For many years, the University of California required two long essays that gave freshman applicants the opportunity to share powerful stories. In order to do so, however, high school seniors often had to avoid reading the prompts literally. Below are the former prompts:

Prompt #1 (Freshman): Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Prompt #2 (All applicants): Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

Sadly, many applicants answering the first prompt literally described the world they came from as opposed to the ways they were making a difference in their worlds. They told true but not specific stories, and they rarely connected the essay to their accomplishments. And what 17-year-old already has real hopes and dreams? In the second prompt, again many applicants provided generic stories about qualities that didn’t help distinguish themselves. With coaching many students could write some great essays. But not all could.

Fortunately, this year the UC application changed, releasing eight 350-word insight questions of which applicants must answer four. The new prompts are much more declarative and clear.

  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 University of California?

These prompts are superior in many respects:

  1. The prompts enable students to provide four specific positive pieces of information. Even questions four and five focus on working to overcome challenges rather than the challenges themselves.
  2. The prompts connect to what the UCs are looking for in candidates. They match very well with the nine campuses’ overall holistic goals.
  3. The questions provide students with four ways to boast about themselves in short, specific ways.
  4. The short length of 350 words makes it much harder to get off track; students must be specific.
  5. The UCs offer incredibly helpful writing cues and guides along with the questions.
  6. The prompts are useful for other college applications. Some can be used for short activity statements; they can also show community engagement and highlight what students want to study in college.
  7. The prompts can help students prepare for interviews. Going into interviews with specific examples is a great way for applicants to showcase themselves.
  8. Lastly, the questions help teachers and counselors show young high school students what the UCs value in their applicants.

Students should take advantage of the opportunity the University of California is providing for them to share four powerful examples of their accomplishments through their short responses. Please encourage students to be as specific as possible and to write short paragraphs per response so that readers can see the progression of their shorter pieces.

I am eager to see how the application readers respond. I think that prompts three and eight may be the hardest to write for teenagers who rarely know how they really stand out, but the mere exercise in thinking about the questions offers value to applicants. The prompts remind students what I often tell them – that they must boast. This is not the time to be shy.

P.S. Ironically, if you miss the former UC personal statements, then go look at the Fall 2017 Apply Texas application, which adopted them as their essays this year.