As though college admissions weren’t maddening enough already.
Many of you know by now that the University of California changed its Personal Statement requirements for the upcoming 2016-2017 application cycle.
After something like a decade of the same two topics, we’re now looking at a four-prompt approach. The new framework does have shorter word limits. So if they’re a student’s only essay-based target, it’s a relatively minor adjustment. If, however, the student is going for the UC’s and private (Common Application) schools, the game gets more complicated.
First, let’s look at the prompts themselves as a point of reference.
>> Both prompts required, with a combined limit of 1,000 words.
- 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.
- 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?
>> Choose 4. Limit: 350 words per essay.
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- 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.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- 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?
- Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
There are three main points to hold onto for now.
>> The new name offers an initial clue. Formerly known as The Personal Statements, the writing section is now called Personal Insight Questions.
Right off the top, UC Admissions tells us:
We hope this new format will give you clearer guidance and more flexibility in the kind of information you want to share with us.
The questions are certainly more specific, cover more territory than their predecessors, and thus offer a wider range of opportunity. The app itself provides both a worksheet and extensive contextual guidance for each question to help get students onto the right path.
>> They prompts are noticeably more concrete.
Another clue emerges in the Writing Tips section, where the list of “common mistakes” includes the following:
Asking philosophical questions. Get to the point and tell us what you mean.
UC Admissions is facing truly daunting numbers. Unlike private schools, the campuses employ corps of readers who do nothing but evaluate student essays and report back to Admissions. When UCLA is looking at 80,000 applicants, they realistically don’t have the time and manpower to closely assess each candidate the way a small liberal arts college can.
Result: having grumbled about a trend toward what some label “literary” writing, the UC’s are mandating shorter, simpler responses that in turn demand less reader effort.
>> The new protocols also discourage another common habit: carelessly copy-pasting the primary Common App Personal Statement into one of the UC prompts.
The emphasis here is on “carelessly”. This is a legitimate complaint: too often the Common App essay fails to specifically address the UC topic (or vice-versa, if a student is copying in the opposite direction). It’s obvious, in an age of such intense competition, that making a school feel neglected simply in the interests of easing your workload can be a fatal misstep.
Content. From a counselor perspective, I don’t disagree with the UC position on overly elaborate prose (nor do I allow it among my clients). Bigger words don’t impress sophisticated readers; neither do excessively elaborate constructions. Remember: first and foremost, this is about CLEAR COMMUNICATION. We’re always looking for a well-calibrated balance of complexity and accessibility.
Having said that…. while students are busy cultivating their writing through AP English classes and the SAT/ACT, the UC is to some extent pushing against that. They want thoughtfulness, of course. But not too much? It’s a bit frustrating. There’s a hint of over-simplifying here which is more about serving the Admissions office’s needs than the student’s full self-expression.
Personally, I place great emphasis on building writing and thinking skills throughout the course of my work, and strongly believe those hard-won capacities should be allowed to shine. I will strive to ensure the new format doesn’t limit that.
Overlapping. The new structure won’t change the practice much. Given the increasingly complex applications students now face, a savvy degree of efficiency is more important than ever.
As always, I’ll stress choosing personal, individualized topics with great care. Once we have an approach that completely satisfies both the Common App primary and one of the UC questions, we’ll go after the Common App first. Why? It’s considerably easier to cut a 650-word piece down to 350 than it is to expand the shorter version.
Of course…. whereas before, this step left us with only one additional UC essay to handle, now we have three. So the change essentially adds two additional pieces of writing to an already jam-packed process, which does make things more challenging.
Given the range of possibilities the new UC prompts are designed to cover, it shouldn’t be too hard to forge appropriate overlaps. With some creativity (and, to be honest, a bit of serendipity as well), we should be able to line one or more UC prompts up with private schools’ written Supplements, and thus keep the workload under control. This will simply require more careful creative exploration, strategizing, and attention to detail….
…. which have, in any case, always been a core element of my approach.
Do bear in mind, please: since the Common App withholds next season’s Supplements until its annual August 1 reboot, we won’t know for certain until then.
DON’T PANIC. It’s a pain, yes. But as long as you keep a clear head, it’s absolutely a manageable pain.
As you’ve often heard me say in the past: with smart, attentive, empathic guidance, conscientious students will end up with solid choices come April. All it takes is dedication, a sense of adventure, and trust that in the end, they’ll land somewhere terrific.
I suspect I’ll be writing more as we get further into the landscape. Until then…. looking forward to diving into a new season.