Insight into New University of California Application Essays (Part II)

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

As Mark Twain said, school should never get in the way of your education. This prompt, which is really two different prompts, invites students to discuss ways that they have transcended the usual confines of school. The "opportunity" could be an enlightening research project or term paper. But it could also be something out of school, like a summer school course or even just a great book. Meanwhile, the "barrier" could be a disability, a socioeconomic disadvantage, or a family obligation that competes with school.

In both cases, students shouldn't just assert, "I learned a lot from this experience;" in fact, they should banish "I learned" or "I realized" from their vocabularies. They should tell readers what they actually learned. What was the thesis of the term paper and what did the research reveal? How did babysitting your little brother help you appreciate child-rearing? What do you think about the government polices or economic trends that cut your school's funding?

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?

In 1714, Alexander Pope published a 794-line poem "The Rape of the Lock." The upsetting title refers to the theft of a bit of fair Belinda's hair and her response to this tragedy. It inflates a trivial incident into something grandiose. This prompt is not an invitation to write "Rape of the Lock II."

Students should respond to this prompt with a genuine challenge. The essay shouldn't focus on a deflated soufflé or an A-minus that refused to turn into an A. The prompt calls for candor and a clear connection between academics and the challenge. Many students will be tempted to write about disappointing grades. They should do so warily. The essay should not be a complaint, and the reasons for the grade(s) must be compelling, lest it come off as an excuse and not an explanation.

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

This prompt belongs most obviously to the Dickens fan who sees Victorian characters in all his friends. It's for the history kid who follows every twist and turn of the presidential campaign. It's for the mathematician who plots rocket trajectories and stock market trends. It's also for the hard-working, high-achieving student who has never taken pause to ask himself what he really enjoys and how all those papers and test relate to the world he's living in. And it's for the disaffected underachiever who needs a chance to get excited about school.

In other words, it's for everyone.

For all the chatter about extracurricular activities, personality, leadership, SAT scores, football teams, and essays about personal quirks and feelings - all of which are fine - academics should be everyone's top priority. We're talking about college, here. Articulating a personal relationship with academics, whether you're the compulsive studier or the class clown, makes academics that much more rewarding. This prompt should be mandatory.

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

This one is obvious for students who've amassed community service hours like it's their job. I implore those students not to state the obvious. Students shouldn't wallow in how they "feel" about tutoring children, feeding homeless, planting trees, or whatever. Those are all worthwhile causes, but the reader already knows how students feel. This prompt invites students to explain what they think.

What caused the problem they're trying to solve? How effective, or cursory, was their solution? What other efforts have they made to effect change beyond just showing up and logging hours? Why have they chosen one cause over all other options? How does it feel to deal with chronic problems amid times of such abundance and brilliance? This questions make service truly interesting.

This prompt does not belong to only community service kids, though. Many people enrich their communities just by doing what they love to do. That's certainly true of artists, actors, and musicians. It's true of eager debaters, vocal activists, and enthusiastic nerds. And it's true of the empaths and good friends.

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

Two-hundred-and-six thousand students applied to the UC's nine undergraduate campuses last year. California alone has 1,337 public high schools; that means 1,337 senior class presidents and 1,337 softball team captains. Double those numbers to include private, parochial, and charter schools. By conventional academic and extracurricular standards, nobody is unique. Plenty of kids have taken ten AP classes. Plenty of kids have 4.bazillion GPAs.

Even so, these are 206,000 human beings. So, they're all different by definition. The challenge here is to think about narratives and nuances. They could be cute, superficial quirks and habits. But, more powerfully, they can be convictions, ideas, and life experiences that you hold dear.

Even if you hold similar convocations and have had similar life experiences to many of your fellow applicants, everyone has different stories to illustrate those experiences and different reasons for believing what they believe. The finer your details are, the better chance you'll have of distinguishing yourself from everyone else. With that said, "set apart" doesn't mean "better than." I know it's hard, but students should celebrate themselves for who you they are, not for how they compare to others.

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