. Remember that the UC prompts are also an opportunity to share different aspects of students as individuals. Keep that in mind as students consider which prompts are best suited for them. Additionally, the Story2 EssayBuilder can be a great tool for students who are working through some of these essay prompts.

Thoughtful and well-crafted essays can go a long way in the admissions process, but also can be helpful as students learn and grow as individuals.

Here are the 2016-2017 UC Essay Prompts with tips for students for answering each:

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.

Remember that you don’t have to have a leadership “title” such as headship or captainship in order to be a leader. Think about moments where you took charge and made a positive impact in your school, community, or family.

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.

Your creative side can be painting, theater, or playing the trombone, but you can also think about creativity and innovation in the broadest sense. For instance, when was an instance when you approached a problem in an unconventional or different way?

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

The key part of this question is how you have developed and demonstrated your talents or skills over time. The actual talent can be anything you feel strongly about. You can certainly use your activities list as inspiration, but feel free to talk about a quirky skill you possess.

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

The first approach to this essay is to talk about an opportunity you have embraced. While this opportunity can be strictly academic, it can also be another experience such as a job, a service trip, or an independent project. The other way to answer this question is discussing an educational barrier you have faced. If you choose this part of the question, it is important to focus on growth and what you learned (as opposed to just talking about what happened to you).

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?

If you answered the previous question by discussing an educational barrier you faced, a similar mentality will apply here. When talking about a significant challenge, it is important to emphasize your growth and how a difficult situation shaped who you are today.

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

Picking your favorite subject should be pretty straightforward. Once you have picked a favorite subject, think about how it has impacted you as a student or perhaps outside of the classroom. You can also think about this in terms of a future major or perhaps a career.

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

If you are like most students, you belong to many different communities! Try to think about the various communities you belong to (including your school, sports team, book club, neighborhood, religious group). Next, think about moments when you have impacted your chosen community in a positive way.

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

Your best asset in answering a question like this is to use your unique perspective and character. Telling a story that only you can tell and revealing something important about your character is going to be what sets you apart from the other applicants.

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Topics:college admission