College Admissions Advice Part II - Especially For University of California Applicants, But Also for Anyone Else – Second in a Series of Exercises for Developing Answers to College Application Questions.
The application deadline for University of California (UC) students is November 30. According to one of my SAT students, the deadline is November 30, but the conventional wisdom is the application server crashes rather frequently during the last couple of weeks before the deadline, so GET YOUR APPLICATION IN BY NOVEMBER 15. (You can get your SAT/ACT/other test scores to them after the application deadline –see http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/after-you-apply/index.html - but you should check with the UC schools to which you apply, just to be sure).
You don’t believe me, you say? That’s fine – it’s wise for you to check for yourself as http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply .
But mostly, I’m going to focus on the personal statement for the University of California. Whether you’re applying to be a freshman [sic] / first-year student, or to transfer to, any UC school, you have to answer two essay prompts with a total of no more than 1,000 words. That’s not much, so you have to be fairly concise. You can find all the information I have referenced, or am about to reference, at http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-statement/ .
This year’s general prompt, which all first-year and transfer applicants have to respond, is:
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?
Now, this prompt is almost identical to the exercise I was going to write about before I knew it was one of the UC prompts (“What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?”), so I can “kill two birds with one stone” here. This is a really generic, plain-vanilla, standard, cliché application question. As such, this prompt can be used for practically any college’s “persona statement,” especially where you’re no given a specific prompt to address.
However, a question’s being a cliché doesn’t make it unimportant. The reason this question is overused and a bit trite is that, like all clichés, it’s an easy way to express a simple truth. In this case, UC is asking you “Who Are You?,” to quote The Who…
The school wants to know who you are, mostly what you have done, what you think is important, what you plan to do, and what you are likely to do. If you’re most proud of a science award you won, you may be a good candidate for engineering school or the hard sciences. If you’re most proud of a short story you wrote, maybe you should major in English, journalism, or the like. If you’re most proud of your debate skills, then maybe you should look at philosophy, perhaps as a route to law school. It’s very good if you can link the achievement of which you are the most proud to your long-term goals, since a mismatch between your stated goals and stated “proudest accomplishment” means that perhaps you haven’t thought things through very clearly.
Failure to think your career and life goals through clearly is not necessarily fatal to a college application. Lots of people go to college – especially liberal arts colleges - without a clear idea of their career goals, but not great if you’re applying to say, engineering school or a six-year combined BS/MD program – they want you to KNOW you want to be an engineer or a doctor more than anything else and that your related achievements mean more to you than practically anything else. Regardless of the program to which you are applying, , if your career goals don’t match the accomplishments that make you proud, you probably should reconsider your career goals.
Additionally, a gross “mismatch” may also lead the reader to believe you are not merely confused or inexperienced, but LYING. As I’ve stated in previous blog entries, if you’re really interested in being a business person who makes tons of money, and don’t particularly care HOW you make it, don’t pretend you want to dedicate your life to aiding the poor and downtrodden as a missionary in the Third World. The application readers will “see through” that, and your dishonesty will hurt you.
So basically, you want to write something like “My winning the science fair with my experiment regarding rat genetics is my proudest achievement to date, since I plan to attend either biology graduate school or medical school to become a geneticist,” that links your achievement to your future goals. Incidentally, if you are a budding capitalist “wheeler dealer,” talk about your greatest money-making exercise – your job, your sponsoring a fund-raising event, your investments, etc., and state that you believe “a rising tide lifts all boats” – when someone like you succeeds, the people from whom you buy goods and services all succeed, since you pay them from your money you’ve made, etc. That make much more sense than professing sentiments you don’t have about the less fortunate, underprivileged, etc.
“Freshman [sic] Applicant Prompt:”
If your next year at college will be your first, to paraphrase one of my old Scoutmasters from the Boy Scouts, you need to answer the following prompt as well.
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.
Again, as with most, if not all, application questions, what they’re really asking is “Who Are You?,” and perhaps “Why Should We Care?” This is another opportunity to shine. After you’ve (hopefully) just “wowed” them with your impressive achievements in response to the general prompt, you can let them know the “why” behind your achievements. What drove you to them? What in your background led you even to know you could achieve such things, and more importantly, what led you to try?
For example, your proudest achievement might be “I performed an experiment in multiple generations of rats studying the link between genetics and several different kinds of cancer; I won a Westinghouse Science Award for my work,” so your description of the world you came from might describe your mother’s tragic death from breast cancer when you were only 12.
Don’t worry; most people don’t have these achievements or stories when they apply, but do “apply” the same logic to your personal statement. People like stories that make sense to them. Admissions officials are people. The better you are at combining your background and achievements into a coherent narrative (i.e., a story that makes sense), the better your application will be received. No admissions officer wants to accept someone who’s either lying, behaves in crazy, unpredictable ways, or simply can’t tell the truth in a way that makes sense, to a selective university. The first unsuccessful applicant would be seen as having to simply “grow up” or “clean up his or her act;” the second as needing mental health counseling; and the third may be seen as needing some remedial English composition instruction at a community college.
If you came from an impoverished background, you want to write about how you “made it against the odds,” how you had to help take care of your younger brothers and sisters, work a part-time job, and study when you could, in order to get grades and test scores good enough to make it into UC (or whatever school you’ve chosen). People who’ve struggled against adverse conditions with limited resources, including very limited attention from teachers, parents, coaches, etc., often do very well at large state universities such as UC, since they’re accustomed to dealing with overwhelmed instructors, school officials who don’t know them and don’t care about them, and generally having to follow rules to the letter without expecting any special treatment (at least not any special GOOD treatment).
If you’re from a relatively “privileged” background (either middle class or wealthy), acknowledge that, but also note how you’ve used your greater opportunities to get ahead in the world – hopefully, you’ve done volunteer work; you’ve REALLY done a tremendous job with your academics; you’ve played sports; you’ve been active in many extracurricular activities; you’ve worked a paid job to cover the costs of incidentals, so you are aware of at least some issues facing the working poor; you’ve helped around your house, and so on. Remember, “nothing succeeds like success;” if you show that you’ve been able to capitalize on opportunities, making the most of what you have, you’re much more likely to be given the opportunity that admission to a UC school presents you.
Transfer applicant prompt
What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
This is similar to the “freshman” first-year applicant questions, in which they want to know how your accomplishments link to your academic goals. Basically, if there’s an obvious disconnect between your actions and your goals, they’re not likely to let you into UC.
An additional problem you, if you’re a transfer student, face, is “Why the heck should we let you in HERE? You already applied to a college, got in, and now you want to leave and come here. So tell us why!” The trick here is being honest while putting things in the best light.
As I’ve stated above, it’s not unusual for a college first-year student to have no real idea about what she or he wants to do for a career. It’s actually quite common. The real question is “How will changing educational institutions help you achieve your goals, and will your achieving that goal help our institution achieve its goal (of producing as many successful graduates as possible, so we can get donations from them, use them in advertising campaigns, and so on)?”
You really need to show the application reader that your current school doesn’t have the resources you need to achieve your goal (there’s scientific equipment at the UC schools that your current small liberal arts college doesn’t have; the specific major you want isn’t offered there; a California location is best if you want to apply to law schools in California, or work in the entertainment industry, etc.). If simply changing majors at your current school would achieve the same result, UC (or any other school) would probably decide to encourage you to do that by denying your transfer application.
If the reason you’re transferring is because your transferring from a community college or lower-rated four-year college, then explain how and why you “started small” (for example, perhaps when you were in high school you had to take care of a sick relative, so your grades weren’t as good as they otherwise would have been, so you went to community college to get a good foundation before applying to UC). Show that you really excelled at that institution, but now you’ve outgrown it, and really need to move “up to the big leagues.”
You’re not likely to gain transfer admissions for personal reasons unless they’re really major. For example, “My boyfriend is going there next year!” probably wouldn’t help your application. However, “My fiancé is going there next year, we’re getting married before he starts, and we plan to live in L.A. after we graduate, so I need to be able to apply to companies in Southern California!” is much more likely to get you the transfer admission, assuming all other things are equal.
Use Common Sense
Make sure you have someone you trust and respect proofread your statement. You should probably go through multiple drafts, use lots of “I” statements, and the like (this is all listed on the personal statement page). Read it yourself a couple of times before you submit it. Make sure you’ve counted the words in it using your word processor’s “word count” feature, so you KNOW your statement (the answers to BOTH prompts) is under 1000 words.
That’s about all I have to say at this time – Good luck!
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.