A separate article explores UC personal statement prompt #2.
The UC personal statement prompt #1 states, "Describe the world you come from - for example, your family, community or school - and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations." It's a question that every freshman applicant to one of the nine undergraduate UC campuses must answer.
The prompt sounds simple enough. After all, if there's one subject you know something about, it's the surroundings in which you live. But don't be fooled by how accessible the question appears to be. Admission to the University of California system is remarkable competitive, especially for some of the more elite campuses, and you should think carefully about the subtleties of the prompt.
Before answering the question, consider the purpose of the essay. The admissions officers want to get to know you. The essays are the one place where you can truly present your passions and personality. Test scores, GPAs, and other quantitative data do not really tell the university who you are; instead, they show that you are a capable student. But what really makes you you? Each of the UC campuses receives far more applications than they can accept. Use the essay to show how you differ from all the other capable applicants.
The personal statement is, obviously, personal. It tells the admissions officers what you value, what gets you out of bed in the morning, what drives you to excel. Make sure your response to prompt #1 is specific and detailed, not broad and generic. To answer the prompt effectively, consider the following:
"World" is a versatile term. The prompt gives "your family, community and school" as examples of possible "worlds," but they are just three examples. Where is it that you truly live? What really makes up your "world"? Is it your team? The local animal shelter? Your grandmother's kitchen table? Your church? The pages of a book? Someplace where your imagination likes to wander?
Focus on that word "how."How has your world shaped you? The prompt is asking you to be analytical and introspective. It is asking you to connect your environment to your identity. It is asking you to project forward and imagine your future. The best responses to prompt #1 highlight your analytical abilities.
Avoid the obvious. If you write about your family or school, it's easy to focus on that teacher or parent who pushed you to excel. This isn't necessarily a bad approach to the essay, but make sure you provide enough specific details to paint a true portrait of yourself. Thousands of students could write an essay about how their supportive parents helped them succeed. Make sure your essay is about you and isn't something that thousands of other students could have written.
Your "world" doesn't have to be a pretty place. Adversity sometimes shapes us more than positive experiences. If your world has been filled with challenges, feel free to write about them. You never want to sound like you are whining or complaining, but a good essay can explore how negative environmental forces have defined who you are.
Stay on target. You have just 1,000 words with which to answer prompts #1 and #2. That's not much space. Make sure every word you write is necessary. Keep these 5 essay tips in mind, follow these suggestions for improving your essay's style, and cut anything in your essay that isn't defining your "world" and explaining "how" that world has defined you.
Applying to the University of California? The UC personal statement prompt #2 states, "Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?" Every freshman and transfer applicant to one of the nine undergraduate UC campuses must answer this prompt.
The breadth of prompt #2 can be paralyzing. When you have the freedom to write about any "personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience," you really have the freedom to write about almost anything at all.
The first step to answering the prompt, then, is identifying your focus. Some subjects work better than others. An essay on your game-winning goal or tackle can easily turn into a boastful essay that reveals little about you other than a healthy ego. Essays on a talent or personal quality can also strike the wrong chord if they become too solipsistic.
Always keep in mind the purpose of the essay. The UC admissions officers want to learn something about you that can't be revealed by your test scores, GPA, and list of extracurricular activities. The personal statement is one place where you can actually communicate your passions and personality.
So, what topics work best? Any, but make sure you are passionate about your subject matter. If you feel that soccer or swimming has had a major influence on you as you've grown and matured, write about soccer or swimming. If a personal tragedy has made you approach life in a new way, feel free to explore the experience. The UC admissions officers are not looking for any specific focus in your essay. Rather, they are looking for a well-crafted essay that helps them get to know you better. The essay needs to be true to you and your passions. If you can imagine another applicant submitting a nearly identical essay, you haven't succeeded in conveying your uniqueness in your personal statement.
As you consider prompt #2, keep the following in mind:
Do more than just "tell": The prompt begins by asking you to "tell us about" a quality, accomplishment, or experience. The word "tell," however, doesn't fully capture what the best essays actually do. First off, it's always better to "show" than to "tell." Bring your subject to life. Also, telling about an experience should be about more than summing up what happened. In the process of "telling," you should also be analytical and reflective. Reveal your critical thinking abilities through your writing.
Tread softly around that word "proud": Hubris brought down Agamemnon, and pride is often considered the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins. When the prompt asks you to explain how your quality or experience "makes you proud," be careful to steer clear of a response that is boastful. Your tone will be more palatable if your personal statement shows humility. I like to think of the essay not in terms of pride, but as an exploration of something that is worthy of admiration.
Focus on that word "how."How has the focus of your essay made you the person you are today? A good essay needs to explore thoughtfully this cause and effect. Introspection and analysis are key here.
Attend to the style, mechanics, and tone of your essay: With only 1,000 words with which to answer prompts #1 and #2, your personal statement needs to be lean and engaging. Keep these 5 essay tips in mind, follow these suggestions for improving your essay's style, and cut anything that is tangential to the prompt.
Personal Statement Examples
1. Give Goth a Chance
When I sat down to write this essay, I tried, as my high school English teacher always instructed, to imagine the audience for my writing. The more I thought about it, the more I pitied the college admissions screeners who would be reading a thousand essays on diversity. Along with the expected takes on race and ethnicity, how many of those essays would present their authors as outcasts, loners, kids who didn’t fit in at his or her school? How could I present myself as someone unique and interesting—strange, even—without falling prey to the cliché of the self-pitying social misfit?
Let me be direct: in some ways, I am the antithesis of what one might picture as a student who contributes to campus diversity. I am white, middle-class, and heterosexual; I have no physical handicaps or mental challenges apart from a tendency towards sarcasm. But when I receive college brochures picturing smiling, clean-cut teens dressed in the latest from Abercrombie & Fitch and lounging on a blanket in the sun, I think, those people are not like me.
Simply put, I am a Goth. I wear black, lots of it. I have piercings and ear gauges and tattoos. My hair, naturally the same sandy blonde that the rest of my family shares, is dyed jet, sometimes highlighted in streaks of purple or scarlet. I rarely smile, and I don’t do sun. If I were inserted into those brochure photographs of typical college students, I would look like a vampire stalking her wholesome prey.
Again, I am imagining my reading audience, and I can almost see my readers’ eyes roll. So you’re a little weird, kid. How does that contribute to campus diversity? Well, I think I contribute plenty. Diversity goes beyond the physical; race or ethnicity might be the first things one thinks of, but really, it is a question of what makes someone the person that he or she is. Diversity might be considered in terms of economic or geographical background, life experiences, religion, sexual orientation, and even personal interests and general outlook. In this respect, my Goth identity contributes a perspective that is far different from the mainstream. Being Goth isn’t just about physical appearance; it’s a way of life that, like any other, includes not only individual tastes in music, literature, and popular culture, but also particular beliefs about philosophy, spirituality, and a range of other human issues.
To give just one specific example, I am planning to major in Environmental Studies, and while it might seem odd to picture a ghoulishly-dressed girl who adores the natural world, it was my Goth outlook that led me to this academic interest. I read voraciously, and am drawn to subject matter that is somewhat dark; the more I read about humanity’s impact on the planet and the near-apocalyptic dangers posed by global climate change, pollution, overpopulation, the manipulation of the food supply and other environmental threats, the more interested I became, and the more determined that I should become involved. I, along with other members of my school’s Environmental Club, started a campus recycling program, and lobbied our superintendent to install in all classrooms power strips that are used to easily shut down equipment such as printers and computers at the end of the day, thereby conserving energy and generating significant savings for our school. I was drawn to this dark subject matter of environmental crisis, not to wallow in it or savor the Schadenfreude, but to change it and make the world a better place.
I know Goths look a little funny, as we wear our ebony trenchcoats in seventy-degree weather. I know we seem a little odd as we gather in shady nooks to discuss the latest episode of True Blood. I know professors may sigh as we swell the enrollments of poetry and art classes. Yes, we’re different. And we—I—have a lot to contribute.
2. Harmony through Chaos With convention comes conformity; with conformity comes the fall of the individual. Individual beliefs and ideals, however, are vital to the very basis of the society we as humans thrive in. Simply conforming leads to a backwards society in which a few hold power and the rest are subjugated, but people hate being subjugated: they just want to be free. This is the reason that people search for meaning in their lives; it is the reason that people are diverse in both intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics. It is this very diversity that not only defines us but also allows us to find a place in the world. Where am I in all of this? I am an individual who is defined by my experiences in both the eastern and western worlds.
The east is a mysterious world that has opened my eyes to a plethora of knowledge regarding the society, culture, life and so much more. I have been training in Shotokan karate, a form of Japanese martial arts, since 1999. In this discipline, I have been taught that the sensei, the teacher, was the master of all knowledge. With each day of training, every drop of sweat, with every kick, every punch, a sense knowledge was passed on from sensei to student. It was this initial spark that led me to the Japanese culture. I was fascinated by the blind obedience, intrigued by bushidō, the way of the warrior: the sense of purpose in each individual who lived by it to protect and live with honor until death.
Countercurrent to this experience, are my experiences in the western world. It was in the western world where the crusades began, where Martin Luther blatantly defied an authority, where Galileo Galilei was excommunicated for refuting the theocracy, where new nations formed that would eventually influence the course of humanity. It is in this western world that I have been educated and have been led to think on an individual basis rather than a utilitarian one that is common in eastern cultures. During my rigors in AP European History, I interpreted the works of philosophers. From Plato to Aquinas, from Ockham to Descartes, from Kant to Nietzsche, I absorbed and integrated these philosophies to my own being, and also developed a bad habit of reading philosophy.
It was in my pursuit of knowledge and experience that I began to learn about the virtues and follies of humanity, the reason behind wars, and the impetus to live. I have realized that only by mixing the cultures of the eastern and western worlds can true harmony of diversity be achieved. Trying to attain this harmony is parallel to what Dr. William G. Ouchi, author and professor, attempted to do in the field of business management in mixing eastern and western management practices into a hybrid business management system. Assimilating the cultures and lessons of both, the eastern and western worlds, allows me to be more in balance with myself and the external world.
In connecting to the overall theme of cross-cultures, I am an adolescent of Bengali descent, but beyond that I am an individual shaped by the constant clash of different cultures and influences. It is in a chaotic system I was born into, and in this chaotic system I thrive.
3. The Bitter and the Sweet The candy’s smooth wrapper crinkles as I trace its edges with my fingertips, imagining its contents. The wrapper tears like a fine fabric, revealing a corner of dark chocolate. I break off a piece and take pleasure in its creamy essence. I have always had a sweet tooth, but it is not just sugary snacks that I crave. Being raised by a single parent has been a bittersweet experience, but one that has given me resilience and ambition.
When I was young, my mother would tell me that the racks of candy in the store’s checkout line belonged to the cashier. She said this not to confuse me, avoid spoiling me, or even to teach me a lesson about earning rewards, though she inevitably did. She said it because she didn’t want me to worry because she could not afford a 50-cent chocolate bar. Nevertheless, I saw through her tactic and made a promise to myself that I would grow up to be prosperous enough to buy my family all the Hersheys on the stand.
Instead of focusing on our economic instability, my mother selflessly pushed me to strive for success so that I could lead a more comfortable life than hers. She worked long hours every night and struggled to pay the minimum due on her bills. Still, she would find time to read and snuggle with my sister, Emily, and me. Mom taught me the value of perseverance, education, and moral fiber. Although I did not have two parents, I was loved and nurtured just as much.
Not all of life’s milestones were easy; some left an insurmountably bitter taste in my mouth. Domestic abuse, divorce, and homelessness, for example. I dealt with these when my mother married a man in Maryland and moved us several states away from our roots in Georgia. The first few months were great: baseball games, family trips to the mall, dinners together, and movies. It felt like we were the perfect All-American family. Then things changed. Baseball games were too expensive, and trips to the mall were replaced with days Emily and I spent isolated in our rooms on his orders. Screaming matches between my stepfather and my mother interrupted dinners, and he swapped movie tickets for vodka.
We spent five years living in a family setting that had turned into a war zone. I remember the verbal spats became so routine that I would no longer rush to my little sister’s room to cradle her in my arms and wipe away the tears spilling down her cheeks. Emily and I grew so used to this lifestyle that we just turned on the televisions in our rooms to drown out the screams. We became immersed in the world of sugar-coated sitcoms, pretending the spiteful cursing matches downstairs were normal.
Then one evening, an argument erupted. My sister and I had begun to predict the start of these altercations. We called our system ETF, Estimated Time of Fight, named for its accuracy. Emily joked about patenting it some day. But on this night my mother swung open my bedroom door and told me to pack – we were leaving and not coming back. I could hear Emily sobbing in her room.
We loaded our things into Mom’s Ford, my stepfather barking hatefully all the while. We drove for a long time before Mom pulled into the parking lot of a large store. I gazed out the window, watching people carry bags to their cars and head off to their warm homes. They were oblivious to our bittersweet tears. They had no idea how relieved and traumatized we felt, all at the same time. I was 14, my sister 11, school was still in session, and we were homeless.
“We’re not the first people to go through this, and we won’t be the last,” Mom assured us.
A friend of my mother’s let us stay with her. Each day, Mom would wake us before dawn so we could commute from Virginia to Maryland for our last three months of school. I remember looking out at the gleaming Washington Monument from the Potomac bridge, wondering how many others in the nation had suffered in silence. How many had packed up and moved on?
We eventually relocated to Texas, where Mom is still working to re-stabilize her life. And now, as I compose this essay with some dark chocolate – my favorite candy – close at hand, I realize my family and I are at the best point in our lives. I have triumphed here, both academically and personally. I satiate my hunger for knowledge by remaining dedicated to my intellectual pursuits – for example, the Distinguished Graduation Plan with its rigorous course of study and community service, and the learning opportunities it offers.
I savor the fact that I am not a bitter product of my environment; I am not a person who lets trying times interrupt her focus, for I know that they are learning experiences also. Success, like candy, can be the sweetest treat of all.
4. An Identity In my life, I have been fortunate enough to not have any life changing tragedies, but I’ve had one certain life long situation that has shaped the person I am today.
Ever since I can remember I have felt like the oddball of my family. I have been the kid with no art skills, poor academics, and a struggle with weight. I was, and still am, different than my family. My dad is an accomplished poet and creative writer, my mom is multi-lingual in four languages and a linguistic expert for our local university, my sister is a national award winning ceramicist, and my brother is an accomplished carpenter and illustrator. I, on the other hand, am completely the opposite. Other than fine penmanship, I can’t write a poem, speak another language properly, create a decorative pot, or draw a decent picture.
My physical image has always been compared to that of my brother and sister; twins, who are lean, skinny, and fit. I had gone through a “fat” stage when having gained a total of 20-25 pounds when I was fifteen. My sister is petite and 5’2, while I am 5’7 and distinctly the contrary to petite. At family functions, I could hear my aunts talking about me at the next table. I could hear them snickering, saying that I should be the big sister rather than the little sister. They would also make judgments about my pale white skin, suggesting I should be darker or tanned like them. The constancy of hearing them put me down would literally tear me up mentally. I would leave family gatherings with those voices of criticism, relentlessly regretting the way I looked, wishing to have my sister’s perfect physique.
As an aspiring academic, I have had to consistently work hard on keeping my G.P.A decent, “average”; despondent of my inability to be like the twins, full-time honor students with GPA’s of 3.8 and 4.2. I have let this one situation, a comparison of “they” as a success story and “me” as a classic failure,” to control my life. I have wasted so much time and effort feeling sorry for myself for not being like my family. I know this year opened my eyes to the person I truly am.
I have learned of the passion I hold for the study of Human Behavior and Science; and, of the outstanding AVID tutor I have become. To be the first in my family to pursue the field of Human Science, and to tutor AVID students, is a valuable part of my identity, something that I don’t have to share nor compare to my family. I have not lived as long as my mom, dad, or the twins, so maybe I haven’t found what exactly I’m good at or what I can proudly accomplish. I think whatever “it” is will come to me when it does, and when that time comes, I won’t focus on the negative aspects. But, rather, on the strength of experience and the power to move forward. Most importantly, I won’t compare myself to my family, because it is the distinction and peculiarity of each individual that allows progress to be made and character to take on new meaning. The necessity, then, needs to be in shifting and transforming while encapsulating a timeless tradition of gaining self-identity.