How to Apply to the University of California

As the clock ticks down to November 30th, the last day that students can apply to schools within the University of California system, it seems appropriate to reiterate the application questions that are posed and what the UCs want to see in the responses. UC personal statement prompts had stayed the same since 2008, but supposedly, responses were becoming predictable and repetitive, and the admissions folks were looking for a way to gain better insight into students. You can get the idea of the kind of information that the schools are seeking on the UC website at All questions have equal value, which is important, since you only have to answer four of the eight, each in 350 words or fewer.

I also heard directly from representatives from UCLA, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at San Diego, and I am happy to share their comments about each of the essay prompts with you.

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.

What they are looking for: How you thought about you experience and how you arrived at that decision – the thinking process behind the journey and a sense of the decision making. You should talk about activities where you emerged as a leader.

2) 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 they are looking for: The answer here is not limited to students who love art, music and theater. The idea is for you to demonstrate how you use your creativity to achieve a goal, like solving a problem. Be original, really think about what you have done and created and how you have taken advantage of opportunities or saw a need or filled a niche somewhere.

3) What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

What they are looking for: The response does not necessarily have to involve a traditional skill, but you should be talking about what you did to achieve your goal. If you are a student whose skill has earned you a regional or statewide title or award, then by all means give the background that led to that title or award.

4) Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

What they are looking for: The question allows for a variety of scenarios, such as travel experiences or any opportunity in general that has led to learning. Relate how you have taken the time to apply what you have learned from the experience in your school, family, and/or community.

5) 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?

What they are looking for: What challenge have you overcome and what have you done to overcome that challenge? It’s not the what but the so what that is important. How did you make things better for yourself, and how will you apply the skills you have learned to the college experience and to life itself?

6) Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

What they are looking for: Are there any “AHA!” moments in your life? These moments may have come from conducting research or travel or anywhere else. Tell the story of your journey of coming to that place where you know what you want to study in college.

7) What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

What they are looking for: Think both inside and outside of school. Even in your home life, you may have had to take on a leadership role to support your family (and that’s not limited to getting a job) and then have applied those skills.

8) What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

What they are looking for: Think about what makes you special. What did you learn from the experience?