Strategies for the New UC Personal Statement Format
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Revised on 4/28/2016
After receiving feedback from admissions officials in the University of California (UC) system, this article was revised to reflect the heart of what the UC system seeks to understand through its personal statement prompts.

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After 10 years of normalcy, the University of California (UC) system is changing the structure of its college admission personal statements. No longer will students be asked to write two statements that have a combined word limit of 1,000. The new format will ask students to write four short answers, each with a maximum of 350 words. Instead of one prompt for each of the two previous statements, each of the new four answers will allow the student to pick from eight different prompts. This change in format has plusses and minuses, about which all students should be aware.

The Good News
More Room to Add Dimension to Your Profile

Since each of the new 350-word answers can have a different prompt, you now have more room to highlight the other dimensions of your profile. This means that you can more easily mention your 3rd and 4th most important achievements without having to make sure that the main point of the statement isn’t lost among too many different directions. More essays also let you mention how a certain activity or achievement touches multiple parts of your life in different ways, allowing you to add thematic coherence to the meta-narrative told through your answers.

More of Your Significant Activities Will Get the Limelight

What if you had a significant personal growth experience through an activity that wasn’t your most impressive one? You now have a whole separate statement to set the stage and paint the picture about why the supposedly “lesser” achievements in your life make you a great candidate for the UCs. We often measure the significance of an achievement by the size of the award or its level of competition (i.e. local vs. national). However, cultivating resilience in the face of setbacks can be learned while playing on the frosh/soph level of a sport just as well as it can be learned while playing in the Junior Olympics.

The Little Moments Also Count

Sometimes, the seemingly most insignificant moments in life are the ones that transform us the most. Epiphanies can happen while walking home from school, though the same path and same thoughts accompanied each other so many times before. These simple, yet significant, moments of self-realization are tricky to incorporate into in long essays, because skill is required in weaving them into the larger story whose centerpiece is often something obviously interpreted as grand or traumatic. Having their own 350 words is a great stage for the inexplicable lightbulb moments to sing their solos.

Short Essays Are Less Daunting to Students

Long personal statements have a way of intimidating students, even though short supplemental statements of 200 words can be just as impactful as ones that are 600+ words. The length and imagined weight of long personal statements often scare students into hiding behind a dumpster bin on Procrastination Lane. Hopefully, the new maximum length of 350 words each will reduce the crippling anxiety that resulted from two statements that needed to be between 250- to 750-words long, but not more than 1,000 words in total. Then again, students might just end up freezing in the headlights of four short statements. It’s an anxious time in their education journey, regardless.

You Will Have to Get to the Point Faster – The Up Side

Students often wander into the swamp of unnecessary details at the beginning of their personal statements. A shorter word limit for each answer will help to prevent the student from writing unnecessary things before getting to the main point. This will be easier not just on the student, but also on the admissions officers, recruiters, and application readers. The student won’t spend as much energy staying on track and the readers won’t spend as much energy following the story.

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The Bad News
Four Hooks Instead of Two

The most effective personal statements are the ones that are easy to remember or are hard to forget. College admissions officers read hundreds of statements per day during the application season. This is why great statements have catchy and captivating introductions, called “hooks.” Now that applicants must write four essays, they will need to come up with four effective hooks instead of two. While people enjoy reading an engaging writing style, the UCs have admitted many students who had styles that are plain, even boring. It’s important to point out that UC admissions officials are not looking for entertainment. What they want is good content: your story, your struggle, your promise, or your rebirth. Big, fancy words and long, complicated sentences don’t make up for what’s missing on the inside.

You Need to Be More Efficient With Your Words

Less word space means that you will have to use fewer words when communicating. This will require students to have a stronger vocabulary, which may be more challenging to students who speak English as a second language. The efficient use of words for telling a story requires an understanding of shades of meaning, common usage of phrases in English, and synonyms that alter the flow without causing turbulence.

More Essays Mean More Revisions

Each personal statement should undergo at least one revision, if not three. Just because the new UC answers are shorter doesn’t mean that each becomes less important. The UC admissions officials use a rubric by which they semi-quantitatively score each application, including the four answers. In 2016, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD each received over 100,000 applications, which will equate to more 400,000 statements each in 2017. And in case you thought the other UC campuses might have an easier load, UC Irvine received 98,000 applications in 2016. This means that your answers to the four questions need to be precise and concise. You story is unique, but the application readers’ metabolisms, blood sugar levels, and attention spans aren’t – they work just like everyone else’s.

You Will Have to Get to the Point Faster – The Down Side

Though this is listed as one of the items in “The Good News,” it’s also has a place in the “The Bad News” section. We all know that stories and jokes aren’t as effective unless the audience understands the context of the story. The telling of this context is why students often give too many details, not knowing which ones are essential and which ones just weigh down the reader’s attention.

All Change is Scary to Those Who Don’t Know the System

This change in format may be daunting to parents and students, but veterans of the trade can see through the smoke and mirrors. The bad news is that this change may cause even more anxiety in parents who feel that two statements are hard enough to deal with already. Now, it’s four? However, once the dust settles from the shocking news, we will find that this new format isn’t as scary as it may sound.

By David H. Nguyen, Ph.D.