Bad News: New UC Essays This Year & What to Do About Them

For the first time in about 10 years, the UC (University of California) college essay questions have changed! They are both longer and shorter now. Shorter because each individual essay is much shorter now in terms of word count. Longer because you have to write FOUR UC essays now (as opposed to just TWO essays in the past).

It used to be that you got 1,000 words max, split up any way you wanted between the two essays. Now, you get 350 words max per essay, for a total maximum of 1,400 combined words (so the new format is longer in this sense too).

Here are the new instructions and essay prompts. They give you 8 to choose from, but you only have to write 4.


With all the changes, the UCs were at least kind enough to also release this nifty brainstorming worksheet.

The thinking exercises are quite basic though, so don’t expect too much value from doing them. The real value of reading that worksheet is learning exactly what the UCs want to read in your essays. You’ll want to tailor your responses to hit those specific points. The UCs say that each of their new essays corresponds with at least one of the 14 criteria points for evaluating a candidate.

From that, we can glean that the UCs really care about things like:

  • Leadership (Prompt 1)
  • Creativity (Prompt 2)
  • Special skills/talents (Prompt 3)
  • Educational opportunities or overcoming educational barriers (Prompt 4)
  • Overcoming challenges and how it affects academic performance (Prompt 5)
  • Academic vigor (Prompt 6)
  • Community service/contribution (Prompt 7)

Prompt 8 is an open topic.

Can you tell the UCs really care about academics? 3 out of the 8 prompts mention it.

It’s worth noting that none of these criteria are actually new. The UCs have virtually ALWAYS been on the lookout for these qualities. So why the change? My theory goes like this: the quality of essays the UCs have been getting in the past haven’t been all that helpful in identifying these traits. Too many students spent their essays writing about their background, other people involved, or things that weren’t explicitly connected to THEMSELVES. These students seemed to forget that these are personal statements meant to reveal glowing qualities about themselves, not other people.

My guess is that the UCs got fed up reading too many essays that missed the mark, so they’re trying a much more straightforward approach this year. Ask and you shall receive, right? But again, what the UCs want this year isn’t any different than what they’ve always wanted. They’re just going about finding those qualities in a different way.

Strong essays in the past still managed to answer the “real” (and invisible) question all college prompts are asking: “Why should we admit you?” Now this will be even more so the case. It’s just much more transparent this year, especially with Prompt 8: “What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?”

Whenever in doubt, ask yourself whether your essay reveals a compelling reason that makes you a “must admit,” someone irresistible that they can’t refuse.


There are two major reasons the new essays are terrible news:

  1. Writing 4 essays now is twice as hard as writing 2 essays before. This is the biggest reason by far.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, writing a shorter essay (350 words) is actually HARDER than writing a longer essay (500+ words). I’ll explain in a bit.

Having worked with hundreds of students, editing thousands of essays (and reading even more), I know the hardest part of essay writing is not the WORD LIMIT, but the NUMBER OF ESSAYS students have to write. If a student is applying to private schools as well, he or she will generally write anywhere from 10 to 20 different essays by the time it’s all over, and the UCs just added two more. I can hear the collective sighs everywhere haha.

If you’re struggling to figure out just ONE thing to write about, then having to write about FOUR things is an absolute nightmare.

Countless students have dropped colleges from their list simply because they couldn’t be bothered to write the extra essays. And other schools (ones students don’t really care for) make it onto the list because there were no extra essays, or essays already written were easily adaptable to fit the prompts. It’s sad because the decision to apply to a particular college or not shouldn’t be based on how many essays you have to write.

But I can’t say I blame these students. Writing is hard work, especially during senior year when you have a million other things to do. Confession time: Even as a writer, I absolutely hate writing. That’s the secret us writers have. We hate writing, but we love having written. We relish in our completed product, but the process is sheer torture.

I suppose the silver lining is that with additional essays, you have more opportunities to reveal more awesome stuff about yourself, but that’s not much consolation.

Quick shameless plug: Coming up with FOUR things to write about for the UCs is no small feat. If you’re struggling with coming up with what to write about or how to write it well, check out the College Application Summit I’m hosting this summer. I’ll take you through a week-long workshop to whip your essays into tip-top form.

So double the essays is reason #1 why the new UC change is bad news.

Reason #2 is that, contrary to popular belief, writing a shorter essay (just 350 words max now) makes life HARDER, not easier. Telling a powerful story in just 350 words, filled with juicy and emotional details and insightful reflection, is actually incredibly difficult. There’s just not enough space, so most people struggle to develop their ideas fully. The result is altogether forgettable writing.

In the past, I’ve always recommended people to make one of their UC essay around 650 words because that’s usually what it takes to tell a captivating story. Not so coincidentally, the main Common Application essay (the app most private schools use) allows for exactly 650 words, a careful decision by the college authorities. Those guys know what they’re doing—650 is the perfect word count for a personal essay. Anything less feels like a truncated idea. There just isn’t room to deliver the same emotional punch. Unfortunately, we no longer have that luxury of longer essays for the UCs.

For that reason, I recommend NOT starting your college essay process with the UC essays, unless UCs are the only schools with essays you’ll be applying to.

Instead, start with longer essays, like for the Common App, in order to give yourself the chance to explore more deeply, build more emotion, and write better lines. It’s 100x easier to cut down a longer essay (because you just delete all the weaker sentences) than to expand a shorter essay (because the expansion is usually all fluff).

Might as well start by writing a strong Common App main essay (650 words) that you can cut down for one of the UC prompts. Plus, if you start writing for the UCs first with their 350 word limit in mind, you will probably go well over that limit and start deleting gem phrases that you wish you hadn’t when it comes time to expand the essay for your other schools.

Trust me, start with longer essays first, then work your way to the shorter ones.


Knowing the overall length of your essay is important because it determines the SCOPE you’ll be able to write about and dictates which details you’ll have room to include. 350 words isn’t much room to produce an impactful essay, so I recommend getting straight to the point. Here’s a general outline you can swipe that will help you avoid fluff and focus on the good stuff:

Phase 1: Set Up. Approximately 100-150 words. Describe your situation, background, or context. Who are the key players, what is the problem, and what is the overall setting? Don’t make the mistake of wasting too much space here. This part is only important insomuch as to let your story make logical sense. We don’t need a super vivid imagery here, though a little probably won’t hurt. Remember, the real purpose of your essay isn’t to explain what situation you found yourself in. It’s to describe the next two phases.

Phase 2: Execution. Approximately 100-150 words. Tell us what you did, what actions you took, or what your thoughts were. This gives admission readers a glimpse of how you might contribute to their campus and the greater community. Actions speak louder than words, so describe what tangible things you actively did.

Phase 3: Impact. Approximately 100-150 words. This is the most vital part. Tell us what impact your actions had on your life. How did it change you? Tell us what realizations or lessons you learned. What new things were you exposed to? How did your actions affect others in a positive way? Be as specific as possible. Doing stuff in Phase 2 is great, but even more important is the result of those actions. If you can demonstrate a great result, then you’ve made a real difference. Colleges don’t just want students who take action, but students who take effective action that actually changes the world for the better.

This is the part students skimp on the most because they can’t reflect deeply enough on the MEANING/IMPACT of their story. Visit my post on HOW TO GET DEEP WITH YOUR COLLEGE ESSAYS if you need help with this.

Should you use this template for every UC essay? Not necessarily, but this is a solid skeleton to help you get started. If you find a more creative approach, go for it. Just be careful not to let your innovation or style carry more weight than your actual content. Phase 3 is the most crucial, so make sure you think deep about the impact you’ve made.

It’s actually a useful exercise to think of set up, execution, and impact for ALL the stories you’ll use in ANY essay, regardless of length. It’s just that longer essays give you more room to add emotional details or creative flair. Shorter ones mean you have to get to the point faster, which means sacrificing some emotion and style.

If you’re looking for personalized guidance to brainstorm your 4 UC essays (and figure out which prompts to pick), along with all your other college essays, remember to check out the College Application Summit I’m hosting this summer. I’ll lead you through many more proven exercises to blast through your writer’s block and come up with essays that scream “admit!”

And remember, I’m moderating a FREE “fireside talk” with UCLA’s Director of Admission, Gary Clark, this Thursday, June 9th. You’ll get direct insight straight from the head of admissions himself about the new UC changes. If you’re around Southern California, come join me at Arcadia High School, 7pm – 8pm, in the multipurpose room.

A special Summit discount and chance for a full scholarship will also be announced there for attendees only.

Hope to see you there,


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