Thinking About the UC Personal Statements
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Always prepare your college application early.

Congratulations! You are a rising senior and intend to apply to the University of California system. You have worked hard during your high school years to meet the minimum eligibility requirements and either have taken or will take the SAT and/or the ACT. The next task you face is to compose two answers to the UC personal statement prompts. In this article I will briefly outline a few important points to keep in mind with respect to the UC personal statements.

But first, I would like to remind our readers of the trends and context we can all expect in this fall’s UC application cycle. In the July 2013 issue of the TTL magazine, I predicted that for the Fall 2014 freshman admission, UCLA would receive close to 90,000 applications, and that Berkeley would receive over 70,000 applications. It turns out that my predictions for this past fall’s cycle were generally accurate, and even a little low. Here are the freshman application numbers from 2012, 2013, and 2014 for three popular UC campuses:

Freshman applications by campus
UC Berkeley
2012 – 61,661 | 2013 – 67,658 | 2014 – 73,771
2012 – 72,626 | 2013 – 80,472 | 2014 – 86,472
UC San Diego
2012 – 60,819 | 2013 – 67,403 | 2014 – 73,437

That’s a lot of freshman personal statements. In fact, it is a dramatically increasing number of freshman applications, and as I mentioned last year it is some poor soul’s job to read hundreds (perhaps thousands) of those essays.

Imagine yourself assigned to the task of reading hundreds upon hundreds of high school student essays during Thanksgiving and Christmas … after maybe twenty or so, your eyes start to glaze over, they all start to sound the same, and you look for reasons to dislike them because there are so many and you have to choose only a small portion. It’s not an unlikely scenario! I suspect that each UC personal statement is read and pondered for no more than 5-10 minutes. There are simply too many other applications waiting in line for more time to be allotted.

Consequently, it is crucial to craft meaningful, memorable personal statements that speak from the heart if you want your application to mean anything of significance to the person who is reading them. If you breeze through your essays, if you do not take them seriously, if you rely on trite generalizations or boring, cliched statements, if you wait until the last minute, then your essays – and consequently, your entire application – will be tossed in the rejection pile.

So then, how to start? First, you need to be familiar with the prompts.

The first is known as the “freshman applicant prompt.” This prompt invites you to:

“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.”

Upon a quick first glance, the prompt seems straightforward. Describe the world you come from. Share how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations. Easy, right? The prompt even provides three great examples of your world: your family, community or your school. Many students are tempted to pick one of these three and just get started.

But hold on. The “world you come from” could be almost anything, couldn’t it? Your world could literally be the planet on which you live. Your world could be your country, or the country from which you or your parents emigrated. Your world could be a classroom, a group of friends, a sports field or an orchestral rehearsal room. Your world could be a cramped laboratory filled with research equipment. There are so many ways to define your world that it’s easy to become lost in the different definitions. As you brainstorm and outline your essays, remember to keep a firm grasp on how you choose to define your world and why that particular world is important to you.

The second half of the prompt, all about dreams and aspirations, is even trickier. What are your dreams and aspirations? And how has your “world” shaped those dreams? If you only spend five minutes thinking of your dreams and aspirations, you’ll probably come up with short-term goals like admission to the UC system, or even your career and professional objectives.

But the prompt is asking you to truly think big and to share your most heartfelt wishes and desires, and to clearly connect the world you come from to those deeply held dreams. As you ponder your essays, remember that your “dreams and aspirations” can, and perhaps should, be about so much more than short-term materialistic or academic successes.

The second prompt, the “prompt for all applicants” invites you to:

“Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”

Once again, you are provided with a list to kick-start your thinking, including accomplishments or talents. But remember that it is important to pick something that you are truly proud of. So often, we assume our shining accomplishments and fancy achievements are the notable elements of our personhood. We think of our big achievements as the things we “should” pick to write about, because they impress other people.

But don’t be afraid to write about your defeats, obstacles, setbacks and failures. Don’t be afraid to write about bad, embarrassing, or unsuccessful experiences if you feel genuine pride in your heart for overcoming them or for having learned something new from them. Sometimes we learn more about ourselves from our defeats than we do from our successes. The admissions readers will learn more about you too – they want to learn about your ability to overcome difficulties, because if there is any one thing you will face in college, you will face difficulty!

So be bold, write from the heart, and do not be afraid to explore the unusual facets of your life. Do not be afraid to share your failures or humiliations and the ways in which you grew or became stronger and wiser as a result of those failures.

As a final recommendation, be sure to check out the UC prompt website, which contains numerous tips and suggestions for you as you begin to compose your essays. The most valuable of these, in my opinion, are their recommendations to start early and to relax. The earlier you begin thinking of the content and form of your essays, the more likely you are to hit upon the best idea. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to write honest, heartfelt words that help paint an accurate and lasting picture of you in the minds of the grumpy admissions officers who will be sitting on a pile of thousands of applications, waiting and hoping to find one essay that makes them genuinely interested and moved.

By Andrew McLaughlin , ThinkTank Learning Admissions Senior Consultant and Academic Counselor