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How to Answer the University of California's (UCLA, UC Berkeley etc) Essay Prompts 2019-2020

NOV 17, 2019

Applying to one of the University of California’s 9 undergraduate campuses including, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine?

While the supplemental essays may all be the same, each school considers your application separately. You can apply to each school on the application (which incurs a $70 fee per campus).

Before you begin answering questions, first look at the prompts and divide them into three categories: "Want to write," "Can write...," and "Don't want to write...". Start by drafting an answer to one of the essays in the first category. Writing what you want to write first will make you feel slightly more confident and comfortable moving on.

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On choosing essays:

  • Essay 1 and Essay 7 are too similar; don't pick both.
  • Essay 2 and Essay 3 are too similar; don't pick both.
  • Essay 4 and Essay 5 are too similar; don't pick both.
  • Essay 8 is the catchall, allowing you to write just about anything. But if your response could fit one of the more specific prompts, you should absolutely do that.

Now for the prompts:

You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions. Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.

Essay 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, being a supportive sibling, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished 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?

For this prompt, it's important to consider what leadership is, both to the community and to you. For example, in an educational setting, leadership might be structured around an exchange of ideas. In an artistic setting, leadership may be about encouraging collaboration and creative thinking.

Don't be afraid to think outside the box.


You noticed some students at your school couldn't get extra help in their subjects because they had to work after school. You petition, as part of the student government, to have some hours of support for students in the mornings. What were the obstacles involved in accomplishing this goal? How did you work with others and what did you learn from the experience?

Maybe you are bothered by how much trash there is on the street next to your church. You take action by organizing a trash pick-up day. How did you go about organizing this event? Were there any road-blocks? What did you learn from the experience?

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Essay 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.

Things to Consider- What does creativity mean to you? In what ways do you express yourself? Maybe you love solving rubix cubes because it suits the way you think: analytical and precise. Or perhaps you love to paint or create sculptures using items you find around the house. How does your creativity influence your decisions inside and outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or future career?

For this prompt, think about the notion of making. Making comes in many forms and is not always physical. We "make up our minds" when we decide to do something. We make up stories, we sing songs, and we invent new games and ways to have fun.

Do you collect things? Do you care for children? Do you paint? Do you decide how to set up your clothes in your closet? All of these tasks require an element of creativity.

Ultimately, the committee wants to know how you think creatively. What is creativity to you and how does it surface in your life inside and outside of school?

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

Things to Consider- If there's a talent or skill that you're proud of, this is the time to share it. You don't necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

A common problem here is you read the prompt and think "Oh I'm not good at anything." Think about what you are competent at - i.e. does it work? - rather than comparing yourself to others.

Which quality do you feel lucky for having?

For example, maybe your family speaks Spanish so you are bilingual. How has this shaped who you are? What does it mean to be able to communicate in multiple languages? Or maybe you remember things easily, like facts and statistics. When has this skill be helpful to you? How has it benefited your learning? How has it, perhaps, detracted from your learning? Or maybe you are a competitive tennis player. Assuming this did not come naturally to you, how long have you been playing and what does it mean to work on one skill for a long period of time? How has the role of this sport changed as you have grown up?

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

Things to Consider- An educational opportunity can be anything that added value to your educational experience and/or better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that's geared toward an occupation or a major, or AP classes --- just to name a few. If you choose to write about educational barriers you've faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

Essay 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?

Things to Consider- This topic of your essay here should be personal - something you have faced in your community or school. What was the challenge and how did it present itself? Bring the reader back to a time when this challenge exposed itself in a tangible way. Use adjectives and be specific.

Some questions to help you get started:

  1. What sorts of challenges forced you to ask family and friends for help, emotional, or practical?
  2. How have you changed over time? Why?
  3. Have you experienced loss - death, divorce, moving houses, health changes?
  4. Did you experience a massive life-style change? Why and how did you handle this change?

The most important thing I can say about this prompt is to be sincere. Essay readers have seen thousands of essays and are good and detecting if an essay is fabricated. Just be honest, reflective, and sincere. Have friends or family look over your essay, or even use them to bounce ideas off of before you start writing. These are the people that know you best and they might be able to help you articulate how the challenges in your life have affected you.

For more support with your application process check out our admission support service.

Essay 6: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to Consider- This prompt provides you with the opportunity to really delve into your academic goals. Are you applying to UC Berkeley because they offer a specific major? Then this is the prompt for you.

What kind of learning excites you? Why? Is it how the subject is taught, or the material itself? Or both?

For example, English classes tend to be quite free-form - lots of discussions and meandering conversations. Maybe you thrive in this environment. Talk about what it means to you to hear from your peers about a text you are reading. What do these perspectives add to your life?

Or maybe you love History because it gives you deeper understanding into your own community. What does History help you understand and why do you want to pursue it in college?

Feel free to delve into all the ways you have studied this subject - ie extra curriculars, clubs, internships, volunteering, jobs etc.

#Essay 7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to Consider- As evidenced by this prompt, community building is an important aspect of life at UC Berkeley. Take note of this. You want the reader to finish your essay and think “This applicant would be a beneficial addition to our community.”

I recommend approaching this prompt from a personal angle. Step away from school and academic interests for this prompt. What communities are you a part of? Maybe you see your extended family on a regular basis: how do you contribute to that community? Do you babysit your cousins, teach your grandparents how to use their iPhones, or cook at family gatherings? What does your family mean to you?

Or maybe you have been playing tennis at the same tennis club since you were 5-years-old. What does it mean to have grown up in this kind of community? How has it contributed to your development and in what ways do you give back to it?

The idea is to show that you value community and are an active part in maintaining it. UC Berkeley wants to see that you will be a positive contribution to their community.

Essay 8: Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?

Things to Consider- Essay 8 is the catchall, allowing you to write just about anything. But if your response could fit one of the more specific prompts, you should absolutely do that.

For more support with your application process check out our admission support service.

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