I have spent the past month giving presentations on writing powerful college application essays and reading first drafts of students’ UC personal statements. Regardless of where I’ve gone, I’ve seen a troubling pattern in interpreting and writing UC Essay Prompt 1, which reads:

For Freshmen
PROMPT #1: 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.

Students read the prompt literally, and I have read hundreds of essays about where students grew up or dramatic family situations. Students do not appear in their own essays until the end of the essay when they discuss why they want to go to college. These students cut across all socio-economic statuses. They do not understand the prompt.

UC1 is not a literal essay. It is designed to help the UCs accept a diverse class with kids from diverse experience backgrounds. They want to know that kids belong to communities and will come to a large UC campus and make a difference. They want to know that if they come from a challenging background, how they’ve overcome or adapted to them by becoming passionate teenagers.

UC Berkeley give powerful advice about the personal statement on its website:

What we look for:

  • Initiative, motivation, leadership, persistence, service to others, special potential andsubstantial experience with other cultures
  • All achievement in light of the opportunities available to you
  • Any unusual circumstances or hardships you have faced and the ways in which you have overcome or responded to them. Having a hardship is no guarantee of admission. If you choose to write about difficulties you have experienced, you should describe:
  • How you confronted and overcame your challenges, rather than describing a hardship just for the sake of including it in your application
  • What you learned from or achieved in spite of these circumstances

So to help kids show up in their worlds, I now rephrase the prompt during my presentations and ask the following questions:

1. Where are you making a difference in your world? Pick a community service activity, a job, or an experience that reveals where you are making a difference in the world.
2. How has your world shaped what you’ve experienced and your goals for college and/or life?
3.  Just a drop of water can change the ocean. Where are you adding your drop of water? How does this connect to your community and your goals?

Rephrasing the prompt helps. Here’s one example of how I helped a student reframe his UC1 personal statement to help colleges see his initiative, motivation, leadership, and ability to navigate different worlds.

Juan initially wrote about his loving, yet poor family and how he wanted to go to college for them. It answered the literal prompt but he didn’t show up specifically in his essay until the last paragraph. Moreover, he remained in the past and never made his way to the present.

juanAfter reading his resume and speaking with him, I learned that because he was the only one in his family (eight people shared three rooms) who spoke English, he became their medical translator. He called doctors, made appointments, and translated during visits. He fell in love with medicine and then began volunteering at his local hospital for more than 300 hours. There he often translated for families and knew he wanted to become a community doctor.

After he told me these powerful stories, I suggested that he weave them into the world he comes from essay. Juan then created a powerful essay that no one else could write. It revealed his ability to already change the world he comes from and that while people may think he’s poor, he’s rich in love. Moreover, his dreams and aspirations became clearer because through communication and medicine, he was able to show how by becoming pre-med, he could continue his work at bigger levels.

This process did not talk long. It was the conversation that mattered. It was the reframing of the essay for Juan. I have had these conversations with teenagers across all social-economic groups, and they have an easier time writing truly effective UC1 essays.

Many kids need to see how they can write this essay from the first person and be the protagonist from the first paragraph. Their relatives are not going to college. Their backgrounds do not show why they deserve to go to college. They help the University of California see their potential by sharing who they are now because of the world they come from.

I recommend that counselors help re-frame this essay for all students. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students are adding their drops of water through their work, service, activities, and academic passions. These activities connect back to their worlds and lead towards their futures. We need to help them understand the purpose of the essay. Then students can draft essays that help gain admission to the amazing diverse and wonderful UC campuses.

By Rebecca Joseph