For students applying to start college in 2017, it’s going to be quite a year of change. There’s a new SAT. The ACT introduced a number of changes over the last year. Fifty-eight colleges are starting with the new Coalition Application. And if all that weren’t enough, the University of California – one of the world’s most prestigious public university systems – replaced the personal statement requirement with a new set of “personal insight questions.” These new University of California essay prompts replace the personal statement with a set of eight questions. You have to pick four, and provide a 350-word answer.

The university’s website says it hopes this new requirement will give students “clearer guidance and more flexibility” in their applications. It certainly will make the application process more complex for students and parents, who have now to worry about the UC answers in addition to the Common Application essay, supplements, and the new Coalition Application.

There’s more information about each of the new prompts below, here are a few thoughts and tips to keep your application process on track.

  • Any essay prompt offers the opportunity to write about and highlight moments in your life when something changed, or when you changed as a result of that experience, says Jane Hirschhorn, one of the essay coaches available to students on LifeLaunchr.
  • That said, having to write four short essays is much harder than writing one longer essay, because you have to come up with four topics. So make sure you allow time to write these statements. It’s virtually impossible to write them just days (or even a week) before they are all due.
  • The courses on LifeLaunchr can be a great resource. We have many courses on writing essays and personal statements. Some are free, and the others are very affordable. Check them out. Getting some help in writing them will be critical.
  • Line up your community early, or get professional help to edit your essays. Family members can be a great resource in editing and revising your essay and brainstorming essay topics. So can friends and other mentors. Or find a coach on LifeLaunchr, so you can get an expert eye to help you create, revise, and edit your essay.

The New University of California Essay Prompts

Here are the eight new prompts, with tips on how to address them.

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Leadership is a constant theme in college applications, so make sure you think through all the opportunities in life when you’ve displayed leadership or led a team. It could be at school, in your religious community, a community group. Or even your family or with your friends.

  • 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.

The premise behind this question is that “every person has a creative side.” So even if you think creativity isn’t your most important talent, ask a friend or family member for instances of when you showed your creative streak. Maybe you dress in a way that expresses your creativity, or have a talent for music or art you’d like to share.

  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Remember, it’s up to you to interpret the word “talent.” It doesn’t have to be conventional, like playing the violin or soccer. Of course, it could be those things. But it could also be your ability to create diverse relationships with different kinds of people or be a connector. Think outside the box. And show how you worked on this skill, and that you didn’t just rely on natural ability.

  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

This question asks both about opportunities and barriers. For some people, you’d want to write about an educational opportunity. Maybe you went on a trip to Africa to work on a farm. Or took a course in robotics or video game development. But it might also be a barrier you’ve worked to overcome. One student I coached spoke of his family’s circumstances: a brother who was in prison, a sister who’d dropped out, a father who worked to support his family from six AM to midnight every day. His success had come only because he had the ability to overcome some very significant barriers.

  • 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?

This question and the previous one have a lot of similarities. Challenge is a word that can be interpreted broadly. Maybe it was an illness you went through, or a family member’s illness that affected you. Focus on how you worked through it. What resources helped you most?

  • Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

This would have been my favorite question! Finding a way to explain why physics, or music, or mathematics, interest you can be fun. Think of the academic subject which challenges you most, and where you have spent time outside of class to learn. If your school offered AP or IB or Honors classes, did you take them? What was it that attracted you to this subject and how did you change as a result?

  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

If you’re answering this question, remember that community can be many things. It can be your sports team, or your orchestra. It can be your religious group or the animal shelter where you work. Think about how you contribute, not just in terms of the work you do there, but your attitude and approach.

  • What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

This is the final, catch-all, question! If you have a skill or experience that doesn’t neatly fit into the boxes of leadership, or community service or academics, consider answering this one. Maybe you have a gift for video game development. Maybe you are a deeply religious person. Ask yourself how you’d be different than all the other students, and how that difference would enhance the university community.

UC’s new prompts undoubtedly create some new challenges and some new opportunities. You know having to answer four questions will require a lot more time, so make sure you factor in the time you’ll need. Especially if you’re also applying to schools that require the Common App or Coalition App, since they have different prompts and different requirements. Make sure you get help from the many resources available to you!

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