The New Focus of UC Admission Essays (Personal Insight Questions)

This September, the UCs held its annual UC High School Counselor Conference to inform participants of the latest admissions news, changes, and policies. The three FLEX counselors who attended this event were made aware of some subtle but significant changes to UC admissions process—particularly with regards to the personal insight questions. They came away with valuable insight into the minds of the UC admissions officers and what the UCs are really looking for.

One thing that FLEX had noticed, even before this conference, was that UC admissions had been starting to look more and more like private school admissions. This observation was confirmed by the information provided during this conference—in particular to the expanded role of activities reporting and by the attention paid to the essays.

In the past, it was commonly understood that the personal statement was very significant in a private school application, since such schools favored a much more individualized admissions process—much less significant in the UC application. Now, the UCs have started to give the essays the same attention as do private schools. However, the format that the UCs are looking for in these written statements is quite different, placing a much greater burden on students who are applying to both public and private schools to produce two different sets of essays with two different approaches.

In the UC application, students are given eight essay prompts, from which they must select four. The selection should not be haphazard, and the prompts should be considered both individually and in relation to one other. The UCs are looking for the four essays to form a cohesive set. If an essay brings up certain questions about the writer for the reader, these questions should be answered in a subsequent essay. If an essay makes certain references, these references should not be repeated in another essay. In short, the essays should work together to showcase various aspects of the writer, not only in terms of his/her activities and achievements, but also in terms of his/her interests and personality in order to provide important context to the other parts of the application. What the essays as a set should bring out is a student’s “differentiating quality” given his/her living and learning environment.

The UCs are also looking for personal statements that are more clear and efficient at providing information than the private schools tend to like. Private school admissions officers often prefer essays that are descriptive, anecdotal, and fun to read. The UCs, on the other hand, ask that essays “tell” more than they “show.” In other words, the admissions officer wants students to focus not so much on how they’re telling their story as on the specifics of what they’re saying. This will require a certain investment in brainstorming, drafting, and editing because students cannot hide behind a fancy description or a memorable anecdote. In many if not most cases, students should work with an experienced person to select prompts, come up with appropriate responses, and present these responses in a more direct, detailed, and thoughtful fashion.

In addition, part of the information that the UCs are looking to gain from the personal insight questions are often more frequently found in a graduate school statement of purpose. The undergraduate personal statement isn’t a literal statement of purpose, of course, but as the admissions reader reads a set of essays, he/she is looking to get a good sense of what a student’s accomplishments have been; the context in which he/she achieved them; the impact of those achievements; what the student plans or hopes to do; and how and why the student plans to achieve this. This information should be conveyed in a convincing and plausible way.

One reason that the UCs are looking more closely at the personal statement has to do with the fact that it is a public school trying to use the personal insight questions much like a private school uses interviews. Private schools are able to create a personalized admissions process through add-ons like the college interview. Because the UCs aren’t able to offer them, they place even greater weight on the personal statements, using them to get a greater sense of a student’s personality, character, goals, and ambitions as best they can.

While the change in this admissions emphasis might not seem as significant as other more dramatic changes in the college admissions landscape, it tells us a lot about the changing nature of public school admissions. The UC personal insight questions can no longer be considered a pass/fail. Students cannot simply dutifully yet perfunctorily respond to the prompts, as they had in the past, and then spend the bulk of their time thoughtfully crafting their private school essays. As the UCs become more and more competitive, the importance of the personal statements cannot be over-emphasized. In fact, if there was a main takeaway from the UC High School Counselor Conference, it was this:

The personal statements can either help you or hurt you, but they are no longer a neutral part of the application. They are either an added value or a missed opportunity.

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