Four essays, 350 words each. That’s 2 more essays than before, 6 more prompts to consider, and 400 more words. In other words, the UC application just got harder — a lot harder — and there’s a reason why. By demanding more from its applicants, the University of California school system aspires to get more acquainted with each individual student.
What Does the Change Mean?
If they don’t read them, why would they increase the number of essays? Because they matter! The change comes just one year after the Common Application reformulated its own essay prompts. The Common App went from 9 essay options to just 6. In addition to crafting the 650-word response to the Common App, students also encounter written supplements that serve as mini essays unique to specific schools. Stanford, for example, asks students to write a letter to a future roommate, while others often ask, “Why are you interested in our school?” As a result, my students who applied via the Common App wrote an average of 3-4 essays per school. The idea is that by having students write more, colleges get a better sense of who their applicants are, and thereby make better admission decisions.
The UC’s new Personal Insight Questions (PIQ’s) serve the same purpose. Having students answer 4 out of 8 total essay options, the UC’s hope to go beyond the former personal statements: “Describe the world you come from…” and “Tell us about a personal quality…” Though these two prompts surely served their purpose for decades, the sheer number of applicants nowadays warrants a new approach and emphasis. One that GPA, test scores, and even a strong extracurricular resume can’t satisfy. Today, more than ever, colleges are searching for students who have a sense of purpose and can write about why they did rather than what they did.
How Important are the Personal Insight Questions?
Last year, over 80,000 prospective freshmen applied to UC Berkeley, most of whom will be rejected despite being qualified (see graph). While UC Berkeley and UCLA have been historically notorious for denying well qualified applicants, the other UC campuses have seemed to follow suit. Over the past five years, UC Davis, UC San Diego, and even UC Santa Barbara have rejected candidates with the whole package. The 3.9 student with the 2200 SAT and great leadership roles — you’ve heard the stories. How did that student get rejected while the other one with lower scores got in?
While there isn’t a catch-all explanation, there is surely a logical one. Like most colleges, the UC’s analyze students’ GPA and test scores first. Next, they assess the list of activities and accomplishments through high school. Lastly, admission readers read through the essays in search of the “why.” Why did the students do the activities and why do they want to pursue their specified major? No award or test score can answer those questions. And in a field of 80,000 highly competitive applicants — who share relatively the same classes, GPA’s, test scores, clubs, and sports activities — the only logical differentiating factor left has got to be the Personal Insight Questions.
Find out how to dominate the UC apps with my UC Application Strategy Guide. I cover everything, from major and college selection to every Personal Insight Question in detail.
How Do I Write Strong College Essays?
Choose Your Best Topics
I call it separating the Ferraris from the Civics. You want to make sure you start off with the strongest topics possible — your Ferraris. Usually, these topics are the ones that involved a significant challenge or growth experience during high school. Your best topics have depth and allow room to write and reflect, and I call them “your best topics” because your story is unique. Don’t compare yourself with others. Trust me when I say there is nothing truly original, from sports to near-death encounters. Most often, your best topics are seemingly unimpressive at first, but the details of how you explain it make it all the more interesting. That said, I do encounter students who pick really bland topics — your typical Civics. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in a Civic; it’s still a Civic.
Stay the Main Character
The number one mistake in all of the college essays I have ever read, be very careful of this one. In so many stories I encounter, students write at length about someone who influenced them. Uncles. Friends. Grandparents. The list goes on, and we often get so emotionally attached to their stories, that we forget to write about our own! The Personal Insight Questions are designed for you to provide insight about your personal life — not theirs. So be the center of attention. No, I’m not saying to boast. But you definitely need to write about yourself. One tip I give to my students is to frequently use inclusive words like “I” and “me”. This ensures you don’t bog down the reader with details unrelated to the main character: you.
Answer the Prompt
A big indicator of your readiness for college is your writing ability, something that is showcased through your responses to the Personal Insight Questions. Obviously, if you can’t stay focused and answer the prompt for a 350-word essay, how can an admission reader trust you will do any better on a 3500-word paper? After you have finished your first draft of any essay, read the prompt and check to see if your essay answers the question clearly. If not, you probably got carried away about the story’s details. An easy tip I give my students is to copy and paste the prompt on top of their page before they begin writing anything. By having it there at all times, students don’t have to remember what the prompt was, which means better focus throughout.
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