written by
Zoë Edington

University of California Essay Guide 2019-2020 (From a Berkeley Perspective)

Essay Guides 7 min read
Sather Tower (aka "The Campanile") at UC Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley, is part of the 10 campuses of the UC system and has been ranked consistently as one of the top public universities in the world. It is a renowned research institution and boasts of numerous Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni. Per its website, UC Berkeley had a 16.8% acceptance rate of incoming freshmen and a 25.3% acceptance rate of transfer students in 2019. There are more than 40,000 students with over 100 undergraduate programs to choose from. These programs are split between six colleges and schools: the College of Letters & Science, College of Chemistry, College of Engineering, College of Environmental Design, College of Natural Resources, and Haas School of Business. Haas School of Business is the only school that requires a separate application and interview process which takes place after the necessary course requirements have been met.

Situated in the Bay Area, UC Berkeley is closely connected with tech hubs such as San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Perhaps what makes Berkeley most unique, however, is its culture. The Free Speech Movement that took place on campus during 1964-65 made lasting impacts on the university and its students and the sentiments which inspired the protest continues to strongly influence student culture today. The more recent student protests in 2017 regarding conservative speakers Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, while controversial, has sparked new debates across campus regarding the meaning and significance of free speech.

Since its founding in 1868, UC Berkeley continues to attract motivated and bright students. The application process for Cal is the same as any other UC campus. In 2016 the UC system changed the required essay format from two personal statements to four short essays with eight prompts to choose from, with a limit of 350 words each. In this essay guide I have not only listed the prompts but also included my own recommendations for how to best respond to them. For more help with writing your college application essays, schedule a session with a Bullseye Admissions coach.

University of California Essay Prompts

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.

For obvious reasons, a long-term experience would work better than a shorter one for this prompt. It can be hard to come up with an example of a leadership role if you are more introverted; however, besides the typical sports team captain and club presidents, leadership can be demonstrated in a lot of different experiences. For example, have you ever tutored a group of students, or took the lead in a class project?

The main thing to focus on is how your efforts have influenced other people. You can definitely talk about the challenges you faced during your experience and how you worked to overcome them, but the main goal should be to convey the positive impact you were able to create.

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.

Answering this question can definitely be difficult especially because of how vague it is. But like the topic of this prompt, get creative!

A good way to approach this prompt might be to reflect on an instance in which you had to use your creativity to achieve something. Giving a concrete example is a great way of demonstrating your creative process and how you approach the world around you. You don’t have to win an essay contest or an art competition to be creative — your creativity can be reflected even in the most mundane activities.

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

This is the time to showcase your hobbies. Think about something you're passionate about and how you have developed that passion over time. This can range from playing an instrument to speech and debate.

It can be a good idea to think about the kinds of clubs and activities you have participated in. How have these extracurriculars honed a particular skill set? Did you become a better communicator through mentoring others? Did you take your coding to the next level through an internship? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box for this one!

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Maybe you are a first-generation college student. Maybe your first language isn’t English. How did you push yourself to go beyond the cards you were dealt with?

Academics at Cal can be vigorous, so admission officers are looking for students who continually challenge themselves. As you answer this question, keep in mind that you want to demonstrate yourself as someone who goes above and beyond in your studies.

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

If your grades ever took a dip, this is the time to defend yourself. Of course, you definitely don’t have to choose a challenge that affected your grade negatively; it can also be a challenge that might have inspired you to do better academically.

If you do choose to talk about a time where your hardships detracted from your academic achievement, however, make sure you can spin it in a positive way. For example, what did you learn about yourself? Did the experience motivate you in some way? The focus should be on what you’ve gained from your experience.

6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

This is a chance for the admission officers to see what kind of student you are. How do you approach your classes and how do you learn? What interests you intellectually? What excites you? How do you let your academics influence you or broaden your way of thinking?

Accordingly, it can be helpful to reflect on what you are passionate about. The most important part of this prompt, however, is how your academic subject has influenced you. Did your thinking change because of the subject? Did it inspire you? Did it challenge you to do something differently? These are all good questions to start your brainstorming as you write your answer.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Now is the time to talk about your achievements! As you write your answers, though, keep in mind that you want to convey what you accomplished without coming across as bragging.

What the admission officers want to see here is the type of connections you have made with the community around you. It can be a good idea to talk about what you learned from your experiences as well, or other personal growth you made throughout your efforts.

8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

There are over 40,000 students at Cal. The school probably receives over 10,000 applications each year. Do you really possess something that you won’t be able to find in another Berkeley applicant? Unlikely.

But answer the question you must. Of course, nobody is expecting you to come up with something completely unique to you. But here is a chance to reveal your quirky side (as long as you can spin it positively). If you find yourself stuck and starting to circle around bland answers such as being hardworking, being a first-generation college student, etc., it might be better to choose another prompt.

General tips:

  1. Admission officers read through A LOT of applications every day. You want to write something that can grab their attention within the first sentence. Always keep the prompts in mind. You only have 350 words, so answer the question!
  2. It can be a good idea to ask someone who might not know you very well to read your essays. Ask them if they feel that they have gained a better understanding of who you are based on what they read.


This essay guide was written by Anglea Gao, UC Berkeley Class of 2019. If you want to get more help writing your Cal application essays from Angela or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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