UC should revert changes to personal statement format

Image courtesy of Tom Cheah

With the University of California (UC) freshman application finally coming to a close, it is time for the UC admission offices to reflect on their changes to the personal statement section of the application. Through offering more prompts, they gave students more options, but also more stress as students had to make more decisions. After a year of experimentation, the UC admission offices should revert back to their previous personal statement format.  

Prior to 2016, students applying to UC campuses were required to write on two personal statement topics and were given a limit of 1000 words to answer both prompts. The freshman application prompts were: “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.” and “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?”

This format gave all freshman applicants the same prompts to answer, which alleviates the stress of having to choose among eight different prompts and levels the playing field. The single word count limit of 1000 also enabled applicants to exercise creativity in their approaches to tackling the essays. Applicants were free to distribute their 1000 words however they liked, allowing for creatively structured essays and answers.     

Now, under the new Personal Insight Questions format, freshman applicants have to choose four prompts from a list of eight. The total number of words that students may write has increased to 1400 words, but students are restricted to 350 words per prompt.

“I was glad we had the opportunity to write about four different prompts,” senior Melissa Miranda said. “I feel like the word count limited us from developing our stories more thoroughly. I felt like I was losing my content when I had to go back and truncate my statements.”

While the new Personal Insight Questions do allow students to choose from a wider variety of topics, they limit the types of answers that students may provide. Longer, complex stories that require more context and set up may be harder for students to write due to the lesser, individual word limits. Students now must dive head first to answer the prompts, stifling creativity.

I prefer the old UC Personal Statements because of the broadness of the questions,” San Gabriel High School Class of 2014 alumnus Chris Lew said. “All aspects, whether choosing to write about an extracurricular or a struggle you overcame, could be fit into either prompt.”

Lew suggests two potential ways of improving the current Personal Insight Question format.

One way is to have three prompts and 400-word limit,” Lew said.  “Another option would be to make the ‘What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?’ mandatory with a 400-500 word limit and then allow freshmen applicants to choose three prompts out of the remaining seven with same 350-word limit.”

In order to allow students to better express their ideas, the UC admission offices should work on the formats of their Personal Insight Questions or revert back to the old system.

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