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Last updated April 17, 2023

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How to Answer the UC Essay Prompts

Key Takeaway

The UC essays are unlike any other college essay you'll write during the application process. They require a unique style, tone, and approach. In this post, we break down the UC "rules" and walk you through how to write every UC prompt.

Taken collectively, the University of California receives more college applications every year than any other set of institutions in the world.

As a proud Californian, I can't help but love the UCs. Where else do you find such a massive, well-funded, geographically dispersed system of top-quality public education?

California rules.

Ok, got that out of my system. Time to talk about how you can actually get into the UCs by mastering those devilish "personal interest questions," better known as the UC essays.

UC admission is an increasingly pitched battle

I know I just went off about how good the UCs are. But the reality is, they aren't what they used to be from at least two perspectives: cost and ease of admission.

Did you know that tuition at UC Berkeley in 1980 was $2,600 per year? Today the cost of attending is $19,000 and more than $50,000 yearly for out-of-state students.

Equally alarming is the shift in admission rates over that time. In 1980 only 9,000 students applied to Berkeley. In 2021 more than 85,000 applied. Today the admission rate at Berkeley is just over 11%. These same trends have unfolded at the other UC campuses, as well.

So students who want to attend Berkeley, UCLA, or any of the UC schools will need to bring their A-Game.

That means, of course, killing it academically throughout high school. Test scores no longer matter for UC admission, as the UC collectively decided to throw out SAT and ACT scores in the evaluation process.

Indeed, UC admission comes down to a few factors: grades, recommendations, and essays.

I have no control over your grades or your recommendations (although I do talk about recommendations elsewhere). I hope, however, to have a positive influence on your UC essays.

That's what this post is dedicated to, anyway. This is a long post, so let me give you a quick roadmap.

First, we’ll go over the basics: what the UC essays are, what all they require of you, and how they’re evaluated.

Then we’ll move into talking about the three “rules” (read: strategies) that I encourage all students to follow to write the best UC essays possible.

Finally, I’ll go through each UC essay prompt in turn. I’ll break down what every single prompt is asking you to do and give you brainstorming and outlining exercises to get you started. I’ve also included UC essay examples for all eight prompts so you know what you should look for in your own.

Okay, ready? Let's get into it.

What are the UC Essays?

The UC essays are a set of 8 prompts from which applicants must select and answer four. These prompts provide you an opportunity to show UC admissions committees exactly who you are.

The UC website introduces these prompts in this slightly bizarre way: "Imagine UC was a person. If we met face-to-face, what would you want us to know about you?"

OK, don't love the idea of imagining a massive institutional system as a singular person, but there it is.

Instead of picturing the UCs as a person, try approaching your UC essays with a few institutional values in mind. Things like intellectual curiosity, community-mindedness, innovation, leadership, and altruism should underlie your essay writing.

Why? Because those are the values central to the University of California system. The University of California’s motto is, “Let there be light,” and the Office of the President sums up the University’s mission with these three phrases: We Teach. We do research. We provide public service.

Since you’re applying to join this institution, your essays are the perfect place to demonstrate that you belong there.

Now, back to the essays themselves.

UC Personal Insight Question Word Limit

Each of the four essays you select has a maximum word length of 350 words. That means that you’ll be writing a maximum of 1,400 words for your UC essays.

But don’t worry about perfectly meeting this word limit for every single essay. You should shoot to hit at least 275 words for each essay, though.

If you’re using a word processor, 275 words is just over half a page single-spaced or a full page double-spaced. If you’re on the upper end of the word limit, you should be about 3/4 page single-spaced or almost 1.5 pages double-spaced for every single essay.

As long as you’re within the word count, though, what matters most is the quality of your essays.

How Important are Personal Insight Questions?

As the UC explains, the UC Personal Insight Questions play an important role in UC admissions decisions.

The UC system emphasizes that all the prompts are evaluated equally; that is, no prompt is more or less valuable to answer than any of the others.

With that information in hand, you should feel comfortable choosing the four prompts that best suit your needs. Don’t worry about an admissions officer analyzing why you chose the prompts you chose. Just choose the ones that let you tell your story in the fullest and most strategic way possible.

Also be comforted by the fact that the UCs explicitly state that there isn’t a right or wrong way to answer each prompt. Now, some ways are definitely better than others (and we’ll get to that in a minute). But UC admissions officers won’t go into your essay with an already-established idea of what your essay should be about.

But just because you have some flexibility with the Personal Insight Questions doesn’t mean that you should just write whatever you want. They’re an extremely important part of the selection process, nearly equal to the importance of one's grades and academic performance.

Each individual UC campus gives different weight to the essays in the decision process. You can click through each campus to read more about that on the UC’s website. But no matter which campuses you’re applying to, your admissions officers will base their admission decision, at least in part, on your essays.

Phew! So as with any college essay, the stakes are high.

But what makes UC essays a bit challenging is the fact that they are completely different animals than the Common Application Essay or school-specific supplementals (if you want to read more about either of those, check out our Resource Hub). UC essays require a totally different approach to presenting your narrative.

Before we get into our strategies for approaching your UC essay narrative, it’s important to look more specifically at how the UCs evaluate your essays.

UC Points of Comprehensive Review

One of the reasons college essays are so hard to write is because it’s difficult to know what’s expected of you. You write your essays as well as you can, you submit them when you’re ready, and you hope for the best.

On the other side of the admissions portal is an admissions officer who you’ve likely never met. They don’t know you, so all they have to go on is what you and your recommenders have put on paper.

Similarly, colleges don’t typically put out rubrics or outline exactly what they want to see of you.

Well, most colleges don’t. Thankfully for all of us, the UCs do.

In a list called the “Points of Comprehensive Review,” the UC system describes in detail each part of their application review process. If you are really interested in this stuff, it might benefit you to read through the UC's own information on a page called "How applications are reviewed."

But I’ll summarize them for you here.

First off, the UCs, like the vast majority of colleges, evaluates your academic performance within the context of your school. For example, if your school doesn’t have any AP or IB classes, your application will be evaluated differently than someone whose school does.

Other points of review are also relatively standard among admissions committees. These include factors like GPA, the number and level of rigorous classes, and class rank.

The UCs also look for students who have demonstrated commitment to and excellence at particular subject areas or special projects. That means things like going to your local college to take a more advanced math class or working with your city to study pollution in your nearby stream—things outside of the classroom that show initiative and impact.

If you’re following along on the UC’s How Applications are Reviewed list, then you’ll see that numbers 10-12 are bulky. They’re also the places where your UC essays can shine the most light and have the biggest impact, so pay close attention.

Number 10 lists off a number of considerations, including things like special talents, achievements, intensive studies or explorations, leadership, community service, and intellectual vitality.

Number 11 references the impact you’ve had on your school community, including special projects related to academics, school events, or programs.

Finally, number 12 states that the UCs also factor in how impressive your accomplishments are relative to your personal and family background.

If it’s your senior year, you can’t do much about where you fall on the first half of this list. Factors like GPA, class rigor, and extracurricular performance are, at this point, somewhat out of your control.

But these soft factors also play an important role in determining whether you’ll be admitted. How you talk about your accomplishments, your role in your community, your leadership skills, and your identity matters.

That’s why your essays matter. And that’s why it’s important to write them strategically.

Scroll to the bottom of the page if you want to jump straight to our prompt-specific guides, but we think it’s helpful to first go over three rules that will keep your UC essay strategy on track.

Writing the UC Essays

The UC essays are entirely different than your Common Application essay or supplemental essays. In particular, the most important thing you need to know about the UC essays is that they require a different tone and structure than the other, more personal essays required by many schools.

But if you do the UC essays right, they can also serve as the groundwork for all your other writing. This is because UC essays are relatively straightforward and to-the-point. You tell a story, highlight what steps you took to make a change, and reflect briefly on what it all means.

Going through this thought process for every UC essay you write can give you great material for your personal statement and supplemental essays. So take the process seriously, not only for your UCs but also for your other applications, too.

Before we go through the prompts, and definitely before you begin writing, we need to go over three strategies that will give your essays the best shot possible.

Here they are—are a few "rules" that will help you tackle the UC essays.

Rule #1: UC Essays Should Cut Straight to the Point

In non-UC personal college essays, it is generally OK to be reflective and abstract. Of course, the best personal essays are defined by their attention to detail. But many personal essays land on ambiguous and uncertain footing. There is often no clear-cut conclusion or lesson, and for those essays, that's OK.

But the UC essays do not follow the same rubric.

You simply cannot write a UC essay in the same way you write a Common App personal statement. This is because the UC essays are evaluated partly on their directness and specificity. They are not exercises in creative writing or in unvarnished reflection.

Each UC essay should tell a straightforward story from your life. They should highlight an experience, what you learned from it, and (sometimes) how the experience will shape your future.

Part of writing direct, to-the-point UC essays is also about effectively reading and understanding each prompt. The prompts often contain multiple parts and can have confusing wording. I’ll walk you through each one, but it’s important that you know the why behind doing prompt analyses.

Consider prompt #5 as an example: "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?"

This is not an invitation to tell a long story about the feeling of being privileged and bereft of topics for your college essay.

Instead, it's a time to talk about an acute problem (either persistent or temporary) and the actions you took to overcome it. The prompt also asks: How did it affect your academic achievement?

We can answer this prompt well if we do three things in this specific order:

  1. Explain a specific problem. Be a good journalist and expand on who, what, where, when, and why?
  2. Talk about the solution. What did you do to deal with your problem?
  3. Talk about the effect the problem had on your academics.

I know this might seem self-evident. But countless students have (and will continue to) roast themselves on prompts like this because they neglect to address a third of it. Every single part is important. The order in which you write about each part is important.

In case I haven't been clear: The UC essays require straightforwardness. Answer the prompt. Directly.

Rule #2: Try to Write the UC Essays First

It can be hard to navigate the transition from a reflective personal statement to the UC essays. That's why I usually have my students tackle the UC prompts first.

There are two benefits to this.

First, the UC applications are due earlier (November 30th) than most other schools. At up to 1,400 words collectively, they're a pretty major undertaking. So it's great to get going early, otherwise you’ll be stressed and write worse essays.

Second, I usually find that in the process of writing the UC prompts, my students discover the germs of the stories that they want to write about for their common application or for school-specific supplemental essays.

(Prompts about intellectual vitality, in particular, end up being easy to translate over to supplemental essays, and the prompts that ask about personal background can help you think about the stories that are most important to you.)

The UC essays are an exercise in concision. You will need to pare down your writing so that only the most essential details are present. If you rise to meet the challenge of the UC essays early, the rest of your essays will benefit from a war chest of succinct and powerful turns of phrase, sections of exposition, and whole paragraphs that can be transplanted at will into other essays.

Your UC essays lay out your stories, actions, and lessons. Your personal statement and supplementals can take these stories and run with them.

Rule #3: Select Prompts that Balance Your Narrative

Let's go back to that chunky block quote taken from the UC website for a second.

In your essays, they are looking for...

Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

You can't be all of these things. But you can be at least four of them, because that's how many essays you get to write.

Have you ever played a video game where you had to balance your character's attributes? Turn up the speed, adjust down the strength, balance out the agility. It's kinda like that. You have a fixed number of "points" that you get to put into each category.

In this context, those categories might look like: creativity, intellectual vitality, leadership, resilience, compassion, and community engagement, just to name a few. They’re the kinds of values that we talked about way back at the UC motto and mission statement.

My advice: take a hard look at your application, figure out where your greatest strengths are, and lean into that area with two of your essays. Then, with the other two, show your diversity.

In other words, your essay narrative allotment should look like this:

Essay #1: Show a strength

Essay #2: Emphasize that same strength

Essay #3: Add some spice—throw a different topic in there.

Essay #4: Add even more spice—focus on a different fourth topic.

So if you're a really strong student, maybe you'll pick prompts #4 (academic opportunity) and #6 (intellectual passion). Those two should give you enough space to write expansively about your intellectual interests, research experience, and plans for study in college.

Then to show that you aren't just a bookworm, you can pick up prompts #1 (leadership) and #2 (creativity). The first will allow you to show the side of yourself that are externally engaged. The second will give you a chance to show you have multiple intelligences and diverse interests that go beyond a narrow academic scope.

Finding this balance is one of the keys to success in UC admissions.

OK, there are the rules: write in a straightforward style that answers the prompt directly, focus on your UC essays first, and choose four prompts that let you balance your narrative.

How are you doing? Need to take a snack break?

When you’re ready, it’s time to go through all eight of the UC prompts.

Here we go!

How to Answer the UC Essay Prompts

UC Essay Prompt #1: Leadership

The first UC essay prompt asks you to reflect on a "leadership experience." Whether or not you’re a team captain or manager at a restaurant, you can still answer this prompt. A leader can be any individual who shows initiative and effort, even if you’re working in isolation to change your community for the better.

Either way, this prompt is about "inter-relations." It’s a tool for getting at the question of how you relate to others. If written well, it can really help to humanize you in the eyes of the committee and show that you don’t just exist in your community—you contribute to it.

Let’s look at the exact wording of the prompt and dive a little deeper into how you can answer it.

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.

So this prompt is asking for two main things from us:

  1. We need to “describe an example of” our “leadership experience.”

  2. But it’s can’t be just any leadership experience. It needs specifically to be an experience where we:

    a) “positively influenced others”

b) “helped resolve disputes”

c) or “contributed to group efforts over time”

The example you choose doesn’t have to address all three of these criteria, but it should address at least one.

Also notice that the prompt isn’t asking you to talk about the biggest or most monumental way you’ve led people. It’s simply asking you to describe a time you’ve taken on a leadership role and influenced the people around you.

Your “leadership experience” could look a lot of different ways. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • Taking the lead on a group biology project
  • Resolving a dispute between your friends or siblings
  • Improving the process for packing hygiene kits for the community organization you volunteer with
  • Encouraging your debate teammates to practice more regularly
  • Organizing your choir peers to sing for the local retirement home

Whatever your experiences have been, this prompt asks you to think about the specific instances in your life when you have taken the lead and had a positive influence on the people and communities around you.

What this prompt is good for: The UCs value student initiative and leadership. This prompt can be a great way to show how you aren’t afraid to have an impact.

Prompt #1 Brainstorm Activity

To answer this prompt, begin by brainstorming some areas of your life where you’ve shown leadership. Remember that UC essays should be direct, to-the-point, and focused on the action steps you took. As you’re brainstorming, focus on examples that allow you to demonstrate actions and lessons.


Leadership Experience Which prompt category?
a) Positive influence
b) Helped resolve disputes
c) Contributed to group efforts
Concrete Action Steps Specific Lessons or Impacts


Once you have a sense of your options, remember UC Essay Rule #3: you need to balance your overall application narrative. Narrow down your options by picking an example of your leadership that works in tandem with your other essays to create a holistic picture of who you are. Doing so will help the UC admissions committees learn about the most important parts of you.

Prompt #1 Outline Activity

Once you’ve chosen an experience to write about, it’s time to start planning out your essay. As we explain in our UC essay guide, the most important rule to remember when writing UC essays is that you need to be direct and to-the-point.

Writing a UC essay is completely different than writing your Common App personal statement or your supplemental essays.

Instead of writing creatively to tell a deeply meaningful story, your UC essays need to lay out exactly what the situation was, what you did to impact the situation, and what the overall outcomes were.

In the case of UC Prompt #1, let’s return to the criteria of the prompt:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience

  2. Explain how you positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts.

Your essay structure will likely depend on the specific leadership experience you’ve decided to write about.

But a good structure to use might look something like this:

I. Introduction: Introduce your leadership experience by briefly explaining how the experience came about.

II. Middle: Address the specific details that led you to positively influence others, resolve disputes, or contribute to group efforts. Write about these details in a logical (likely chronological) way, and emphasize the action steps you took.

III. Conclusion: Reflect on the implications of your leadership. How did people react to your influence? What lesson did your leadership experience teach you? What was your overall impact?

As you write, keep your sentences clear and straightforward. Make sure the story you tell is clearly-organized and action-oriented.

UC Prompt #1 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #1 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #1 Final Takeaways

You don’t need to have moved mountains to pick this prompt. Even if you were alone in your bedroom mapping out neighborhood routes to canvas for a politician in your community, your initiative and actions have undoubtedly affected the people around you. The UCs want to hear about those leadership experiences, so pick the ones that stands out best to you, and write about it in a way that emphasizes actions and outcomes.

UC Prompt #2: Creativity

This is another prompt that can be approached from both conventional and unconventional angles. The most straightforward way to answer this prompt is by addressing artistic creativity. Are you a sculptor or a musician? Maybe this is where you talk about your creative process or what you feel when you make art.

But your answer can also imagine “creativity” more broadly. One of the best answers I ever saw to this prompt was about soccer. The student linked his analytical creativity (the tactical mind of a soccer captain) to the organic, in-the-moment creativity expressed through play.

Let’s look at the specific wording of the prompt.

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.

The central question this prompt asks you is:

  1. Describe how you express your creative side.

That means that your essay isn’t just going to be a description of your history playing the cello. Instead, your essay should focus on how it is that you express your creativity.

The prompt also gives us a few hints to get us started. “Creativity,” the prompt explains, can manifest itself in a number of ways: problem-solving, original or innovative thinking, or artistically.

Because the prompt allows you to write about more than traditional artforms or creative practices, you have a little bit of freedom with what you write about.

Here are just a few examples of how people might express their creativity:

  • Playing an instrument
  • Acting in theatre
  • Doing comedy
  • Building model trains
  • Writing and testing code
  • Writing prose or poetry
  • Creating online or digital content
  • Engineering structures or circuits

The list goes on and on. If you can make the case that your activity allows you to express a creative side of you, then you can write about it.

What this prompt is good for: Colleges love creative thinkers. Creativity, innovation, and problem-solving are all characteristics of people who aren’t afraid to make art and make a change in the world. If you want to show admissions officers that you’re one of those people, then this may be a good prompt for you.

Prompt #2 Brainstorming Activity

If you’re already deeply involved in a creative activity like music or theatre, then your topic choice for this question might be obvious.

Or maybe you’ve already quickly decided on a more unconventional creative topic to focus on.

But if you still can’t decide, then try out this brainstorming chart.


Activity Type of Creativity
a) problem-solving
b) original or innovative thinking
c) artistic
How does this activity allow me to express my creativity?


Hopefully you’re able to think up a few options. If not, then no worries! Maybe this prompt just isn’t the best one for you. You have seven others to choose from, so you still have lots of other options.

Prompt #2 Outlining Activity

If this prompt is the right choice for you, then you may find it helpful to outline a rough structure before you start writing.

With creativity essays especially, it can be difficult not to get distracted by personal expression and creative writing. But remember that all UC essays, even this creativity one, prioritize directness, so keep your focus on answering the prompt.

Here’s an example structure to get you started:

I. Introduction: Introduce what your creative activity is and what your history with it has looked like. You could also introduce what your “creative side” looks like.

II. Middle: Go in-depth on how, exactly, you express your creative side through this activity. Use specific details and action steps.

III. Conclusion: Briefly conclude by emphasizing what this creative expression has allowed you to do.

UC Prompt #2 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #2 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #2 Final Takeaways

Your creative activity doesn’t have to be a traditional artform. But you do need to make it clear a) what your “creative side” looks like and b) how you express that creative side through this activity.

UC Prompt #3: Exceptional Skill

When we think of skills, we might gravitate toward those singular abilities (juggling, playing an instrument, writing) that we have honed over time. But what you write about doesn’t just have to be something worthy of a talent show.

Here is a list of other, equally valid skills you might have: communication, listening, dream-interpretation, rock-skipping, phone repair, or doing a headstand. These other kinds of talents can be just as interesting and revealing.

Do these seem dumb? I admit: it might make for a bad essay to wax poetic about how you learned to balance on your head. But if talking about balancing on your head allows you to go deep into your quest to learn about physiology and exercise science, then we might be onto something.

What matter less than the specific talent you choose is the way you choose to write about it. If nothing immediately comes to mind for you, then it might be better to choose one of the other seven prompts. But if you do have something you want to write about, then run with it.

Let’s analyze the prompt and go over how you can write an essay that stands out.

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

Of the UC prompts, this one is fairly to-the-point and straightforward. It simply asks you to answer three direct questions:

  1. What is your greatest talent/skill?

  2. How have you developed it over time?

  3. How have you demonstrated it over time?

So the talent or skill you choose probably shouldn’t be something you learned on a whim and have only done once in your life. Maybe you learned that you’re really good at flying a hot air balloon but have only done it one time because you don’t own a hot air balloon. Okay, that might actually make for a good essay. But would it fully answer the prompt? Probably not.

Anyway, the talent or skill you choose should reveal something about yourself—or, more specifically, one of your core strengths—to the admissions committee.

What this prompt is good for: The skill you select can shine light on a deeper character quality or a commitment to learning and improving. From that angle, this prompt can be a good opportunity to showcase perseverance and stick-to-it-ness.

Prompt #3 Brainstorming Activity

Before you work through the following chart, let’s briefly expand on the difference between “develop” and “demonstrate.” I think you could interpret these terms a few ways, but I would say that this is the main difference:

Develop: How did you learn you were capable of this skill? What have you done to improve your abilities? How did you stick with the skill despite any odds?

Demonstrate: How do you show your talent or skill to others? How does it affect the people or world around you?

Talent/Skill Why it’s your greatest How have you developed it over time? How have you demonstrated it over time?

Prompt #3 Outlining Activity

Thankfully, Prompt #3 also provides a fairly straightforward way for you to organize your essay response. If it makes sense for you, you can outline your essay in exactly the same order the questions are presented in the prompt:

I. Introduction: Introduce your greatest talent or skill. Be detailed about what exactly it is that you can do.

II. Middle:

  • Elaborate on how you developed this skill. Describe specific action steps you took to improve your abilities.
  • Elaborate on how you demonstrate this skill. Describe specific action steps you’ve taken to share your skill with others.
  • Don’t forget the “over time” part of the prompt, either. Your essay should emphasize how these factors have existed throughout time.

III. Conclusion: Conclude by reflecting on what you have gained from developing and demonstrating this skill.

UC Prompt #3 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #3 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #3 Final Takeaways

Prompt #3 isn’t for everyone, but it can be a great way to write about something memorable, highlight a special skill that few people possess, or demonstrate a significant perspective or ability to persevere.

UC Prompt #4: Opportunity / Barrier in Education

Alert: read. the. prompt. This alert is important for all UC essays but especially this one. This prompt is not an invitation to talk about any old opportunity or challenge in your life. It is specifically about how these have touched down on your education.

The UC provides some instructive info about this prompt. They say that "an educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college." With this extra guidance, you have some flexibility in your topic choice.

If you enrolled in a foreign school and underwent a year of intensive language immersion, you might choose this prompt. But it doesn't need to be so grand. You could write about an internship you took that helped you clarify your research focus. Or you could go through what it was like to deal with the stigma of having an IEP.

Let’s walk through each part of the prompt, and then we’ll explain how you can best approach it.

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

This prompt can be confusing because it’s a “fork in the road” prompt, which means that it’s asking you to choose one of two different options. And the options it gives you are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Because the prompt puts an “or” in between these two options, we know that you do not have to answer both. You can choose to focus on one or the other.

Option 1: Educational Opportunity

For this option, you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Describe a significant educational opportunity you’ve been presented.

  2. Describe how you took advantage of it.

Option 2: Educational Barrier

For this option, you’ll also need to do two things:

  1. Describe an educational barrier you have faced.

  2. Explain how you worked to overcome it.

Note that the prompt says “worked to overcome it.” That means that you don’t necessarily have to have solved every single part of the problem you experienced. What the admissions committee really wants to see here is effort. If your educational barrier is that you’ve moved several times throughout high school, then that’s not something you can solve. What you should focus on instead is how you found a way to persist and do your best in spite of the challenges.

What this prompt is good for: The advantage of this prompt depends on which direction you take the fork in the road. If you choose Option 1, then the advantage is that you get to elaborate on a cool opportunity you’ve been presented and show how well you can take advantage of what’s in front of you. If you take Option 2, then you have a legitimate and thoughtful way to explain any educational hardships you’ve experienced, and you can show that you are resilient and capable of improving.

Prompt #4 Brainstorming Activity

If this is the prompt for you, then something will probably immediately come to mind. If not, it’s better not to force a non-opportunity or non-barrier to fit into those boxes.

“Opportunities” might include things like: an internship or research opportunity, a particularly amazing teacher you connected with, a special guest lecturer, an educational trip with school or family, a study abroad trip, an educational extracurricular activity, and more.

“Barriers” might include things like: school or family situations that led to grade blips, parts of your personal health or mental health journey, experiences with learning differences, and more.

If something in this list resonated with you or sparked any ideas, then try moving on to the outlining activity. But if you’re still coming up blank, then you might consider choosing another prompt.

Prompt #4 Outlining Activity

The biggest thing to remember when writing this essay is to focus on actions. This fact is important in all UC essays but especially this one. The prompt very specifically asks you to describe the steps you’ve taken to “take advantage of” or “overcome” the experience you’ve decided to write about.

I. Introduction: Introduce the educational opportunity or educational barrier you want to focus on.

II. Middle: Describe the action steps you took to take advantage of the opportunity or work to overcome the barrier.

III. Conclusion: Reflect on how the opportunity or barrier and your response to it has shaped where you’re at today.

UC Prompt #4 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #4 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #4 Final Takeaways

This prompt isn’t for everyone, so don’t try to force it. But if you’ve experienced an impactful opportunity or want to explain some academic challenges you’ve overcome, then it can be a great way to let the admissions committee know. If you write this essay, just be sure that you’re keeping your focus on academics and emphasizing your actions.

UC Prompt #5: General Challenge

I think this is one of the best prompts to answer among the UC essays. Why? Because everyone faces challenges, even if we don't want to admit it.

From my perspective, this prompt can be worth double points. First, you get the opportunity to write a great essay about engaging with a problem. But second, you get to show off the additional maturity it takes to dig deep and admit to a committee of strangers that your life ain't so perfect.

Just remember, remember, remember: your job is not to elicit pity. It’s to show your maturity and resilience in dealing with adversity.

Let’s break down the prompt and talk about how to write it.

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?

We have another three-parter here. The prompt asks you to do several things:

  1. Describe your most significant challenge

  2. Describe the steps you took to overcome that challenge

  3. Explain how that challenge affected your academic achievement specifically

It's important to keep the wording of the prompt in mind. Notice how the prompt says “the most significant challenge you have faced.” It’s not asking for a day-to-day challenge or, worse, a challenge that’s actually a brag in disguise (”I worked too hard on building my award-winning robot!”).

It’s asking you to be vulnerable in sharing a deeply impactful challenge you’ve faced. And not just any challenge, but one you’ve dealt with enough to try to overcome. This should not be an essay about your ongoing efforts to deal with existential malaise. Your problem should be clearly identifiable, and you should also be able to point out how you have managed it.

Finally, you need to address how the challenge has touched back on your academic performance or experience.

What this prompt is good for: If you've faced any major challenges, this prompt can help share that story with an admissions committee. It’s also a great prompt to answer if you specifically had a big lapse in grades due to something that happened in your life.

Prompt #5 Brainstorming Activity

To make sure you’re hitting all parts of the prompt, consider filling out this chart. If you’ve faced a complex challenge or multiple challenges, you may also find it difficult to distill your experiences into a concrete example. If that’s the case, try being as specific as you can and filling out more than one row on the chart until you find something that you feel most comfortable with.

Challenge What steps did you take to overcome the challenge? How did the challenge affect your academic achievement?

Prompt #5 Outlining Activity

This essay is one that you may not write in the exact same order as the prompt lists the questions. Since your challenge likely affected your academic achievement before you began taking steps to overcome it, it may make sense to discuss your academic challenges before your action steps.

If that’s the case for you, your outline may look something like this:

I. Introduction: Introduce the challenge and the effect it had on you.

II. Middle:

  • Describe how the challenge affected your academic achievement specifically.
  • Describe the specific steps you took to overcome the challenge and improve your situation.

III. Conclusion: Reflect on what you learned from this experience.

UC Prompt #5 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #5 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #5 Final Takeaways

Don’t feel compelled to share anything you’re not ready to share. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: you do not have to write about trauma to get into college. In fact, writing about challenges that you haven’t begun to heal from can result in essays that miss the mark.

But at the same time, you may find that you want to write about a challenge to explain part of your personal background or transcript. If so, this prompt can be a great opportunity to share your story.

UC Prompt #6: Intellectual Vitality

Calling all nerds! I almost always recommend that my students answer this prompt, and I’ll recommend that you should consider it, too.

Why? If you've been reading closely, you may have noticed by now that many of these prompts come back to academic experience. It's no mystery: the UCs care above all about their academic culture.

This is the only prompt from the list that directly asks you about your academic proclivities. Go for it. Even if you aren't someone who strongly identifies as an academic, you should make an effort to talk about what inspires you in and outside the classroom.

Intellectual vitality can draw admissions officers into your interests and show them why you’re such a great fit for the UCs’ vibrant academic cultures. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to show what a curious student you are.

Here we go—I’ll break down the prompt and give you a few ways to choose the right subject.

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

After the fairly complicated wording of prompts #4 and #5, this fairly straightforward prompt is a breath of fresh air.

In terms of answering the prompt, you have to do a few simple things:

  1. Think about an academic subject. That means it can’t be just any topic—it needs to be academic and relate to a subject taught in college.

  2. The subject should be one that clearly inspires you.

  3. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

So your essay should describe an academic interest that inspires you, and you should explain how you have taken your interest and run with it either inside or outside of school.

Part #3 leaves you with a lot of flexibility with the definition of “furthered.” You may interpret “furthered” to mean simply that you learned more about the subject, or it could mean that you took your knowledge and applied it to the real world. You may have advanced your knowledge by taking more classes related to the subject, or you may have taken the initiative to learn things outside of school.

With the prompt broken down, the real challenge comes in picking the right topic and writing about it in an interesting way.

What this prompt is good for: I recommend that everyone writes this essay because it’s a great way to show admissions officers that you are ready to tackle the intellectual challenges of college. The UCs are internationally recognized for their academic rigor, so showing that your intellectual vitality can match that of the schools is important. Additionally, it’s a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate fit for a particular major or general area of study you are interested in.

Prompt #6 Brainstorming Activity

Everyone learns. One of my students answered this prompt by talking about how his economics class helped him get into equities trading. As he learned more about regional markets as part of his trading strategy, he found that he became more engaged in the classroom too.

As long as you can relate your interest to an academic discipline, your options are really limitless.

If you’re applying with a specific major in mind, your academic interest can relate to that subject or not.

The key to choosing a topic, however, is that you have to be able to show concrete steps you took to “further this interest.”

Here’s a chart to help you brainstorm.

Academic Subject Why does it inspire you? What did “furthering your interest” in this academic subject look like? What concrete steps did you take to further your interest? Were these steps inside the classroom, outside the classroom, or both?

Prompt #6 Outlining Activity

I. Introduction: Introduce your academic subject. (Make sure it’s academic.)

II. Middle: Elaborate on how you furthered this interest. Explain whether it was inside or outside (or both) the classroom. Focus on specific details and action steps.

III. Conclusion: Conclude by focusing on how your intellectual vitality has benefited from this journey. You may also look forward to how you want to continue this academic or educational journey in the future.

UC Prompt #6 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #6 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #6 Final Takeaways

You should probably write this essay. It’s one of the best options you can choose because you can’t go wrong in demonstrating academic interest and fit. Just be sure that you focus on an academic topic and write about the concrete steps you took to “further” or advance your understanding of the topic.

UC Prompt #7: Community Betterment

Just as you have flexibility in defining “leadership” in prompt #1, the key to this prompt is to define the concept of "community." Community could refer to any scale of human organization. Your family. Your group of friends. Your graduating year. Your high school. Your town. Your state. The country.

It doesn't matter what level of organization you focus on. What does matter is that you have a compelling action to talk about. How did you improve your community? The change could be a cultural or material one. It could affect a small number of people or an entire city or state.

Before you begin writing, it will be helpful to analyze this deceptively simple prompt.

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

This simple question, only fourteen words, is actually asking you to do quite a bit of work. Let’s break it down.

  1. First, you have to choose a community to focus on.

  2. Next, you have to describe what actions you have taken

  3. And finally, your actions have to be ones that have specifically made your chosen community a better place.

There are millions of ways you could approach this question. But what determines how you approach it is the community you choose.

If you’ve done something world-changing, then this is the place to write about it. But if you haven’t, don’t worry. Even small, local impacts within your family, friend group, or school community can have a deep impact on admissions officers.

What’s important to show is your care for and willingness to engage in your community.

What this prompt is good for: I find this one a bit boring to write, but it’s usually worthwhile. It shows off a great characteristic: altruism. The UC system is looking for students who are outwardly engaged in the problems of today. This prompt can provide an opportunity to align yourself with that value.

Prompt #7 Brainstorming Activity

Since you have lots of options because you’re undoubtedly part of lots of different communities, you may find it helpful to brainstorm what different community options might look like.

Start by writing down all the communities you can think of. Remember that “communities” can be more apparent (home, work, church, athletic, music, city communities) or they can be less apparent (friend groups, a specific classroom, an online community, a community of people with similar interests).

For each community you come up with, brainstorm the impact you’ve had. And if you don’t think you’ve had an impact—think again! Even actions as small as encouraging a member of your Spanish small group to speak aloud can have a huge impact.

Once you’ve determined your impact, think about what actions you took to get there. Be specific and detailed.

Finally, reflect on any relevant lessons you’ve learned.

Community Impact I’ve had Action steps I took Lessons I learned

When your brainstorm is complete, try picking out the community in which you’ve a) had the biggest impact and b) taken the clearest action steps.

Prompt #7 Outlining Activity

Based on what the prompt is asking you to do, a good essay structure may look something like this:

I. Introduction: Introduce the school or other community you’ve chosen to focus on. Describe your specific role in that community.

II. Middle: Explain a) what you understood the problem(s) to be, b) what specific actions you took to address those problems, and c) the ways in which your actions made the community better off.

III. Conclusion: You can reflect more on how or why you made your community better, what it’s like to be in a better community, or what lessons you learned as part of the process.

As always with UC essays, don’t forget to focus on the specifics.

UC Prompt #7 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #7 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #7 Final Takeaways

If you’re having trouble deciding between the prompts, this one is another good bet. It’s likely that you’re part of more communities than you realize. As you write, just be sure that you define the specific community you’re writing about and describe your action steps in detail.

UC Prompt #8: Open Prompt

I don't want to offer a ton of commentary here. I believe that most possible essay topics are covered by the first 7 prompts, and I usually try to steer my students toward those. But on a case-by-case basis, I think prompt #8 can be the right call.

That may be the case especially if you feel like a part of yourself hasn’t been fully represented in the other prompts. Or if you’ve written another essay or supplemental essay that you feel is necessary to understanding your story, then you may also consider this option.

But if not, don’t worry about not answering this prompt. The UC admissions committees explicitly state that all prompts are weighted equally, so you won’t be penalized if you do or don’t choose prompt #8.

If you do feel like it is the right choice for you, then let’s take a look at what it’s asking of you.

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?

This prompt lists a few requirements:

  1. “Beyond what has already been shared in your application” implies that whatever you share in this essay should not appear anywhere else in your application.

  2. You also need to choose something that “you believe makes you stand out”

  3. But it can’t just be anything that makes you stand out. You should stand out specifically as “a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California.”

Like other open-ended prompts, you’ll have to make your case for why the essay topic you choose is important. Don’t just plop any ole essay in here and hope that it works. You’ll need to meet each of these expectations to write a good and effective essay answer.

Take another look at the Points of Comprehensive Review if necessary.

What this prompt is good for: If you feel like anything in your application is left unsaid, then this is your chance to say it.

Prompt #8 Brainstorming Activity

Since this prompt is so open-ended, a brainstorming activity probably wouldn’t be very helpful to you. It’s one of those “iykyk” prompts—if you know that you have something else to write about, then you already know that this is the prompt for you.

But as you’re reflecting on your topic choices, remember UC Essay Rule #3: Select Prompts that Balance your Narrative. Whatever you include here should be a piece of information that is essential to balancing out your application narrative.

Prompt #8 Outlining Activity

You have a similar kind of flexibility with how you structure your essay, as long as you’re adhering to each of the three parts of the prompt.

With those components in mind, your essay may look something like this:

  1. Introduction: Introduce your topic in a way that makes the topic clear.

  2. Middle: Describe any action steps you took in a way that makes it clear a) why this topic makes you stand out and b) why this topic makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the UCs.

  3. Conclusion: Conclude by driving home why this topic is important to your story.

UC Prompt #8 Example Essay

You can find an example essay for UC Prompt #8 on our UC Example Essays post.

UC Prompt #8 Final Takeaways

If four of the other seven prompts work well with your story, then you might just want to skip past this one. But if you feel like there’s really something else you need to say, then just make sure you’re meeting all the requirements of this open-ended prompt.

Final Thoughts

The UC essays are exercises in precision, strategy, and honesty.

You need to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as an applicant, then carefully pick the prompts that support those. Then, you need to write clearly and directly, telling four stories that help the committee get to know you.

It's really hard. But doable, I promise. Hopefully this guide has been helpful! If so, check out our other college essay guides and the Essay Academy course for guidance on your other college essays. Until then. đź‘‹

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