2013 Tell Your Personal Story: Advice for University of CA application essays
Communicating Your Personal Stories:
Tips for Writing Powerful UC
Rebecca Joseph, PhD
iPhone/Google app-All College Application
How Important Are The UC
• The top UC campuses admit 20 to 30% of applicants. They
receive thousands and thousands of applications from
talented, capable students.
• They use 14 measures to evaluate your application. Most you
have already completed and cannot change.
• One thing you can still do is to write two effective essays.
• Essays alone will not get you admitted to a UC. Yet, the
essays can help you become three dimensional to UC readers
who seek ways to differentiate students. They are also looking
for ways to honor diversity of experiences and leadership and
UC Personal Statement Advice
Your personal statement should be exactly
that — personal. This is your opportunity to
tell us about yourself — your hopes,
ambitions, life experiences, inspirations. We
encourage you to take your time on this
assignment. Be open. Be reflective. Find your
individual voice and express it honestly.
Core Essays-The UCs
Respond to both prompts, using a maximum of
1,000 words total.
You may allocate the word count as you wish. If you
choose to respond to one prompt at greater length,
we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250
You will get cut off after 1000 words so you must be
acutely aware of length.
The Two Prompts
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)-[Outside-In]
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.
Prompt #2 (all applicants) [Inside-Out]
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.
Other Places For Information
Additional Information—another 500 words and also
additional info about academic history
Activities- You get to put in several activities160
character descriptions per activity
5- Community Service
5- Non A-G Classes
5- Extracurricular Activities
5- Special Programs
Where to Begin: Core Qualities
What core qualities do you have to offer the UCs? Brainstorm-:
1. List your major activities, academic strengths, talents, and personality strengths.
2. List three aspects of your culture, family, religion, school or community group, you can connect to one or
two of your activities.
3. Come up with at least five adjectives to describe what you offer a UC. Examples…empathetic, resilient,
determined, collaborative, creative, insightful, analytic, etc. Connect them to your lists above.
As we read the model essays, I want you
o to see how the pieces complement each other,
o to identify the core qualities each student offers a
o to note the active writing and details the students
UC 1- 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.
For what seems like my entire life, I have gone to two different schools and been a part of two communities - Chinese school and a public school –
with two very diverse populations. Most of the time aspects from these two hemispheres stay separate. Yet my experiences have helped me realize
that although people come from diverse backgrounds, we are not so different.
From a tiny kindergartener to a mature high school senior, I have spent every Saturday morning learning Chinese history and culture and to read,
write, listen, and speak Chinese, all of which has led me to appreciate and respect my heritage even more. Over the years, Chinese school has
become a little community where I have made close friends and know the teachers and principal well. Sure, there were days when I despised waking
up early and going to school six days a week, but during my high school career I have come to realize that attending Chinese school has truly been an
asset for me. Chinese school has helped me become proficient at a second language. It has also provided opportunities in a more intimate
environment than American school, encouraging me to take part in school activities and affairs such as hosting the annual talent show with my
During my sophomore year, I became editor-in-chief of our Chinese school newspaper, which had been on hiatus for many years until my mother, my
Chinese school friends, and I brought it back to life. As a group we spent a great deal of time outside of school collaborating and putting together
every issue. This experience showed me not only how much work and time goes into publishing a newspaper, but also taught me how to work with
and lead a group. From passing out assignments to staff members to editing and re-editing every page, a ton of effort was always needed. This year I
have established The Westside Breeze as an extracurricular class, and I have become the instructor for the class. This has allowed more students to
be involved with the newspaper. With this newspaper I have helped connect the Chinese school community even more.
Despite being mostly immersed in Chinese culture, I have also enjoyed exploring other cultures in “American” school through history classes and
clubs, especially the Armenian club. Before I joined the Armenian club I knew very little about Armenia and its history and culture. However, I was
soon rid of my ignorance of Armenian history. What I remember most from our weekly meetings was learning about the realities of the Armenian.
Even though I was taking an advanced placement World History class that same year, the textbooks we used barely even mentioned this horrific
event. Our fundamental objective of the Armenian club was to make people aware of and recognize the tragedy and I determinedly took part in every
event supporting this issue.
Chinese school and the Armenian club have exposed me to two vastly different cultures and I hope to put the knowledge that I have gained from these
experiences to good use in the larger community. From my experience in the Armenian club and Chinese School, I have come to realize the
importance of doubt, of questioning, and of not blatantly accepting everything that is presented to us. I know now that I have to think independently
and learn as much as I can before making any conclusions. I have learned that although people come from different cultures, we all value teamwork,
determination, and leadership, all of which have been instilled in me.
Jasmine UC 2 Essay
UC 2- 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.
All at once, I heard a plastic tube emit a horrendous sucking sound and a nurse coax a frightened little girl to calm down. Before I knew
it, I was holding the tiny bandaged hand of the screaming, trembling toddler. Even I began to feel a bit terrified when the doctor tried
once again to put the tube through another tube connected to her throat. Nevertheless, she endured and even helped the doctor by
holding the instrument to her throat. With the nurse and me both comforting her, she became less anxious and frightened, as did I.
As soon as the doctor and nurse finished, the girl bounced out of her bed and bounded down the hallway to the hospital’s playroom while
I pushed her I.V. stand and struggled to keep up with her. While I had expected her to be tired and weak after such a trying ordeal, she
was livelier than ever. I could see that her strong and positive spirit had allowed her to overcome her frail physical condition. I greatly
admired the little girl’s strength and bravery and I wanted to reward her with a good time. I knew I had accomplished just that when I
managed to get her to giggle and smile.
In the several years I worked as a Kumon tutor, while I saw children squirm and struggle as they tried to learn math skills, it was only
during my summer of volunteering in the Child Life Department at UCLA that I witnessed the true hardships of young children and their
families. Before my experience at the hospital, I was unaware of the realities of life threatening diseases. While I knew how diseases
and health problems could drastically change people’s lives, I truly understood how difficult their lives actually were when I saw many
children fight these diseases. Although they received excellent treatment at UCLA, they still craved interaction to escape temporarily
from reality and feel like normal children again. By handing out toys and playing with these patients, I feel as if I reached out to people
who truly needed me. By helping calm them during procedures, I have shown compassion and reassured patients that there is someone
who cares about them. By witnessing the strength of these children and their families, I have seen the indomitable will to live and
undying familial love in the face of the harshest times anyone can ever face.
Through the suffering I have witnessed, I have realized that these children need all the help and relief they can get. It is rewarding to
know that I have made a difference in someone’s life and I am determined to continue to give back to those in need. While I helped lift
these patients’ spirits, through their courage and persistence to take control of their lives again, they have inspired and encouraged me to
make the most of my opportunities.
“See? Hanging out with us grownups isn’t so bad,” exclaims Mr. Xia, the conductor of my Chinese music ensemble.
I smile from my piano bench, surrounded by middle-aged Chinese parents, all wielding violins or cellos. Mr.
Xia picks up his baton again, and I begin playing accompanist to the medley of old Chinese movie themes. I
relent to the force of the piece’s happy tune as I sway left and right, bringing out piano notes over the sweet
singing of strings.
Performing with the Dancing String Chamber orchestra has been a new experience for me as a solo pianist. Since I
was five, piano playing has been about me alone. But starting this summer, I’ve been creating music with a
group, watching how my actions on those 88 keys affect the rest of the players in the room. Through this
innate teamwork, I feel at ease among the adults that make up my Chinese orchestra, all thanks to the music
that connects us.
As I practice at home, I often find my parents singing or humming along to the nostalgic tunes of childhood in
another country. Music manifests itself as an essence that transcends all cultures, as my perspectives overlap
with those of another generation. We orchestral members share the emotion each piece carries no matter how
different we are as people.
I’m sitting alone at the piano during a practice break. “Hey, Lucy, come over here and chat with us adults!” Mr. Xia
commands. At first I groan inwardly, ready for an onslaught of awkward conversation with Chinese parents.
But when they start talking about their own experiences and successes, I realize I’m quite fortunate to be
involved in such a unique community. They have become my role models—these adults that are full time PhD
chemists or engineers who find time to practice traditional music along with raising a family. I can’t wait for the
future, when I can pursue all my own interests and influence others as my adult peers have influenced me.
LUCY UC 2-
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
One day, I’m playing paper bag puppets with a five-year-old. The next, I’m in the middle of a tug-o’-war match with
an eighty-year-old grandmother.
With the child, I pretend my recently designed paper bag puppet is a monster, and I teasingly try to “bite” at her
puppet. “Roar! Ahh!” I squeal in defeat as the little girl triumphantly retaliates. She laughs as my monster
flops down “dead” on the table, and we start over by designing a new set of puppets.
With the grandmother, my face is stern as I hold tight to our “rope”—a paperback book. “If you could please give
that back to me…” I say gently. Finally, I rescue it from the death grip of the Alzheimer’s patient who had
been suddenly interested in dissecting the very book I was reading.
The two places where I volunteer are polar opposites. Two summers ago, I began helping out with the children’s
Summer Reading Program at my public library, supervising the arts and crafts table and awarding prizes to
the children who read. Then at Sunrise Assisted Living, I’ve worked through awkward moments while
attempting to make life more enjoyable for the elderly residents. I’m surrounded by two extremes that have
given me a unique perspective on this single opportunity known as life.
On one side, I see children who spend each day fully, living only in the moment and never looking forward or back.
On the other, I see mounting confusion and acceptance of death—a struggle for dignity and a mourning for
At one point, I felt terribly depressed by my position—caught in limbo between childhood and the end of life. I was
consumed by pessimism, as I began seeing these children as too carefree and ignorant. Then at Sunrise, my
negative attitude pointed out the horrific fact that these residents were just sitting there, waiting for the end.
LUCY UC 2-More
It was a horrible time of my life. I was marooned on the island of cruel fate. Today, I feel terrible for those dark thoughts, as later
experiences brought me back to a lighter reality.
I was sitting in the bistro of Sunrise one day, during my gloomy stage. Happy-go-lucky 50’s music was blaring from the jukebox,
while I sulked in a corner. We had just finished a bingo game consisting of me yelling to a room of half-deaf, half-asleep seniors,
and I was feeling the insignificance of my service. Then, one of the residents approached me and asked, “Can I have this
I shrugged and took his hand—veined, wrinkled, but gentle. I stood up, and we began to waltz. I kept stumbling as I focused on
his feet, trying to follow his steps. “Don’t look down; look up at me,” he said, and I tried harder to naturally follow his movements. I
saw that he was enjoying himself, reminiscing of a dance in another time. He also seemed pleased to be teaching someone of
the next generation—passing on his own abilities. I realized that I was glad to be a part of his happiness.
Sometime later, at my station for the Summer Reading Club booth, I really thought about childhood and maturation. The people
passing through the library were of all ages, reminding me of my entire youth. I saw myself as a child again, wandering through
the aisles of fuzzy puppets and picture books. Then I saw some older children helping their younger siblings—a ten-year-old
leading a toddler by her hand, as they went to ogle at the fish in our salt-water aquarium. I saw a slow but sure maturity, a certain
step between the stage of innocence and sensibility.
I’ve realized what life should be—a constant pursuit of opportunities, with a carpe diem attitude that can be represented in the
views of both young and old. Currently, I’m proud to influence so many lives around me, in each interaction I make with new
parents signing their children up for library programs or each senior citizen that I quiz with trivia. I’m more prepared than ever to
make a lasting contribution in this world, since I’ve realized exactly how precious life is. Whether it’s of the innocent youth or the
fragile veterans of society, in all worlds there is suffering, and in all worlds there is hope to make things better again. So I hope to
make an impact on our fleeting lives.
Into, Through, and Beyond Essay
It is not just the story that counts.
It’s the choice of qualities a student wants the
college to know about herself
IntoThrough and Beyond
It’s the way the reader can lead the reader into the piece—images, examples, context.
Always uses active language: power verbs, crisp adjectives, specific nouns.
What happened…quickly…yet clearly with weaving of story and personal analysis
Specific focus on the student
Great summarizing, details, and images at same time
Ending that evokes key characteristics
Answers ending prompts of two UC essays
UC 1”and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.”
UC 2 “What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are”
Brainstorm: 1. Into—Think of a story, an incident, a specific to
grab our attention
Bring me in…Start as specifically as you can. Stories are great
ways to start or really specific summaries or incidents. There can
be a before and an after to the story. Chose a story that reveals
something unusual and yet something key about your
personality. This story must connect to the point of your essay
UC #1--Connect to your place in world
UC #2--Connect to your experience with activity or work or talent
Through—Tell the entire context
Through #1- this particular story
What, where, when, why? How long? What
different components? What development and
leadership through time?
Through #2- your overall experience with this skill,
experience, or context
How does this story and these qualities connect to
who you are in the rest of your life? What qualities
does it reveal about you? What connections to
other activities and experiences?
Beyond—Describe very concretely and in master sentences how
this story and this context
Have strengthened your life
Connect to your present and your future
Where does this experience lead you? What does it
reveal about you are? What does it reveal about
who you want to be? You can add a clever ending if
one occurs to you. UC #1 Circle back to your world
and goals.. UC #2 Circle back to your talents.
Students often need weeks not days to write effective essays.
Do not make excuses or blame others. If you need to explain a low grade or
struggle, use the additional information section.
Save these essays as you can use them in your other applications.
Use the activities sections to provide more information about your leadership,
initiative, and community and work involvement.
Essays cannot be manufactured. They convey truth, unique stories, and writing
Admissions officers can smell “enhanced” essays.
Students have two to five minutes to grab the attention of a essay reader.
Many great websites and examples are out there but each student is different.
Admissions officers often say essays make or break an ultimate decision.
Start in the here and now. Tell a powerful story.
Final Thoughts II
Tip 1. College essays are fourth in importance behind grades, test scores, and the rigor of completed
coursework in many admissions office decisions (NACAC, 2009). Don't waste this powerful opportunity to
share your voice and express who you really are to colleges. Great life stories make you jump off the
page and into your match colleges.
Tip 2. Develop an overall strategic essay writing plan. College essays should work together to help you
communicate key qualities and stories not available anywhere else in your application.
Tip 3. Keep a chart of all essays required by each college, including short responses and optional essays.
View each essay or short response as a chance to tell a new story and to share your core qualities.
Tip 4. Look for patterns between colleges essay requirements so that you can find ways to use essays
more than once. This holds true for scholarship essays.
Tip 5. Plan to share positive messages and powerful outcomes. You can start with life or family
challenges. You can describe obstacles you have overcome. You can reflect on your growth and
development, including accomplishments and service. College admissions officers do not read minds, so
tell them your powerful life stories.
Tip 6. Always write in the first person. Remember, these are autobiographical essays, even when you talk
about other people. Remember the colleges are looking to accept you, not your relatives. So use the one
third and two thirds rule. If you choose to write about someone or something else, you must show how it
affected you for the majority of the essay. Your essays show colleges why you belong on college
campuses and share how you will enrich diverse communities.
Tip 7. Follow Dr. Joseph’s Into, Through, and Beyond approach. Lead the reader INTO your story with a
powerful beginning—a story, an experience. Take them THROUGH your story with the context and keys
parts of your story. End with the BEYOND message about how this story has affected you are now and
who you want to be in college and potentially after college.
Tip 8. Use active writing: avoid passive sentences and incorporate power verbs. Show when possible; tell
Tip 9. Have trusted inside and impartial outside readers read your essays. Make sure you have no spelling
or grammatical errors.
Tip 10. Most importantly, make yourself come alive throughout this process. Write about yourself as
passionately and powerfully as possible. Be proud of your life and accomplishments. Sell yourself!!!
Final Thoughts III-
Ten Tips for Brainstorming Great Personal Statement Topics
1. Write your resume. Include everything you can from high school. Categorize your activities, community service,
work, internships, athletics, arts, and more. Include descriptions of your leadership and initiative. Maybe in writing
the resume you will remember some key event or story that will turn into a great application essay. See my 10 tips
for writing great college resumes at http://getmetocollege.org/hs/application-essay-tips/resume-building-and-
2. Start first with three short activity paragraphs. In writing them, make them as interesting and exciting as
possible. Start with a story. Keep them to 1000 characters. Maybe one of these can turn into a long. Shorts are
easier to throw away than longs and very useful for the Common Application and supplemental essays. None will
ever go to waste.
3. Write a list of your most quirky features. I love Stanford and BU’s supplemental Letter to Your Future
Roommate. These letters are often so much more interesting than the other essays. Makshya wrote about her
fetish for making lists and provided her list. Every item from her list could turn into a great essay starter. Samples
from her list include: “I have the ability to create and develop different fonts in my handwriting” and “One of my
favorite words is “ubuntu,” which means humanity in Xhosa.” Start with a list of what makes you, you. Make that
will spark an essay topic.
4. Look at sample essays posted on actual college websites. Connecticut College
(www.conncoll.edu/admission/essays-that-worked.htm) offers great samples. Johns Hopkins
(http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays.html) even provides admissions officers’ feedback after each sample essay.
Reading these, you can see the huge range of topics. At least, you can see how they all begin with an amazing in
the moment first paragraph. You can do the same.
5. Read George Lyon’s “Where I’m From” Poem. http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html. Think of where you
are from. Read the poem to get ideas to write your own and start an amazing essay.
Final Thoughts III-More
6. Read past and present supplemental essay topics from other colleges. The University of Chicago has great
supplementary essay topics every year. A couple of years ago, one topic was: “It Isn’t Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog.
That turned into a great long essay for several kids I know who never applied to U Chicago. This year’s topics are great as
well. Go to https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/essays/ and read the topics. Tufts also has great prompts
athttp://admissions.tufts.edu/apply/essay-questions/. Perhaps one of these topics will spark an idea.
7. Read sample essays from older kids at your school. But don’t copy. Just get ideas. You need to truly match your writing
and style to the level of school. Admissions officers are begging for gripping, non-general stories. Give them a gift.
8. Follow Dr. J’s Into, Through, & Beyond Approach. Your essay needs to grab readers from the first word. You are
competing for the fleeting attention of admissions officers who have dozens if not hundreds or thousands of essays and files
to process. So don't waste their precious time and tell them a story that no one else can tell. That will help you get admitted to
the match college of your choice. So follow my three pronged approach.
INTO: With your INTO, grab us into the story with a moment in time. That moment must reveal a core quality. The
INTO can be a sentence, paragraph, or series of paragraphs.
THROUGH: Then go into two levels of THROUGH.
THROUGH 1 provides the immediate context of the INTO.
THROUGH 2 provides the overall context.
BEYOND: End with a BEYOND that is not sappy but powerful. Think of a metaphor that guides you and weaves through
your story and into your ending.
6. Great, great essays can take us through an event and weave in core features. Do not feel confined by any rules other
than to engage and stimulate the admissions officers to see you come to life before them. And yes, you must grammar edit
7. Don’t be bound by five paragraph essays. Your story will guide the form of the essay. You can use dialogue, quotes, song
lyrics, poetry. Let your story and message guide you.
Final Thoughts IV
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