Tips for writing the new UC leadership essay October 26, 2016 19:00

Today I’m writing about the new UC applications. This is the first of a multi-part series that I will email out to you first and then publish later on the TestMagic blog (

In this email, I will start discussing the prompts and how to write about them. In the next email (which I have already written), I will share some sample responses to the first question (the leadership question).

Let’s begin! As you probably know, the prompts for this year (high school class of 2017 applying to start in the fall of 2017) have changed.

For most of you (i.e., high school seniors applying to the UCs), you'll need to pick four questions from the eight and write up to 350 words for each one.

However, note that for transfer students, the instructions are a bit different—you'll need to choose three questions (other than #6) and also write about how prepared you are for your intended major.

Remember this for the UC essay questions

Read 8; pick 4 to respond to. Write up to 350 words for each (i.e., 1,400 words max). (Note: Transfers, see below)

The UC questions deal with:

  1. Leadership
  2. Creativity
  3. A talent or skill you have
  4. Overcoming educational barriers
  5. A significant challenge you've overcome
  6. Favorite academic subject
  7. Contributions to society
  8. Your uniqueness

Transfers: Pick 3 from above (except #6) + discuss preparedness for your major.

The full leadership prompt

Here is the entire prompt for the first personal insight question:

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

What to write about

Think about this: Along with academic success and passion for all you do in life and in school, leadership is consistently one of the most common topics to write about.

Why? Well, in a word, leadership qualities show that you will: first, succeed in school and in life; second, make the environment of the college you attend better (in other words, when people meet you, they will think, “Wow! What a cool school I go to!”); third, and slightly cynically, go off into the world to represent your alma mater in a favorable light to others. There’s nothing more that a college wants to be able to say than “She’s one of ours!” when you walk up onto stage to claim your Nobel, write a best-seller, or find a cure for the Zika virus.

So do your best to come up with leadership experiences you can relate in your responses. Yes, we realize you’re 17 and most likely haven’t started your own green-energy company or run a YouTube channel with 8 million subscribers. But you’ve done a lot of other impressive things in your life, so don’t sell yourself short, and dig deep to find your leadership experiences. They’re there!

(Note: If you’re younger, please think about how you can add leadership experience into your already packed schedule of activities in the coming years so that when the time comes to apply, you’ll have something to write about.)

If you’re like most of the people we’ve worked with through the years, you have a handful of varied experiences with extracurriculars and leadership, ranging from volunteering for the Nike Women’s Marathon to being class president. Any leadership experience can work, and in some cases, simply taking a risk (when other people were involved) or doing something unconventional can be seen as a good leadership experience. Generally speaking, when trying to find a good leadership experience to write about, you should think of a time when you did something exceptional and inspiring; ideally, your actions should have inspired others to do better and have involved some sort of risk or unique talent on your part.

Let’s take a look at some examples of leadership experiences written by people I’ve worked with. (And in the next article, we’ll look at two examples of writing that could give you some ideas about how to approach the task.)

Some of the most common leadership experiences involve student government and school clubs. Now just because these topics are fairly commonly written about doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not good topics to use in your essays; to the contrary, if approached properly, they can be very compelling and can portray you in a good light. Again, it all really comes down to how you write.


Three examples successful applicants have used in the past

(Note: This may be the first time this question has been used by the UCs for freshman applicants, but this doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been used before by other programs; these examples come from leadership essays people have written for other colleges, including transfers and graduate applicants.)

We’ve had many students who were active in student government, from treasurer to class president. In some cases, these students had real challenges to overcome and were able to write about them successfully. For example, one student wrote about the difficulty (but ultimate success) of raising $28,000 for the high school prom, and then barely making the deadline to pay. (This person was admitted to a top UC.)

Another student wrote about founding a Chinese Chess Club at his school, since it didn’t have one yet. (This student was admitted to Harvard.)

Finally, in perhaps the most memorable situation I’ve encountered, a student wrote about fighting in a war in her home country. Yes, you read that right—she wrote about joining the military and receiving enemy fire. (She was admitted to a top UC.) We pray that none of you will ever be in this kind of situation, but these experiences represent the spectrum that we encounter.


So let’s say you’re like most others: you fall right in the fat part of the bell curve, and you’re going to write about your experiences with student government or club activities. Yes, we’ve heard that a lot of the activity of these clubs involves sitting around chatting and trying to figure out where to order the pizza from, but do yourself a favor and leave those parts out.

Focus instead on something meaningful (even if it seems trivial to you) that involved other people and your role in ensuring your project’s success. For example, if you’re on the debate team at your school, you could talk about organizing weekly study sessions to stay abreast of current events, politics, and world affairs with quizzes at the end of the meeting to see who did the best for the week. Organizing study sessions may sound simple and maybe even insignificant when compared to some of the more dramatic life experiences mentioned above, but one can arguably say that the weekly study sessions inspired fellow members to take debate more seriously and directly contributed to new, lasting friendships and the success of the debate team, results that no college can say are bad. You are not alone if you think your life in student government has been nothing but mundane; many students actually solve problems and take leadership roles daily without realizing it! So think hard about the changes you’ve made in your clubs and school, however small those changes might be.

In the next email, you can read two sample essays about the UC leadership prompt.

For now, take care, and I wish you all the best!