The ten University of California (UC) schools are prestigious public universities scattered across the state of California. From the northern UC Davis to the southern UC San Diego, these institutions are dream schools for in-state and out-of-state students. In fact, the top 5 most popular schools to apply to in the US are all UC schools. In the fall of 2022, UCLA received 174, 914 applications. That’s greater than the population of Jackson, Mississippi!
Nine of these schools (the exception is UC San Francisco) offer undergraduate degrees. These schools share an application portal and don’t use the Common App or the Coalition App. As a result, their essay prompts are unique. At the same time, once you’ve applied to one UC school, it’s simple to apply to the rest. In this blog post, we’ll break down the UC essay prompts so that you have the tools to nail your application.
UC 2023-2024 Prompts
Personal Insight Questions (250-350 words)
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- 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.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- 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?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
There are eight UC essay prompts, known as the Personal Insight Questions (PIQs). Although each question requires a response of 250-350 words, you don’t need to answer every question. In fact, you’re required to select four prompts to answer. The UC admissions officers understand that some prompts will resonate with some students more than others, and they consider each prompt equally.
It’s important to note that some of the prompts have overlapping qualities. For instance, you could write about an education barrier you have overcome when answering prompt 4, and that educational barrier might have been the most significant challenge you have faced, making it a great response to prompt 5 as well. Therefore, you may want to come up with a few topics that are important to you before even deciding which prompts you would like to answer. Consider the topics which make you who you are. Your background, interests, struggles, and accomplishments might all be topics on your list, with added specificity to make them your own.
Then, once you’ve determined what you would like to write about, you can peruse the prompts to see which might best align with your listed topics. Of course, if one of the topics does not align with any of the prompts, you’ll need to take a step back and reassess what the UC admissions officers might be looking for that you weren’t prepared to deliver. Is it vulnerability? Humility? Growth? Confidence? Intellectuality? Ambition? These are all qualities admissions officers might look for in applicants. Consider whether your topics demonstrate these qualities, and if not, how you could incorporate them into your topics and/or responses, however subtly.
UC’s Personal Insight Questions
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time. (250-350 words)
This essay prompt allows you to show the UC admissions officer your leadership style and conflict response. In addition, you can demonstrate your abilities as a leader beyond including it on an activities list or resume. Many students hold leadership positions in high school which are functionally meaningless, but others achieve important impacts through their positive influence and trailblazing energy. If you are in the latter category of students, this is a great prompt for you to describe your leadership experience.
The prompt specifically asks you to provide an example of your leadership experience. This response should not be a list. It should be ONE anecdote, narrative, concept, accomplishment, or event. If possible, you should show through this singular example how you have grown as a leader or as an individual. Lastly, try to use concrete details to flesh out your example and make it feel real and memorable to the reader, avoiding clichés when possible.
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. (250-350 words)
If your creative side is a meaningful aspect of who you are, this is a great prompt for you to choose! Many STEM-oriented students choose this prompt in order to demonstrate that they are well-rounded individuals. If the rest of your application discusses your skills in trigonometry and your summer coding internship, then shedding light on your poetry hobby will help the admissions officers see you as a whole person, full of life and dimension.
That said, creativity comes in many flavors, and this prompt encourages you to think broadly about your creative side. Maybe your creativity comes through in how you approach a chess game or compose a speech for MUN. Maybe your creativity flourishes when you’re under pressure, trying to negotiate the soccer ball away from your opponent. Or maybe you’re most creative when you’re trying to entertain your younger siblings.
However your creativity manifests, be as authentic in your presentation of it as possible. You don’t need to be a concert pianist to discuss your musical endeavors, and you don’t need to have a portfolio to back up the joy you find in photography. As long as you provide genuine details about your life, your creative side is valid.
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? (250-350 words)
This essay prompt is especially tricky to tackle. Some students have a prodigal talent in a particular area, whether athletic, academic, interpersonal, or otherwise. Other students, however, excel more broadly and are more well-rounded than pointy. Even if you don’t have a special talent, you might still be able to answer this prompt. You might just answer it more creatively, focusing on “soft skills” like communication, time management, empathy, and so on—or whatever feels authentic to you. However, if it feels like a stretch, perhaps try a different prompt.
Regardless of your talent, you will need to answer this prompt with modesty—and no false modesty, either. Instead of listing your accolades, describe the struggles that have shaped you. Describe your training, your failures, your mentors, and your doubts. Painting a picture of how far you’ve come and how hard you worked will be much more memorable and inspiring than implying you woke up a genius. After all, even if you have a natural aptitude for something, no great skill comes without hard work, and this essay prompt is an opportunity for you to show that work.
Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced. (250-350 words)
This essay prompt seeks to understand how you will function as a student in a UC school. When you’re offered opportunities, how will you take advantage of them? When you face obstacles, how will you surmount them? Of course, you can’t answer these questions just yet, because whatever obstacles you might face and opportunities you might receive in college are probably going to be surprises. Still, through this essay, you can hint at your future responses to opportunities and obstacles by describing your past responses.
Note that the prompt provides two options: you could write about a significant educational opportunity OR an educational barrier. Both topics are focused on your educational history, though. Consider the most formative moments in your personal educational history, and after settling on the most formative one, you’ll want to clearly spin it in your essay as either an opportunity or an obstacle. In both cases, you should express how you grew from the experience. How did you make the most of the opportunity, and how could you have better maximized that opportunity? How did you overcome that obstacle, and what did you gain from the experience? Considering your continued areas for growth will demonstrate your maturity and continued commitment to self-development.
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? (250-350 words)
This essay prompt asks you to look back over your life experiences to date and consider your resilience within the lens of your academic achievement. If an event in your life impacted your academic achievement, then this prompt is a great opportunity for you to discuss that challenge. After you’ve identified the most significant challenge you have faced, you may want to free-write about all the steps you took to overcome this challenge. These steps could include anything—studying, forgiving, going to therapy, praying, working, asking questions, and so on.
This prompt requests vulnerability, and vulnerability demands details. Don’t be shy to share your missteps, but be purposeful in showing your current stability, strength, and achievements despite or even because of this challenge you have faced. After describing this challenge as specifically and concretely as possible, indicate how you have changed, and be sure to include at least 1-2 sentences regarding the impact (or lack thereof) which this challenge had on your academic achievement (for better or for worse).
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. (250-350 words)
Admissions officers often look for curiosity in applicants, and if you are a curious person, then this essay prompt is for you. In this essay, you can demonstrate how your curiosity for an academic subject has driven you to pursue research, projects, or other activities. Be sure to discuss ONE academic interest, even if you relate multiple ways you have deepened your relationship with this interest.
Don’t spread yourself too thin when discussing how you have furthered your interest. Focus on 1-3 ways you have furthered your interest, even if you choose to list a few more ways. For instance, if you’re interested in English literature, maybe you have furthered this interest by reading certain books outside of school, participating in an essay competition, and writing short stories. Perhaps each of these topics could receive one paragraph, with the essay framed by a brief introduction and conclusion. Of course, you can get more creative, but that’s a totally valid way to set up your essay if you’re feeling stuck.
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? (250-350 words)
If you’re the kind of student for whom community service is really important, or you’ve had a big impact on your high school, then this is a great prompt for you. Similarly, if you’ve engaged in activism, youth advocacy, or similar endeavors, then you should consider answering this prompt. Clearly explain what “a better place” means to you within your response so that the reader understands your motivations.
Specificity is key here—many students will respond generically to this prompt. Less is more when it comes to discussing your accomplishments: providing deep insight regarding one initiative you pursued on behalf of your community is far better than listing all of your achievements. In your response, focus more on how you made your school or community a better place than the awards or recognition you might have received for doing so. Stay humble!
Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California? (250-350 words)
This prompt is a great choice for you if there are aspects of your character, history, background, academics, or otherwise which haven’t naturally fit into the rest of your application but which feel crucial to your self-representation to the UC schools. Do not use this essay response as an opportunity to list your activities, list the prizes you’ve won, or discuss your impressive grades or test scores. These factors are all extremely important, but they’ll appear elsewhere in your application, so to discuss them here would be redundant.
Instead, this essay response is a place to tie your unique qualities and/or experiences to the values and expectations of a UC admissions officer. Before answering this question, thoroughly research the admission criteria for the UC schools, and consider touching upon (subtly if possible, and definitely with humility) how you fit these criteria, highlighting aspects of yourself which are not otherwise seen in your application. And most importantly, be yourself! Admissions officers don’t want to accept robots with a 36 on their ACT. Rather, they seek nuanced, intelligent, driven individuals with three-dimensional personalities. So bring your authentic self to the page.
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