This recent radio segment on Southern California's Public Station KPCC 89.3 focuses on the stress the new prompts are causing. I prefer to take this news story with a grain of salt. Cranking out high-stakes essays - old or new - causes stress. And the students doing the essays this year didn't do them last year; they have no basis for comparison. They're stressed, period. And I sympathize.
It's useful to keep many things in mind as you do the essays - here's a list of ten to get you going - but most important is this: The essays themselves will not earn you admission to the UC university of your dreams/choice. You need the grades and scores to make the first cut, and those numbers vary from institution to institution.
For the top ranking students applying to the most competitive universities - Berkeley and UCLA - the essays needs to confirm your grades and scores; they need to show that you're as thoughtful and insightful as your grades suggest you are. Ideally, they'll show that even in this very competitive pool, you stand out by virtue of your accomplishments, leadership skills, way of seeing the world and expressing yourself. At each level, the essays must either confirm your record or add something to a record that might have some weakness in it. If your grades have fluctuated, your essays can show your other attributes and your understanding of what you need to do to perform better.
For a list of the prompts, check out my May blog post right here.
Here are some more nuts and bolt advice to students confronting these four short pieces:
1. Put aside a good bit of time every few days for a good many weeks to work on the essays.
2. Don't feel you need to do them all at once. You can't, and you shouldn't.
3. It might be easier to print out the prompts on paper and look at them that way, so you don't feel the pressure to be writing on the computer while brainstorming.
4. In your first few read-throughs, pick out only one prompt that you like more than the others and take some notes about what you might write. Do not attempt to write the entire essay. Take as many notes as you can. Think of stories and anecdotes that illustrate your choices.
5. Then pick out another prompt, and take more notes. Again, do not attempt to write the essays. Free associate with a pen in your hand and see what thoughts come out.
6. Guess what? Do the same for the other two pieces you like most. In the early stages, just take notes. They don't have to be complete sentences. This is an effort to get in touch with your material. That's all you're trying to do. If you end up with five or six lines of notes for each essay, you're in great shape.
7. Don't repeat yourself from prompt to prompt. Pick prompts that focus on different parts of your life and your perspective.
8: When you start writing, keep the tone conversational. Use lines of dialogue that are memorable. Pick specific details that locate you in time and space.
9. It's hard to make the switch from writing academically, as you've been expected to do for ten years, and this kind of more personal, informal writing. You're not writing an academic paper or an encyclopedia listing. This is personal. Use the voice you would use to talk about yourself. That's where you're headed.
10. There aren't many times or places where you're asked to reflect on your own life - and to know that people are really interested in what you have to say. My point: enjoy the opportunity. Don't be afraid to sparkle. Don't be afraid to be yourself.
From the KPCC segment: