The article below is for the pre-2016 University of California application, and the suggestions are only marginally relevant for current applicants to the UC System. For tips on the new essay requirements, read this article: Tips and Strategies for the 8 UC Personal Insight Questions.
The pre-2016 UC personal statement prompt #1 stated, "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 had to answer.
Note that this question has much in common with the Common Application option #1 on your background and identity.
Overview of the Question
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 remarkably 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.
Breaking Down the Question
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.
A Final Word on the UC Essays
For any essay on any college application, always keep the purpose of the essay in mind. The university is asking for an essay because it has holistic admissions. The UC schools want to know you as a whole person, not as a simple matrix of grades and standardized test scores. Make sure your essay makes a positive impression. The admissions folks should finish reading your essay thinking, "This is a student we want to join our university community."