04/27/2016 04:30 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2017

Insight into New University of California Application Essays (Part I)

A few weeks ago, the University of California announced the retirement of its venerable set of application prompts, to be replaced by eight new "personal insight questions." Before I get to those questions, let's take a moment to mourn their predecessors.

A Brief Lament
Between the uneven and ponderous Common Application prompts and the hodgepodge of supplemental school-specific prompts ranging from great (Stanford's intellectual prompt) to cloyingly atrocious (Barnard's "major in unafraid"), the UC prompts struck a rare balance between guidance and freedom.

UC's "your world" prompt, 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, was provocative enough to inspire thought and narration, dynamic enough to elicit both personal anecdotes and analytical observation, and broad enough to enable students to write about everything from their front yards to the global village. The "accomplishment/experience" prompt, while conventional, enabled students present their own definitions of success and discuss conventional topics with a reasonable degree of freedom.

UC's old word limit didn't toy with applicants by ascribing vague page limits (um, what font?), nor did they constrain them with inviolable, anxiety-producing maximums. Instead, they assigned a total word limit that applicants could allocate between the two essays as they saw fit. This approach treated applicants like the adults that they are.

The new 350-word per essay limit is long enough to tell brief stories and include a little analysis, but they're too short to develop any deep ideas. But that isn't the point. UC is calling them "personal insight questions" presumably because they don't want carefully wrought arguments or intricate stories. They're probably trying to avoid the pressure that an "essay" connotes and want breezier answers. I happen to think that high school students should be capable to writing an "essay," ideally with an allocation of 1400 words among the four. But, if these prompts inspire more candid, creative answers, then UC might be on to something.

Prompt Analysis
The eight prompts are all reasonable questions. So reasonable, in fact, that I worry students might agonize over which ones to choose. They shouldn't. Most students could pick four at random and come up with fine responses. It's not as though someone who'd write a brilliant response to Question 1 would write something awful if he chose Question 7 instead.

Helpfully, UC has published its own guidelines for these prompts. Without having read those guidelines, so as to read these prompts with fresh eyes, here's my analysis:

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

This prompt invites a wide range of responses, but it is the most poorly phrased prompt of the eight. Influencing others, resolving disputes, and contributing to group efforts all lend themselves to interesting narratives. Period.

The prompt would have been fine without "of your leadership," which undermines the prompt in two ways. First, it implies that students need to have a formal leadership role in order to answer the question. But the substance of the question doesn't require a formal role at all -- you don't need to be class president to "help resolve a dispute."

Second, and more importantly, the prompt perpetuates the cliche of "leadership." "Leadership" has been so fetishized, meant to venerate class presidents, team captains, and corporate blowhards that it means little anymore. I've read too many essays with the phrase "because of my leadership skills...." Sorry. There's no such thing as "leadership skills." You take action. You develop ideas. You communicate and collaborate. You demonstrate real skills. You either do these things, or you don't. Students who have done should tell their stories.

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.

Like leadership, creativity is sometimes considered an unalloyed virtue. But plenty of creative work is dreadful -- you should see the poetry I wrote in high school. Moreover, some people aren't very creative. That doesn't mean that they aren't perfectly smart, interesting, and competent. This prompt extends the definition of creativity into some pretty murky waters. I'm all for problem-solving; I'm just not sure that an account "creative" problem-solving is any more interesting than one about "regular" problem-solving.

Students who are creative in the conventional sense of the word face a worthwhile challenge. The creativity expressed with a brush, guitar, whisk, or tip-toes often translates awkwardly to the written word. Students should think carefully about the formal and thematic characteristics of their work, the motivations behind it, and the verbal descriptions that will do it justice for readers who have never seen, heard, tasted, or watched their still lifes, ballads, pound cakes, and pirouettes.

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Even super-talented students should approach themselves objectively. They shouldn't congratulate themselves simply for having a talent. They should describe the talent, without being pedantic, and put the talent in a larger context: What is the talent good for? What are non-hedonistic reasons for pursuing it? Students should help readers understand how good they are at their chosen pursuits and why those pursuits are interesting, fun, and/or worthwhile. If a talent is commonplace, anecdotes and examples are crucial personalizing it.

Finally, students shouldn't proclaim how hard they've worked to develop their talent. Everyone works hard. In an essay, stories, results, and analysis are what matter.

Click here to find Part II, with analysis of Prompts 4-8.