You've worked hard for four years -- and now you've got a shot at a UC education!
Yet on top of your AP classes, SATs, ACTs, and other commitments, the UCs are asking for four essays this year! Many students have little experience writing about themselves, and have no idea how to start.
The good news is, whether you're applying to Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Barbara, UCSD, Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, UC Merced, or any combination thereof, you only need to fill out one application.
To help you get started, I'm sharing a free excerpt from my upcoming book about college admissions. I've already blogged about how to answer the first prompt:
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
And I've already blogged about the third prompt:
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Today, I'm going to walk you through the second essay prompt:
Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?
How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
What the UCs are trying to make clear in the details is that "creativity" doesn't have to mean poetry, fiction, and fine arts. It can literally mean anything.
Nevertheless, many students get hung up on this prompt -- or pass over it without considering the ways in which they are creative, since they're not musicians or artists.
But here's the thing:
One of the first questions I always ask my students is, “Do you believe creativity can be taught in the classroom?”
Disappointingly, most of them say no.
I ask them why they think that, and the answer is usually some variation of:
“Well… I’ve never really been good at art? So I guess for me, I don’t really do creative stuff.”
“I’m not sure if it counts as ‘creative’ writing if you’re responding to a prompt.”
But, again, "creative" can describe almost anything. Think about this: developmental psychologists study babies. Their goal is to learn what babies know and how babies learn.
How do you even do that???!!!
You obviously can’t ask them. You can’t have them take an IQ test. All you can do… is be insanely creative.
For example, psychologist Eleanor Gibson wanted to learn whether and when babies could perceive depth – so she designed an experiment in which babies were placed on a table with a “visual cliff” – that is, an apparent drop of about three feet. (It’s not a real drop. The experimenters actually extended the tabletop with plexiglass, so it only looked like a drop.)
Another psychologist wanted to determine whether and when babies could interpret emotions – and whether babies make decisions based on others’ emotions. To do this, they put the baby's mother would stand on the other side of the plexiglass.
As the babies approached the edge, the moms were instructed to either make a scared face, or an encouraging one. And, indeed, many babies would crawl right over the edge of a cliff if their mom told them it was okay.
Isn’t that amazing? They can’t talk or read or poop in a toilet yet, but they can already interpret mom’s emotions and respond accordingly.
That is some incredibly cool, creative science.
Likewise, you can be a creative computer scientist; a creative historian; a creative geologist. Or a creative (whatever you are).
AND/OR a creative musician, artist or writer.
Everyone’s creative in their own way, and that’s exactly how you should approach this prompt. Don’t even start writing until you’ve come up with ten ideas – some obvious, some less so.
To help you get started, here’s my brainstorm:
Guitar – I play in a few rock bands and write some of my own music. I’m kind of a walking songbook – if I’m jamming on the library lawn and someone requests a song, I can play it.
Playwriting – I write plays for fun. Some are just jokes I share with friends. Others, I write to motivate and inspire my sports teams. I’m writing a full-length play for my senior project, and will also be directing an original full-length in the spring.
Blogging – I took a psychology class that changed my whole life perspective. The class is over now, but I write about adolescent psychology about once per week on The Happy Talent.
Playing – I work hard in school – but my most meaningful contributions have been socially I organize games, activities and ideas, including bike rides to the beach, capture the flag melees, and other stuff that contributes to campus life.
“There’s something there” – that recently became my motto. When I see something pretty, or tragic, or somehow unexpected or poetic, I tell myself, “There’s something there.” That could mean a one-act, a song, a stupid limerick… or something else.
Travel writing/journaling – I haven’t traveled THAT much, but I’ve traveled enough to now that the traveler’s mentality could be the solution to the world’s mental health problems.
The creative conversation – an essay about digging deeper with the people I interact with or meet on a daily basis. A stranger could be a stranger, or a wealth of knowledge, depending on how creatively you can converse with them.
Sewing – I took a home ec class in 8th grade, where I learned how to sew. I’ve made a few things for myself – pants, hats, etc. Probably not essay-worthy, though, since it’s a very occasional hobby.
“Perfect practice makes perfect.” – Something my basketball coach always says to me that I’ve applied to my everyday life. When training, studying or practicing for something, you need to use your imagination as much as any other part of you.
Volunteering at a school – teaching requires incredible creativity, flexibility, and adaptability.
Any of these topics would make a great essay. Depending on your personality, you can go with something more straightforward (guitar, songwriting) or something a little wacky ("the creative conversation").
For me, personally, since I’m not especially accomplished at any of my instruments, it might make sense to go with something more abstract, that shows a part of me where I truly stand out.
If you decide to write about something you're good, but not great, at, try to connect it to other parts of your application, and/or other questions in this prompt. For example, how does this creativity relate to your future goals or career?
Remember, though: they have already seen your Activities section. So you don’t need to try to list all of your creative endeavors. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to list any.
That said, here's my sample essay:
2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
What I like about this:
1. Hook. People love first person narratives. Humans are natural storytellers – and natural story consumers.
2. Memorable facts. The RFID chip stuff is pretty interesting – it’s the kind of thing I would mention to someone later, at lunch. People love fun facts.
3. Unexpected answer. Again, there’s nothing wrong with writing about writing, performing, etc. But it can be tricky to stand out when discussing something so many other applicants are also discussing.
4. Says something about me. It shows I’m hungry and curious. It shows I love to interact with those around me. It shows I don’t shy away from discussing… well, anything. That's who I am.
1. The long paragraph about RFID chips. The essay should focus on me, and there’s a pretty big chunk of this essay that focuses on something else. If you’re worried, and even if you're not, get a second opinion.
2. Slightly weak last sentence. It expresses what I wanted to say, but in a meh way. I might replace it with something like:
The Creative Conversation is everything art should be: living, challenging, unpredictable, thought-provoking and meaningful. Through it, I know my life will never be boring.
Now that I have two difference endings for my essay, I can get second, third and fourth opinions. Which is better?
Once again, if you have a creativity that you want to write about, but you question how original you can possibly be with it, here are a few pieces of advice for you:
1. Write a strong hook sentence. For example, if I were going to run with guitars, I would start with something like:
You know that scene in Almost Famous when Russell gets thrown three feet backwards after being shocked by a microphone? The exact same thing has happened to me.
If I were going to write about playwriting or poetry, I might go meta and write the beginning (or entirety) of the essay in that style of writing. But only if I could totally nail it. Otherwise, you're only hurting yourself. Stick to prose.
2. Feel free to link to work samples, portfolios, youtube channels, etc. Show them that you’re serious about what you do, and invite them to check it out themselves.
3. Connect it with a goal, character transformation or achievement.
4. Reinforce your theme. What sets you apart from other students? What is your hashtag or theme? What is the one word or quality you want them to remember about you? Reinforce that here.
5. Have fun! Creativity is fun!
So. Here’s what you’re going to do now:
- Brainstorm (at least 10 ideas)
- First draft – don’t even think about the word count.
- Edit (replace boring words; more verbs, fewer adjectives and adverbs)
- Cut words (remember: contractions are your friend. So are hyphens.)
- Second (and third, and fourth) opinions
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.