If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.
I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of those questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.
Too busy to read all those posts? No worries.
Extra Tip: If you need to explain anything about your academic performance (such as issues linked to your grades or performance), don’t necessarily use these UC essays to explain why. Instead, there are two places to generally share these explanations in the ‘Additional Comments’ portion of the UC application: One is under ‘Other Academic History’ and the other with the ‘Personal Insight Questions.’ (Read how UC Berkeley advises applicants to use the Additional Comments section.)
In general, only use these two sections to explain unusual circumstances that you didn’t address in the four Personal Insight Question essays. Examples: changes in your grade patterns; a move in high school that prevented you from taking higher level courses; medical or psychological issues that affected your performance; financial issues (parental job loss; homelessness; low-income); immigration status issues, such as you are first generation (first in your household to attend college: MENTION THIS!) or deportation of family members; unexplained gaps in educational history, such as gap year or other absence. They are not essays so be direct and succinct; bullets points often work well.
If you want more help on specific Personal Insight Questions and UC essa, consider these 21 Tips for UC Personal Insight Questions that I had written last year when they first came out. All the info and advice is still relevant and helpful.
When I was invited to give one of my college application essay writing workshops to students at Colorado Academy in Denver, Colorado, I had no idea it would be on the day of the big eclipse.
As Monday, August 21, neared, we all realized the sky would darken just about lunchtime during my daylong workshop.
Even though I knew it would be hard to compete with a full-on solar eclipse, I was excited because Denver was more in line with the action than my home in Southern California.
‘You’re going to work in the eclipse into your workshop, aren’t you?’ friend asked weeks before the trip.
‘I guess,’ I replied, agreeing the idea made perfect sense even though I wasn’t sure how to incorporate it.
Sara Purviance, a college counselor at Colorado Academy, told me that she had ordered the protective glasses for the 100 rising seniors, and they could go outside during the peak hour or so and eat their lunch.
At some point, I realized that watching the eclipse could be an ideal mini experience for the students to capture in the form of an anecdote.
Workshop students from Colorado Academy in Denver watching the eclipse
If you know my approach to how to write narrative-style college application essays, you have heard me mention my love of anecdotes many times.
An anecdote is a fancy word for writing about a single moment or incident and recreating the essence of the experience using descriptive language techniques. The goal is to put the reader in that moment so they can imagine what it was like.
RELATED: Learn How to Write an Anecdote
I encourage students to use anecdotes to power their essays with their own real-life experiences, using them to illustrate the greater points they want to make about themselves in their essays.
Anecdotes can be tricky to craft. The goal is to keep them super short (a paragraph or two) without much build-up and start as close to the excitement or whatever happened as possible.
Even though they take practice to master, students usually pick up this writing device quickly if someone teaches them how to craft them, using sensory details, dialogue and emotion.
The bright, attentive students at Colorado Academy were no exception.
When they returned from their lunch break, and eclipse gazing, I gave them an assignment to recreate their experience as an anecdote.
After sharing some sample anecdotes from my best-selling college app essay writing guide, Escape Essay Hell!, so they could get the idea of what they would write, I directed them with a few simple prompts to include:
I gave them about fifteen minutes to write, and asked them to share. Three brave students read what they wrote. (See two of their anecdotes at end of this post.)
As usual, I was blown away by what they had to say, and how they said it.
After the workshop, it dawned on me that I forgot to tell those students one important point:
Don’t pick the eclipse as your topic ( for a personal statement type of essay, such as the Common Application)!!!
The eclipse as a college application essay topic is laden with common topic pitfalls.
RELATED: How to Find a Great Topic for Your College Application Essay
Even though it was a unique and a rare natural event, ‘the time’ you experienced the eclipse most likely was not the best experience you could share in your essay to illustrate something meaningful about yourself.
Even if you can write about momentous or special experiences in your essay, the more everyday or ordinary (mundane) moments or incidents typically make better anecdotes.
I would also guess that students who choose to write about the eclipse will end up writing more about the science of the experience than what they experienced and learned from it.
The best college application essays are those that are not academic or formal in content or style, and instead share personal experiences they can use to show how they learned, changed and grew.
Also, anecdotes, which are really mini-stories, need something to happen. Even though something ‘happened’ with the eclipse (the moon went as you’re watching sun and it got dark in the middle of the day), you need something more personal.
For an effective anecdote, something had to have happened to you. That’s what makes the experience personal and meaningful, which is your goal.
When brainstorming topic ideas for your essays, you don’t need to find impressive or momentous events to write a great college application essay.
RELATED: Mundane Topics Work Best
Writing about earning your Eagle Scout badge, or the time you threw a winning pass to win the state football championship, or leading a Model U.N. session, often become on the dull side.
It is possible to still feature achievements and life-changing moments in your essays, just make sure the essay is about YOU and not only those standout experiences.
One last reason to stay clear of the eclipse as your college application essay topic: There’s a good chance a lot of other students watched that eclipse and will come up with it.
I can hear the college admissions folks rolling their eyes and groaning, ‘Another eclipse essay.’
You’ve probably heard about cliché college application essays, and that’s because so many students have had similar experiences and had written about them. Examples: mission trips, tutoring special needs kids, sports injuries….watching the eclipse.
It’s not impossible to write a standout essay about the eclipse, but there are thousands of other topics that will serve you lot better.
Here are two anecdotes that College Academy students crafted in only about 10 to 15 minutes.
The light is slightly dimmer, only noticeable by an expecting eye. Quite contrary to the prior visions of the event I had in my head. Disappointment fills the air in murmurs as my high school class munches on their Domino’s Pizza. ‘That was it?’ is being repeated by different mouths throughout the courtyard. I didn’t think it was that bad. Seeing the sun almost completely covered by the moon is a sight I am not going to forget too soon. The black as night atmosphere was not achieved like I was expecting, but it will still be a story I can tell my kids.
I stood outside of my high school, staring up at the sky, wearing eyeglasses that blackened the sky except for the beautiful and rarely seen solar eclipse. Everyone else around me was wearing the same eyeglasses, but as the moon got closer and closer to covering the sun’s rays, more people lost interested and started to chat with friends instead. ‘ Don’t you want some food, Jack?’ My friend Mags asked. ‘I’m not necessarily hungry right now. Besides, I’d like to experience this stunning moment in nature instead The black silhouette slowly inched closer over the bright glowing orb of gas. It had finally reached it’s peaked so I decided it was time and energy to get food. I looked down, took off my eyeglasses and saw that everything around me seemed darker and colder. It was very surreal and I felt unstable but also very in tuned. I also saw that I was the last person out of 100 students that was still wearing their glasses. I felt a sort of pride to be able to recognize and appreciate this beautiful event. I was able to stand in one spot, look up at the sky, and appreciate what was going on in front of me without missing out on a fun conversation with my friends whom I hadn’t seen all summer. The feeling was sensational.
See how awesome these are?
If these students could write these in such a short time, I know you will find your real-life stories and tell them as anecdotes to power your own personal essays.
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