7 Tips for Standout Answers: How to Shine Bright On Your UC Application

Unlike the ONE essay the Common Application requests, the universities of California ask students to write FOUR essays. Before you panic, there’s a catch. While the Common Application essay is 650-words or less, the universal application for UC schools asks for 300-word answers to their personal insight questions. In other words, you will be writing micro-essays for each of your four answers. (The application provides eight prompts but you must limit your responses to four only). You can see the questions at their website http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-questions/freshman/index.html.
On the surface, writing 300-word answers seems much, much easier than a 650-word essay. However, writing an authentic, thoughtful answer, while also standing out, is its own riddle. In fact, some of the UC schools accept less than 18% of applicants, with even lower acceptance rates for honors colleges and competitive programs like UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering, which accepts only 16% of applicants across the nation. As you approach this application, first take a deep breath, then use these tips to create your own standout answers for the UC application.

#1 Approach with Openness

Most teens do not like talking about themselves, much less writing about themselves. To make matters worse, few of them practice this style of writing in high school. For most students, there’s a gap—a gap between their comfort level and self-knowledge and the expectations of writing a great little essay. So before you dive in, set aside some quality time to get to know the questions and get to know yourself. Think of it as a little date with you and the prompts, maybe even take them out for coffee. Whether you sit alone at the kitchen table or in crowded bakery, the most important approach you can take is openness. Here’s how: 

  • Calendar one hour to thoughtfully move through each of the eight prompts. 
  • Read the prompts carefully and jot down any immediate thoughts. Don’t worry about sounding cliche or brilliant. Instead, try to outrace your internal censor because it’s possible your most random thought could become a gold mine for creating an authentic essay. 
  • Place a star next to the questions where you feel a connection. Using emotion to select a topic is an important way to ensure you actually care about your answer. Too many students write for what they think the audience wants, but college is a place where you get to stand on your own two feet and original thought is valued. Emotion alone will not help you craft your answer, but it will at least help you determine if you have something to say. Likewise, the reverse is true. If you resist a question or feel you have nothing to say, move on. Fortunately, there are eight options so you can find something else you like.

#2 Counter Your Intuition

It’s tempting to use these answers to highlight your GPA, test scores, or other amazing accomplishments. However, don’t base your answer off an award or accomplishment. For example, instead of saying you’re the top biology student in your school, focus on your love of the strep bacteria and your experience interning at a lab. Then, casually mention how it was icing on the cake to be awarded the Top Biology Student Award in the state of Oregon last year. See the difference? In sum, awards and accomplishments are a tremendous asset to your overall application but first address the value of this subject in your life. Then you can claim your awards not as trophies but as evidence that the world has validated your biggest passions.

#3 Make a Match

Before you write too much, make sure you’ve taken the time to research your UC school and know their values. Additionally, if you have a specific major chosen, you may also use your answers to highlight an experience or accomplishment (see #5) that demonstrates how you’re a good fit for this school or specific program. If you’re using the UC application for multiple UC schools, then make sure there’s at least one answer devoted to showing yourself as a match to your #1 school. You won’t want to say the school’s name, of course because you need your answer to work for multiple schools, but your answer can be its own coded to UCLA’s engineering school that you believe you’re a great fit because of your experience working as an intern for a wind surfing company last summer.

#4 Recycle the Good Stuff.

If you have already written a common application essay or other application essays, sift through your previous thoughts and consider if any of these are matches for some of the personal insight questions. You may be able to recycle your longer common application essay into two answers for the UC questions. Don’t force a fit, however. Just re-examine what you’ve already created because this writing means you’ve already thoughtfully considered the meaning of your experience. Between your feelings of connection to the prompt and your potential matches from other application writing, narrow your selections to four questions.

#5 Show Yourself through Story.

Although you have only 300 words, don’t forget you’re writing for admissions counselors who are using these questions to get to know you. In fact, on the UC webpage they compare your responses to interview answers. A great way to illustrate who you are and what you care about is to tell a brief story about an experience and make two points about its overall meaning. Make sure to show vs tell the experience because this recreation of the story provides important detail for your later points and analysis.

#6 Complete the Circle.

While 300 words isn’t quite a full essay, it’s too much writing to approach without imposing some structure. I teach my students how to layer meaning for the college application essay by strategically ordering the right information. Here’s a short version of the winning template I share with my students:
 
  • Begin with story
  • Move to background information
  • Illustrate 2 main ideas
  • Circle back to story
 

Even though it’s tight in a 650 design, it’s possible to create 5-6 paragraphs using this method in the college application essay. However, for these shorter answers we can abbreviate this template by blending paragraphs together. For example, you might have a story paragraph, then background + main idea, then main idea + return to story. This format works almost like a circle, giving your reader the experience of a whole answer, even with a short word count. 

#7 Refine Your Brilliance

We want you to shine bright in these essays, but you must be willing to shape, cut, and clean up your final answer. This process means first cutting away whole sentences and phrases that cloud meaning and then, trading mediocre words for better words, then the best words. Read your work aloud at least 3 times, then ask a trusted advisor* to read it and provide feedback or correction. 
*A trusted advisor is a college counselor, English teacher, or a parent who understands the philosophy of standing out (bragging alone is not enough) and who is also an excellent writer. I include this note because we all love our parents but they may not be the right person to help us with our writing. 

Boxcar Writing Labs Student Spotlight

Kathryn is one of the lucky few who discovered a passion early and used the college application process to find programs suited to provide her with training for her future fascinating career. After acceptances into the engineering programs at Purdue, Baylor, UCSB, Oregon State University, and UCLA, Kathryn chose to study bioengineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA, where she was awarded the Stanton and Stockwell Architects Scholarship and the Faculty Fund for Undergraduate Scholarships. In her three years at UCLA, Kathryn has pursued her studies alongside impressive positions such as a motion analysis assistant in the UCLA Orthopedic Surgery Department and director of outreach for the Girls Who Code chapter at UCLA, as well as participating in the UCLA Marathon Club. After graduation, she plans to work with athletes in motion analysis to help them improve their performance. Her hard-work ethic is matched by a sunny attitude, noting that despite what you hear about college food, UCLA’s cuisine was her favorite part of freshman year. She proudly reminds everyone they are ranked number one for food in the nation, for the second year running according to Niche’s “2018 Best College Food in America.” Kathryns longer essay, “Gloria,” is featured in my book Write Big: From College Application Essay to Storytelling Standout, along with 40 other student essays. Write Big will be available in late spring 2018. 

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