After years of steady service, the UC Personal Statements are being retired, replaced by a set of Personal Insight Questions.
To inveterate college counselors in California, there are likely twangs of nostalgia associated with losing, “Tell us the world you come from…” and coaxing a story out of an applicant to fill the page and expose his or her soul to discerning, oftentimes overloaded, readers from the UC admissions offices.
On most occasions the Personal Statement served as an initiation into the world of the college admissions applications, and a rite of passage once they’re complete, burnished and ready to be used, and reused with slight alterations on the main Common Application or a select assortment of other applications.
The good news is that the new UC Personal Insight Questions might also serve to begin and structure the college application process. Instead of just 2 prompts to wrestle with, there are now 8, of which an applicant selects 4 (transfer students respond to 3 of 7 prompts). The length of each essay is now limited to 350 words. But there are four of them, which means an applicant has a maximum of 1400 words (an increase of 40% over the imposed 1000 word limit on the Personal Statement) to better describe one’s attributes, interests and capabilities to the admissions reader.
So, how best to use all those extra words? The nature of personal insight questions is explained within the Guide to Freshman Applicants: “Think [of these questions] as your interview with the admissions office. Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it.” This is a pretty tall order unless you write often, edit well and have great confidence in your inner voice as it washes across the page.
The 8 questions cover many areas of personal development including leadership, creativity, talent (a remnant from Personal Statement #2), educational barriers and opportunities, challenges, favorite academic subjects, improving community or school, and what sets you apart from the crowd. The actual questions can be found at http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-questions/freshman/index.html.
Let’s take a closer look at Personal Insight Prompt 2: “Every person has a creative side and it might be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.” To some this question might best be responded to with a story, a slice of life.
A story shows, through action, aspects of your character that might be missed in a more formal descriptive response that says I’m creative in teams, and use art to sometimes deal with difficult emotions. Rather the story might have the following structure: My best friend and I were planning a day together in Pasadena to have lunch [And] then attend a new exhibit at the Norton Simon museum. [But] I discovered my friend had been deprecating me and stolen my girlfriend. [Therefore] I confronted him, cancelled our plans, and instead grabbed my Tombow pencils and decided to sketch a landscape to sooth my nerves and help me gain perspective.
This outline of a simple ABT narrative took 67 words, which could be expanded up to 350, 650, or a short story if you so desired. If you want to embellish elements or add a sub-conflict, that’s up to you. The core elements of the story are there for you to expand or contract them as needs demand.
By no means is this bit of advice intended to make the essay process formulaic. Rather its intent is to give the essay process a bit more structure. The core advice offered by UC admissions is still golden: get your personal insights down on paper early, use concrete details, write about what you’re enthusiastic about, revise diligently, solicit third party criticism and remember no matter what the topic it’s always about you. Unfold yourself.
Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 10 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800. firstname.lastname@example.org.