This lesson covers... an overview of the new UC application
By the end you should... have a basic understanding of the new UC application and how the new 8 personal insight questions fit into your application.
Time 5 minutes

Heads-up: in March 2016 the prompts for the UC application changed!

Why the change? Long story short, the old prompts weren’t giving the University of California readers the information they needed--students often wrote responses that were either too general, too flowery, too academic, or too much about grandpa’s journey to America with five bucks in his pocket and a dream to perform in Hamilton (wait, that’s not how that goes). 

Anyway, in case you haven’t seen ‘em yet (or even if you have), here are...        

The 8 UC Personal Insight Questions

  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 Univ. of California? 

* * * * *

First of all, sad face for getting rid of my favorite prompt ever (click here for a love letter I wrote to the authors of the now-extinct UC prompt). Anywho, the UC prompt is dead; long live the UC prompt. 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to choose four of these topics and write 350 words on each.

 

Quick note on the term “personal insight questions” vs. “essay”

Notice these are called “personal insight questions” and not “essays.” 

Why the rename? As I understand it, some of the directors felt (and feel) that “essay” = “academic piece of writing.” And I agree that for some people the word “essay” is intimately connected with AP English style writing. And the UCs are not looking for an academic piece of writing--they’re looking for something else (more on that something else in a moment).

And though my New Oxford American Dictionary tells me the word “essay” simply means “a short piece of writing on a particular subject,” I’ll respect their opinion.

 
 

So know that when I use the word “essay” in this article I do not mean academic writing (like for an English class), I mean “a short piece of writing on a particular subject” (spoiler alert: that subject is you). And the views in this article are mine alone and not the UC directors'.

All right, let’s do this. 

Here are a few things you need to know about the UC essays (sorry, short-pieces-of-writing-on-a-particular-subject-that-is-you):

1. The UCs are looking for some very specific information. They have detailed it in the 14 points of comprehensive review.

That’s right: there are 14 factors the UC readers use to evaluate your application (it’s public info, posted on the UC website here).

The 14 Factors of Comprehensive Review for the UC system are...

1. Grade-point average
2. Test scores
3. Performance in and number of courses beyond minimum a-g requirements
4. UC-approved honors courses and advanced courses
5. Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) – CA residents only
6. Quality of senior-year program of study
7. Academic opportunities in California high schools
8. Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas
9. Achievements in special projects
10. Improvement in academic performance
11. Special talents, achievements and awards
12. Participation in educational preparation programs
13. Academic accomplishment in light of life experiences
14. Geographic location 

Note: No single factor determines admission, as your application is evaluated holistically.

(We’ll take a closer look at these in lesson 1.2, btw.)

The next thing you should know is this:

2. Each of the eight personal insight questions is connected to one or more of the 14 points of comprehensive review.

I know this because the UC directors have publicly said this. So it’s a good idea to ask yourself, as you’re brainstorming your four topics, how will this help me on the 14 points of comprehensive review? (Tip: Your essay/personal insight question responses could connect to several of the 14 points.) Also note:

3. The UCs have done a GREAT job providing some useful information on how you can answer these prompts. For some good contextual advice click here and for some basic writing advice click here.

And before I tell you how to stand out, keep this in mind:

4. It’s okay to answer the personal insight questions in a direct, straightforward way.
How do I know this? Because, at a recent conference, one of the UC directors said, “It’s okay to answer the questions in a direct, straightforward way.” Then the other UC directors nodded. 

In fact, another director said it’s okay to just write bullet points in your response. (A high school counselor raised her hand and asked, “Really? Bullet points? Like, really really?” and the UC Director was like, “Yup.”) 

Now: will you personally choose to provide bullet points? That’s up to you. It may feel a little weird since you’ve learned how to write in complete sentences and like use paragraphs and stuff. But just know that at least a few of the UC directors have said it’s cool.

I will say this:

5. A UC reader should probably be able to skim your responses to the personal insight questions and get your main points. Why? Because the reader will probably be spending about six to eight minutes on your application. Not on each essay. ON YOUR WHOLE APPLICATION.

So before I move on I just want to emphasize that it’s totally cool to get right to the point.

In fact, you might prefer doing that.

And if you want to write in a straightforward way (or simply use bullet points), you actually may not need to read the rest of this article. 

In fact, let’s play Choose Your Own Adventure: if you’re confident your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars [along with the straightforward responses you will write for the personal insight questions] are good enough, then download this MSword doc, keep in mind the 14 points of comprehensive review, and get started. 

BUT! 

 
 

Cue the turning point in this article.


6. If you’re applying to private schools via the Common App, it can be useful to write an essay that is insightful, well-crafted and reveals your core values. 
In other words, a stand-out essay. 

Why take the time to write a stand-out essay?

  • It can save you lots of time. Since many selective schools require supplemental essays (that is: essays you write in addition to your main, 650-word Common App personal statement), it can be useful to write an essay that works for BOTH the UCs AND one or more private schools. 

Quick example:

Michigan Supplement: Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. (250 word limit).

UC Personal Insight Question #7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? (350 words).

We call that double dipping.
And it's totally a great idea (when it comes to college application essays).

    
Another advantage of doing this:

  • Doubling-up your essays (i.e. writing one essay that works for two prompts) can make your essay better for both schools. 

Quick example: If you put both of the prompts at the top of your page . . . and then write an essay that discusses BOTH your place within your community AND what you’ve done to make it a better place, that’s going to be a better essay than if you’d just written it for one prompt.

And this is an obvious example that centers around the word “community” that these two prompts share. But you can do this with prompts that are less obviously connected. For example, you could write an essay that answers both Michigan’s “describe [your] community and your place within it” AND answers UC prompt #2, which reads: “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.” That’s an essay I’d like to read--one that answers both these prompts in the same 250 words. Impossible? Not at all.

And get this:

  • You can do this for multiple prompts (three, four, or seventeen), resulting in what I call a Super Essay.  

A super essay is one that works for a lot of prompts. Think of a Super Essay as being in the center sweet spot of a Venn Diagram that has lots and lots of circles. 

And if you think it’s impossible to write an essay that works for seventeen different prompts, stay tuned, because I’m about to share one with you.

But first, let’s look at the 14 points of Comprehensive Review...


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