The UC System Changes Admission Essays – First Revision in 10 Years
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The University of California (UC) system has announced sweeping changes to the essay portion of its admission applications.

Gone are the traditional two personal statement prompts. In their place are a set of short-answer questions that applicants can choose from.

In the new application, prospective students will be given eight questions related to different aspects of applicants’ personal qualities, life experiences, and educational backgrounds. Exactly four of the prompts must be completed, each with a response of up to 350 words.

In announcing the new changes for undergraduate applicants, UC emphasized that replacing the traditional personal statement with the new “personal insight questions” would add flexibility to the application and let applicants write more personally meaningful and revealing essays.

Specifically, because they will now choose which questions to answer from a larger pool of possibilities, applicants can opt to address the topics that are most personally relevant. Because there are more questions to answer (in less detail), applicants also have a chance to cover a wider range of topics.

For UC, the desire to bring out more personal responses on topics applicants have chosen to write about was a major motivation for the change. According to the school system’s Personal Insight Questions FAQ, “we felt it critical to ensure that the written responses received from our applicants truly provided the type of reflective and personal insights we value so greatly.”

Of course, there’s another side to the changes that may leave some applicants less than thrilled: because the questions are no longer generic, applicants also won’t be able to adapt generic college admissions essays to their UC applications. Rather, they will have to spend more time crafting essays tailored to UC’s unique format. Per the FAQ, it is intentional that the new format “reduces the chances that students will take a generic essay that they’ve created for other colleges or class assignments and simply transpose it to the UC application.”

All questions will be weighed equally during the application process – there will be no inherent advantage to answering any particular question over any other question. Therefore, the best questions to answer are simply the ones that speak most to a given applicant’s situation.

The eight personal insight questions cover an array of topics:

  • Leadership
  • Creativity
  • Talents and skills
  • Taking advantage of educational opportunities
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Favorite academic subject
  • Community involvement
  • Unique qualities

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Transfer applicants will answer the same set of questions, but with a slight twist: one of the questions is required for transfer students:  Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.”

Applicants can highlight their strengths by strategically choosing topics from the broader set of questions. Working on the application, an important decision to make will be which four questions best round out your application and emphasize both the breadth and depth of your experience.

Beyond the fact that choosing which questions to answer now becomes part of the application process, UC hasn’t yet released much advice to students on how the essays they write should take into account these changes. The school system has said that the new format will necessitate a slightly different approach, and they plan to release presentations, webinars, and other materials on this topic over the course of the spring.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that UC still advises students to start working on the personal insight questions early and write as clearly as possible. They have a list of writing tips on their website.

On the application itself, each prompt also contains a blurb elaborating on what to consider when answering the question. For example, here’s the first personal insight question along with its “things to consider” blurb:

  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.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or a taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience.  What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities.  For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

Additionally, UC is providing a supplementary personal insight question brainstorming worksheet designed to help get applicants thinking about possible topics for their responses. The worksheet contains the following exercise for the first personal insight question:

How do you define “leader”? List three words that you think describe what a leader is:




Do any of these words apply to you? How? Is there a time in your life when you displayed any of these traits?  

Like other materials from the UC, the personal insight question worksheet encourages applicants to use their “unique voice.” Based on how much the school system has underscored the importance of personal touch in the new questions, one takeaway from the changes seems to be that UC is looking for less generic essays that express more fully who applicants are.

Besides giving applicants more say in what they write about, the new criteria also target topics admissions officers are interested in more specifically. Each question is associated with at least one of the fourteen comprehensive review criteria the UC uses to evaluate applicants. For example, the first personal insight question (about leadership – see above) speaks to “experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership” from the comprehensive review criteria.

The change from personal statements to the personal insight questions is significant for UC since the school system rarely revises its essay prompts. In fact, the essay portion of the application was last modified in 2008, and the school system has never experimented with short-answer questions before. But UC is clearly hoping for a win-win that lets students choose what they write about and makes life easier for admissions officers by having the essays draw out particular qualities and experiences that factor into admissions decisions.

Because the new questions target narrower areas than the previous personal statement prompts, which were broad and general, UC advises that you rework your essays to fit the new questions if you’ve already gotten started with the old prompts.

If you haven’t worked on your essays for the UC applications, you’ll still want to start them with plenty of time to spare. Although the essays are short, they cover a lot of territory, so you want to make sure you have strong answers on all four of the prompts you choose.

As you’re planning out how to balance your time between UC and other schools you’re applying to, you might want to consider doing the UC questions early in the process. Because they cover so much ground and require that you reflect on many of your qualities and past experiences, they can double as a nice brainstorming exercise to get you thinking about a wide range of different topics that might come up in the longer essays required by other schools.

The personal insight questions will make their debut on the application for fall 2017 admission. This year’s application will be released on August 1, 2016, but there’s no reason to wait: the complete questions are already out and can be found here!

By Niels V.