Are All College Application Essays Really the Same? (Spoiler Alert: No!)

Among the most important aspects of a college application are the essays. Most applications require them and they are often a student's only means of standing out to a college admissions officer from a crowd of hundreds or thousands of other candidates. As many California students submit both the University of California (UC) application and the Common App, it is important to understand the differences in what each is asking for in terms of essays. While the Common App requires that applicants write one main essay of 650 words, the UC application requires four shorter 350 word essays. The biggest difference between them is that the Common App is asking for a personal statement that is more creative and includes storytelling while the UC application wants straightforward answers to its Personal Insight questions. At a recent UC conference for counselors, admissions officers outlined what they look for in student application essays. Overall, they suggest that you "keep it an interview." More specifically, they offered a few dos and a bunch of don'ts to keep in mind as you craft your responses: Do:

  • Use lots of "I" words. Don't make general statements.

  • Make the essay about the student. If there's a reference to someone who inspired or influenced you, make sure that the essay is still about you and not them.

  • Speak in your authentic voice.


  • No quotations or philosophizing.

  • Don't title your essays.

  • There should be no scene-setting or storytelling.

  • No creative writing.

  • Avoid flowery language and big words. They can tell when you've been relying on thesaurus suggestions.

  • Don't use acronyms. Your readers may not know what you're referring to.

  • Do not include jokes or sarcasm. You have no idea what might be confusing or offensive to your readers.

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