top of page

Tips to Write Great UC Transfer Application Essays

The University of California (UC) system, the most prestigious public education institution in the world, attracts tens of thousands of freshmen and transfer applicants each year. The freshmen admission is highly competitive across UC campuses, particularly at UC Berkeley and UCLA. For example, UCLA alone received more than 110,000 freshmen applications in 2018 who competed for roughly 15,000 seats.

Although many local residents have chosen the UC transfer route for financial reasons, we want to highlight that for many students who didn’t fair well academically in high school, the UC transfer route is a more viable and efficient pathway to receiving a UC degree. The transfer admission rates in recent years at UC Berkeley and UCLA have ranged between 20 to 25%, which are much higher than their respective freshmen admission rate.

Beginning last fall, UC and the California Community College system began an agreement to expedite the often convoluted transfer process. The agreement builds on a 2015 program that created "transfer pathways," listing which classes community college students should take to qualify for enrollment in 21 of the most popular majors on UC campuses, such as chemistry, English, mathematics and film.

Students who complete the curricula for their desired major, as designed by the agreement, and meet the minimum GPA requirement will be guaranteed admission into the UC system. If students are not admitted to their number one campus, the system will instead place them at another campus that has space in the chosen major.

What are Personal Insight Questions? And why do they matter?

So you have followed the transfer pathway at your local community college, and you have managed to achieve a decent GPA. How can your application stand out? The answer is simple: your application essays or, in the UC application term, your answers to the Personal Insight Questions.

“These questions are about getting to know you better — your life experience, interests, ambitions and inspirations. Think of it as your interview with the admissions office. Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it. While this section of the application is just one part we consider when making our admission decision, it helps provide context for the rest of your application.”

In other words, your essays are the only way to add character to an otherwise punctuated list of accomplishments. Essays are your best shot at demonstrating personality, explaining how you perceive the world, and describing your most compelling motives. These ideas tend to get lost in a general transcript. The essay is a looking glass into the greater “why” of your candidacy.

The requirements of Personal Insight Questions for transfer applicants are as follows:

  • One required question you must answer.

  • You will also need to answer 3 out of 7 additional questions. All of these 7 questions are equal and are given equal consideration in the application review process. There is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.

  • Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.

The Required Personal Insight Question:

Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.

Different from freshmen applicants who can choose “undecided” when it comes to a college major, transfer applicants have to declare the major(s) they are interested in pursuing. Consider the following when brainstorming ideas:

  • How did your interest in your major develop? What classroom learning experiences (such as working with faculty or doing research projects), and/or experiences from outside (such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student or community organizations) have helped shape your interest?

  • What other influences (culture, community, family, etc.) have steered you toward this major?

  • How is your intended major tied to your long-term goals?

  • If you are applying to multiple campuses with a different major at each campus, you need to approach this question from a broader perspective.

The key here is to demonstrate that you are ready—academically, intellectually, and psychologically—to succeed in the upper-division courses for the declared major once you enroll at the university. Further, since you are applying as a transfer student who is considered more mature than a high school senior, it is important to discuss how continuing the study of this intended major at a four-year college helps you pursue your career and life goals.

Additional Questions (Choose 3 of 7)

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 is explicitly for describing your leadership experience in more detail than the “president” or “team leader” title on your CV or resume. College admissions officers are looking for ways in which you fostered mentorship, resolved tension, and organized group effort in the environment surrounding you, e.g., school clubs or teams, community events. You want to draw upon strong examples in which you made a positive impact on others. Remember: Leadership roles are not limited to titled positions or to the school environment.

  • Example 1: You reinvigorated interest in a club that had initially been losing members.

  • Example 2: You inspired a friend or classmate to take a leadership role.

  • Example 3: You organized community events to help promote a cause you deeply care about.

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.

This prompt lends flexibility to how you applied creativity to academic fields, extracurricular endeavors, and beyond. If you are artistic (e.g., painter, illustrator, poet, photographer, etc.), you can certainly write about being creative in your artwork. But don’t be discouraged by this prompt if you are not in such traditionally “creative” roles . The prompt’s emphasis is strongest on problem-solving and innovative thinking. Maybe you created your own program to help organize information, or maybe you created a rack to help hold your sports equipment. The opportunities here are broad.

  • Example 1: There was a leak in your home toilet that your parents were about to call a plumber to fix, but you figured it out.

  • Example 2: You figured out an alternate solution to an academic problem in class that differed from your teacher’s.

  • Example 3: You grew up in more than one culture and were adept at blending multicultural elements in your artwork.

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

Don’t make the mistake of simply listing the skills or talents you’ve developed. The real trick to writing a great response to this prompt is by tying character and personality traits to the activity. Describing your specific traits (e.g. tenacity, humility, grit, and compassion) that helped you hone your talents is just as important as the skills or talents themselves. Elaborate on why this activity is worth it to you, and how your character is exhibited through this activity. You also want to address how you have cultivated this talent to display just how much work it took to get to where you are.

  • Example 1: How a character trait of yours made acquiring a skill possible.

  • Example 2: How developing a talent revealed a part of your personality that you didn’t recognize prior to practice.

  • Example 3: How developing certain skills helped you strengthen your character.

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

This prompt contains two different but related topics: a significant educational opportunity or an educational barrier. You can write about either topic, or address both if they are related in your case. Try not to get bogged down in what an “educational opportunity” is. Define an educational opportunity as anything that has added value to your educational experience and has better prepared you for college. It can be more recent, something you did while attending community college. For example, if you have taken several advanced online classes related to your major, this would be a great place to share why you did it and what you have learned.

If you choose to go down the educational barriers route, think of barriers broadly. It can be academic (e.g., dealing with a weak academic subject), cognitive (e.g., a learning disability), socio-economic (e.g., if accepted, you would be the first person in your family going to college), or cultural (e.g., being a recent immigrant to the U.S. adapting to the new living and learning environment). Then, more importantly, what personal characteristics or skills did you rely on to overcome this barrier? How has the process shaped you as a person? How do you plan to use what you have gained in the future?

  • Example 1: Describe a situation where you went above and beyond an assignment’s requirement in order to enrich yourself.

  • Example 2: Describe how you have managed to deal with a weak academic subject and become a better learner as a result.

  • Example 3: Describe how you have managed to overcome a learning disability and how the process has changed the way you view academic success.

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?

This prompt has two parts: the most significant challenge and its effect on your academic achievement. The word “challenge” can apply to a very broad range of events. Maybe you struggled in a certain course. Maybe you had to deal with health issues, family issues, or financial struggles while simultaneously completing your coursework. It is OK to use this prompt to explain why you may have done sub-par in a particular area of your academics. Or perhaps, your UC application back as a high school senior was unexpectedly rejected; you learned to accept the rejection and have been working tirelessly for the transfer. Whatever topic you choose, you want to describe the learning and growth that you experienced was involved. Be sure to share the ways or aspects in which you matured along the way. What’s most interesting to college admissions officers is “what changed due to this challenge?”

Just like our “educational opportunity” definition given for the previous prompt, “academic achievement” goes far beyond your GPA. It could mean your intellectual goals or your struggle to balance homework with your part-time job. We recommend thinking of the challenge first before deciding whether it could be weaved into something academic.

  • Example 1: Describe working a part-time job while trying to deal with your rigorous academic workload.

  • Example 2: Describe how prejudice or stereotype in your community or a specific field may have held you back from pursuing an interest but didn’t.

  • Example 3: Describe how a certain peer pressure from your school and/or family has changed you and affected you academically, and the steps you have taken to overcome it.

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

Similar to previous prompts, the definition of “community” should not by stymied. Your community includes your school, the community college you are attending, maybe a local park, or maybe your city’s library. Community could also be more abstract, like the culture or ethnicity you identify with. With this in mind, remember that your writing must illustrate your role in the community you have defined. Why do you identify with this community the most? Questions like these should lead you to demonstrate the positive influence you have made. It’s important that you stay genuine. Do not overstate your impact. Remember the metaphor of the butterfly’s wings: small change is still change.

  • Example 1: Describe a volunteer position or project that really made you feel like a member of your community.

  • Example 2: Use metrics to define your impact on your community.

  • Example 3: Describe how you assisted a teacher in the class and helped enhance the learning experience of others.

7. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?

This is the most open-ended prompt. You can literally write about most anything. If you want to get creative with your writing, this is where to do it. This isn’t the best prompt to talk about academic achievement or community service, as there are better prompts for those topics. What you write for this prompt should also not be repetitive of the other three prompts you have chosen. Instead, use this prompt to write an aspect of you that the admissions officer would never know based on other parts of your application. This is your wildcard. Use this prompt to be as creative as you can while not being too outlandish. Here are some examples from our students who did well with this prompt:

  • Example 1: An excerpt of a novel you were writing.

  • Example 2: How a religious belief has influenced you.

  • Example 3: A hobby or personal interest that hasn’t been shown on any other part of your application, but is an important part of who you are.


bottom of page