Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥


Last updated June 5, 2024

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

4 UC Essay Mistakes to Avoid

Key Takeaway

Avoid common UC essay mistakes by maintaining the appropriate UC tone, refraining from mentioning specific campuses, addressing all parts of the prompt, and choosing essay topics that aren't redundant.

To apply to the University of California system, you need to submit the UC application. We show you how to answer the UC Personal Insight Questions in a different post, but this post will go over the most common mistakes we see in UC essays (and how to avoid them).

Let’s jump in.

What are the UC Essays?

The University of California system asks students to answer four Personal Insight Questions (PIQs). There are eight prompts to choose from, and each essay must be 350 words or less. (Want to see some UC essay examples? Check them out here.)

The goal of the PIQs is to let UC admissions officers know more about you—your goals, academic interests, and life perspectives. They’re also to show why you’re a good fit for the UC system. All UC campuses you apply to will receive the same essays, which means they are not specific to any one campus.

With that in mind, let’s get into the mistakes.

Mistake #1: Forgetting the UC Tone

The most common UC essay mistake is using the wrong tone in your essays. As we’ve already covered in our guide to the UC prompts, the UC essays require a very specific tone. It’s straightforward and to-the-point.

UC admissions officers aren't looking for complicated language or deep philosophical ramblings. They prefer a clear, direct style that directly communicates your ideas, experiences, and goals. Your essays should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the result or impact of your story should be apparent. If you don't stick to this tone, it can get in the way of the overall message you’re communicating in your essays.

Mistake #2: Mentioning Specific UC Schools

Another trap that many UC applicants fall into is mentioning a specific UC school in their essays. We know, you probably have a favorite UC that you reallllllly want to go to. But mentioning it in your essays is not the move.

Unlike supplemental essays for other schools, you don’t need to reference specific parts of campus life you’re interested in.

Since your UC application is sent to all UC campuses you apply to, it's important to keep your essays focused on your personal traits and experiences rather than a specific UC campus.

If you mention a particular campus, it may unintentionally show a bias that could harm your chances at other UC campuses. It also shows that you didn’t quite do your research to understand how the UC application works.

Mistake #3: Overlooking Parts of the Prompt

The UC prompts contain a lot of questions. Your essays should answer ALL relevant parts of the prompt. Missing part of the prompt will leave your admissions officer wondering what happened, and your essay will feel incomplete.

By ignoring part of the prompt, you end up communicating the wrong message. You show admissions officers that you haven’t quite followed instructions, and you miss out on an opportunity to reveal something else about yourself through the essay. Every essay is an opportunity to stand out, so don’t overlook any part of the prompts you respond to.

Mistake #4: Repeating Yourself in Your Essays

You’ll write four separate UC essays in your UC application. As we explain in our guide to answering the UC prompts, your job as an applicant is to choose four topics that complement each other and balance your application narrative.

Just as your personal statement and supplemental essays should complement each other, your four UC essays should also form a cohesive picture of who you are. If you're repeating the same experiences or personality traits, you're wasting valuable essay space.

The wrong approach:

Here’s what a bad breakdown of topics might look like…

  • Essay Topic 1: Your leadership as captain of your debate team
  • Essay Topic 2: Overcoming the challenges of a particularly tough debate you had
  • Essay Topic 3: Expressing your creativity as a debater
  • Essay Topic 4: Your interest in political science

Why is this breakdown bad? Because the topics are too redundant. We actually learn next to nothing about the student, their values, and their talents beyond debate.

The right approach:

  • Essay Topic 1: Your leadership as captain of your debate team
  • Essay Topic 2: Working with a speech and language pathologist on your stutter in high school
  • Essay Topic 3: Expressing your creativity as a painter
  • Essay Topic 4: Your interest in political science

In this breakdown, we can see the relationship between the student’s role in debate and their interest in political science. But we also see that they have personal experiences with a stutter and that they have a hobby painting. Overall, we get a much clearer picture of who this student is and where they come from.

That’s how all of your UC essays should work together to share your story with admissions officers.

Fixing Your UC Essay Mistakes

Now that we've pinpointed the common problems, it's time to go over how to fix them.

Start by understanding and sticking to the UC tone. You can get a good sense of the style by reviewing strong UC essay examples. Keep your language clear, specific, and engaging.

Next, don't mention specific UC campuses in your essays. These essays need to be relevant to all UC campuses you're applying to, so keep a broad perspective and focus on yourself.

Make sure you address every part of the prompt. Leaving out any question or part of the prompt—for example, don’t forget the “How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?” part of Prompt #5!—might lead the admissions officers to question your attentiveness. Before you start writing, break down the prompt and plan your response to each part. Diagram the prompt like this:

Prompt #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?

a) Describe the most significant challenge you have faced

b) the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge

c) How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

With this diagram, we can see that there are THREE important questions the essay response needs to address. Diagramming each prompt you respond to will help you be sure not to miss anything.

Lastly, remember that each of your essays should show a different part of your story. Use each essay as an opportunity to highlight a different activity or experience that has shaped you.

Applying for UCs may seem daunting because of their unique requirements. It’s a whole application you have to put together, after all. But understanding these common mistakes from the get-go can help you save lots of time and effort.


UC essays require a particular tone and approach. To steer clear of common mistakes, make sure your tone aligns with the UC style, don't mention specific campuses, respond to every part of the prompt, and make sure each essay reveals a different part of who you are.



Liked that? Try this next.