How to Pick and Write the Best 4 UC Prompts With the V x V Framework

Which 4 UC prompts are best? Well, that’s kind of inappropriate to ask, don’t you think? It’s a lot like asking a mother which child she loves most. Though I’m sure my mother would say me over my brother (hah maybe).

But don’t worry about political correctness because I’ve done the insensitive thing and found out the answer for you already. According to UCLA’s Director of Admission, Gary Clark, there aren’t any 4 prompts the UCs like best. (By the way, let me know if you’re interested in a video of the “Fireside Talk” I hosted with him last week.) No preference is given to one over the other. So don’t believe it if someone tries to tell you they care more about leadership than creativity or overcoming challenges.

But the UCs have gone through a lot of birthing pains to create these 8 all-new-for-2016 prompts. The UCs love them all equally, truly! So alas, they leave to you students the difficult task of choosing the 4 children of theirs you love most.

Well, emotions aside, let’s think about where that leaves us. Out of 8 prompts, you choose 4, which gives you a great deal of flexibility and power.

I think evil Supergirl when she was affected by red kryptonite said it best (yeah, I recently binged watched all 20 TV episodes in the last two days…I’m a nerd, so sue me lol): “Real power is deciding who lives and who dies!”

You, powerful student, now hold that power to decide which prompts live and which ones die. Sometimes that power and freedom is nice because you can talk about what you want; other times it feels daunting because it’s too much pressure—how can you choose?!

So you need to be strategic about which four prompts you PERSONALLY choose. Allow me to introduce my V x V framework to help you pick the best four prompts for you and write each one well. The first V stands for “variety,” and the second one means “versatility.” You’ll see what I mean as you keep reading.


Listen, I know I’ve made this points many, many times before–colleges are NOT looking for a well-rounded student; they are looking for specialists (even UCLA’s Director of Admission said it’s great to be “perfectly lopsided”)–BUT you don’t want to come off like a one-trick pony either. Variety is the spice of life. And four essays finally gives you the chance to reveal your many flavors.

While four essays is double what the UCs wanted in the recent past, four is still not that many. If you can’t come up with four different great stories or qualities about yourself, then maybe colleges have a right to be wary of admitting you.

Use your four opportunities to show as full a picture about yourself as possible. You want breadth (with four varied topics) and depth (with four individually versatile essays).

Here are 7 tips to picking the four best prompts:

1. Virtually everyone should choose Prompt #8 (what makes you stand out?). The UCs are finally all grown up and bold enough to ask for what they want, which is, “What’s so good about you, and why should we admit you?” Unless you have solid answers for four other prompts, then I highly recommend Prompt #8. It’s as close to an open topic as you can get, which means you get the incredible opportunity to take your best essay (ideally your main 650 word Common App essay) and adapt it for the UCs.

Remember, it’s far easier to cut down a longer essay than it is to expand a shorter essay. This is also why I highly recommend NOT starting with the UC essays. It’s wiser to start with the Common App or something that requires a longer essay and cut down.

2. Pick the 4 prompts that resonate with you best and most easily. If you read a prompt and are drawing a blank, especially after you revisit it a few days or weeks later, then that’s a sign the prompt isn’t right for you. But if you read a prompt and immediately have a response, then that’s a good sign to explore deeply and understand the significance of those initial thoughts.

For example, for prompt #3 (your greatest talent/skill), I would instantly say writing. Examples instantly flood my head without even trying: In 8th grade, because my teacher saw something in my writing, he insisted that I write a full essay instead of the normal assignment of one paragraph he assigned to everyone else; in fact, he wanted me to teach the rest of the class how to write their paragraphs; furthermore, my high school class voted me “Most Likely to be the Next New York Times Bestseller;” I was published in a Stanford anthology, attended a creative writing camp, wrote a novel for my senior project, served as the go-to guy for anything writing related at my school, and simply loved writing in general.

When ideas flow easily, like you don’t even have to try, you can be sure it’s a perfect prompt for you. That doesn’t mean you have to write about the specific examples that popped up immediately, but they are an indication that it’s a meaningful topic in your life, so it’s worth writing about.

Now, my first thoughts for prompt #3 would have worked perfectly for prompts #2 (creativity), #4 (educational opportunity), and #6 (favorite academic subject) as well. But I wouldn’t use “writing” as my topic for ALL three prompts. That would come off too one-dimensional. I’m more than my writing, and I’m sure you are more than one quality too.

3. Pick only one of the educational/academic topics (Prompts #4, #5, and #6), otherwise it gets a little redundant. The exception is if you truly have something significantly different to say about these prompts. Yes, these prompts are asking about different ASPECTS of academics, but unless your stories are truly worth separate essays, I would find a way to merge them into one.

4. Don’t try to be like mysterious James Bond here. I know he’s suave, badass, and all, but we’re trying to be transparent here, so tell us about your adventures. Pick topics that allow you to express the most meaningful, impressive, or interesting things about yourself or your life. Look over your activities resume and overall application. Is there anything interesting there that people would naturally ask more about? If you are a grandmaster in chess who has competed across the nation (or even the globe), you better make sure you dedicate an essay to that.

Or if there was an event that truly rocked your world, like if your house was destroyed (how did you deal with that?), you came out as gay (don’t worry about being cliché; the topic doesn’t matter if your analysis is deep), or your brother killed someone (someone got into Harvard with that essay), then tell us!

Don’t have anything so dramatic? Well, what about a particular identity that everyone knows you as? Find a topic that allows you to tell that story. It’s a huge part of your life that people literally know you as that kind of person, so why wouldn’t you want to tell us?

5. Your chosen topics should feel instinctively “good” or “right” to you. Your stories shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth. They should flow easily. The best writing is often the easiest to create because it gushes forth quickly, effortlessly, and eloquently. I’m not saying your first several drafts will be Hemingway status, but your ideas should come without too much effort. Then you can go back in and revise and tighten the wording and organization up. You should feel excited to talk about your answer, even if you’re not excited to write it. If you aren’t, your lack of enthusiasm will show. Trust me, even the best writers have immense trouble faking something they have no passion about. I’m not saying the prompts need to make you excited, but the stories you settle on should make you feel, “Yes, this is me. This is what I want to express.”

6. Pick topics that allow you to peel away layers, like an onion. You want to pick prompts that let you explore multiple levels of yourself, multiple thoughts, values, or qualities. If your essay zeroes in on a single point only (say creativity), then you’ve lost the chance to show more about yourself. I’ll talk more about this in the versatility section below.

7. Don’t pick multiple topics whose answers are generally the same. For example, if you discuss the perseverance that you developed in sports (super clichéd btw) for one essay, don’t discuss the perseverance that you developed at your part-time job in another essay. It’s the same quality, so you’ve effectively lost your chance to show another cool side of yourself.


Picking four varied essays allows you to show breadth, but you also want each individual essay to be versatile to show depth.

Versatile means being multi-dimensional. A good essay demonstrates multiple traits you possess, multiple perspectives, multiple layers of yourself.

For example, if you write about how working as a movie theater usher taught you to interact with different types of people, that’s really boring. Not only is it totally expected—of course you’d be encountering various people at this kind of job—but it’s also one-dimensional. Why not show more than one quality in each essay? It would be far more impressive to discuss multiple facets of this job. Maybe working at the cinema gave you a new love for a totally unexpected genre of film, or you made friends with the film projectionist and learned the value of precision, or you gained an appreciation for either tradition or the avant garde.

One successful MIT applicant once wrote about doing poorly in a Calculus class. In and of itself, this topic wouldn’t be particularly interesting, especially if it followed the cliché of studying hard and never giving up. However, she discussed how she had developed an identity of being great at math, so to suddenly be so challenged in a field that she excelled in was new to her. She used the essay to explore how she reconciled the emotional threat to her identity. It was an essay that revealed far more than hard work or perseverance. We discover her passion for mathematics, how she maturely deals with setbacks, and how she creatively approached a decidedly mathematical subject. Oh, the irony.

There was another fantastic essay by a girl who got accepted into JHU. She wrote about being unable to tie a cake box at her bakery, so while her main point was perseverance, she also managed to weave in points about her intellectual interests and skills, her highly scientific AND musical mind, her eloquence as a writer, and much more.

Another successful JHU essay focused on being adaptable and resourceful, but he also came across as reliable, innovative, action-oriented, and leader-like. All from the same essay about being locked out of a car on a volunteer trip in Texas, which soon expanded into an exploration of scenes of growing up in a very unique family that taught him all the aforementioned values.

Any of these topics could have been adapted to fit one of the UC prompts. The main point here is that a good essay singlehandedly weaves a whole web of qualities. This is what you want each of your essays to achieve. For 350 words, two or three qualities or values would be great (it’s all you’ll have space for). For longer essays, maybe you can weave in a few more, perhaps up to five (as long as you don’t stretch each quality too thin).

By the way, there’s an art and hierarchy to managing your multiple dimensions. It’s best to allow ONE quality/value/message to dominate, while the other points are slipped in. If you make them all equal, you run the risk of sounding like you’re simply listing off bullet points (e.g. One thing I learned was this; furthermore, I also learned that; and finally, there’s this thing too). It feels too formulaic and doesn’t have the emotional punch of a main point adorned with nice side points. Think of it like a mouth-watering dish. You have your main entrée front and center, but the garnishes add that extra flair.

So there you have it, the V x V framework. Variety for breadth, and versatility for depth.

Leave a comment or question below

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top