The dreaded college essay. For many high school seniors, those few hundred words can manifest into an unyielding sense of existential, unwavering angst. They might seem daunting, but these few paragraphs often present one of the best opportunities for students to write honestly and express themselves in a college application process dominated by standardized tests, high school transcripts, and other numbers first metrics.
Knowing what to write about, or how to write it, can be challenging. Luckily, millions of other students have already gone through the process. To shed some much-needed light on what types of essays work for which schools, Insider is reaching out to students from all around the world and publishing the essays that got them into their dream schools. This week, Insider took a look at the University of California at Berkeley.
UC Berkeley is the most competitive public school in the United States
UC Berkeley is one of nine schools that fall under the "University of California" umbrella. While many of the UC schools are competitive, none are more difficult to get into than the Berkeley location. According to data released by the school, just over 89,000 students applied last year and only 13,558 were offered admissions — an acceptance rate of 15.1%.
The California university consistently appears listed next to other "elite" schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton but it differs from these competitors in one key area: UC Berkeley is a public school. The school is also massive, with just about 42,000 undergraduates and over 350 degree programs.
In addition to an application, high school transcript, and standardized test scores, first-year applicants are presented with eight "personal insight questions." Students answer four of these and each are around 350 words long. A full listing of the prompts used for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle can be viewed here.
Insider reviewed over half a dozen admissions essays from current UC Berkeley students. While their exact answers differed depending on the questions they answered and their own writing style, all of them tended to focus in on personal experiences. The best essays Insider reviewed showed off the students' writing chops and gave the reader a quick glimpse into the applicant's mind.
Here's one of the essay questions prospective Berkeley students are asked to answer.
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud, and how does it relate to the person you are?
In his vivid response, UC Berkeley senior Robbie Li used the space to revisit his time as a foreign exchange student at St. Andrew's High School in Austin, Texas. (Robbie is an international student from Shanghai, China.)
I kept trembling; the thirty-second-long standing ovation overwhelmed me. I stepped up to the front of the stage, took a bow towards the chapel full of students and teachers, and felt incredibly relieved and proud. Speaking out the hard truth about a community I so loved was no easy task, but I was glad that I made it through.
Two months before my exchange year ended at St. Andrew's, the upper school chaplain came to me and invited me to deliver a senior homily during a chapel service. "We all would love to hear your perspective," he said. What an honor. I agreed immediately, promising him a good talk and gave him a big smile. However, when I started to craft my ten-minute script, I fell into utter bewilderment.It was not that I had nothing to say about this community; a year's observation gave me more than enough material. I knew I wanted to direct people's attention to the issue of inclusion, telling them how grueling my first few months were as a newcomer, and encouraging them to open up their worlds for the next new kid on campus. But I had a huge concern - the topic was so drenched with personal feelings that it might come off as a cacophonous accusation, one of those I-was-struggling-but-no-one-cared complaints. I did have a difficult time at the beginning, but it was nobody's fault. I would hate to see my friends take upon themselves for the institutionalized indifference; I would hate to see them suffer.
I could always turn to safer and easier topics - talk about Texan stereotypes, for instance. Such analysis from the standpoint of a foreign student would definitely bring sensational amusement. A love letter to football would work as well; everyone loves football here in Austin. I gave both topics a try, but the more I wrote, the more I felt the urge to go back to the discussion over inclusion. "What the community needed to hear must be said," I decided. Never shall I let myself choose what is safe over what is important. I had to be audacious in the face of such a decision, even if it meant coming across as reckless to the entire school.
In my speech, I poured my heart out. I talked about the agony of being left alone on campus in September, the joy of being surprisingly coronated homecoming prince that same month, and most importantly, the profound confusion in between. I said I really wondered why a community as friendly as St. Andrew's could make a person feel so isolated at one point. I proposed that we make a difference together and make our friendliness more explicit. After all, no one should feel deserted.
The speech was a success. Compliments and applause and hugs enveloped me, but those were not my biggest takeaways. What defined this experience was the risk I took in hope of prompting a positive change. It felt great because I was brave.
In another essay question, UC Berkeley provided students with space to respond to a more open-ended question.
"Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?"
By specifically including the words "beyond what has already been shared in your application," this essay asks the student to write more personally about themselves. Questions framed like this allow students the ability to describe a part of themselves that might not be fully captured by the typical dehumanizing application process.
UC Berkeley electrical engineering, computer science, and economics sophomore Fuzail Shakir decided to tell a brief, but honest essay questioning what it means to be part of a community.
I look around at my room, dimly lit by a yellow light. On the table in the corner, buried under a jumble of physics textbooks and notes, was a picture of a beaming Indian family of four standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tacked up on the board were an array of pamphlets from American colleges. On the opposite wall was a poster of Muhammad Ali standing over a knocked-out Sonny Liston after the infamous "anchor punch," the crowd stunned to silence.My mom shouted something incoherent, followed by a quick translation into English. Yes, I am an Indian who does not know Hindi. What else would you expect? I have lived my whole life in Saudi Arabia, visited more cities in the USA than India, and have studied in an American school, surrounded by American teachers and American friends.
Am I Indian, Saudi, or American?
A few years ago, I would have said none. And yet, standing in line for Saudi customs in the "Foreign Passports" section was puzzling. I felt out of place.
Deep down, I feared being stuck with that label, carrying it around wherever I went: "Foreigner".Am I Indian, Saudi, or American?
Today I still answer, none. I choose not to be defined by where I live or what passport I have or what language I speak. I choose to embrace the ambiguity as who I am.
Take a look at my room. The farrago of cultures embodies obscurity and characterizes my international life, and I have learned to embrace it. That is who I am: a distinctive viewpoint — an amalgamation of thoughts and ideas, a "melting pot", if you will, of cultures from around the world. That's the community to which I belong: those who don't fit in.
Did your college essay help you snag a spot at your dream school? If so, we'd love to hear about it. Email this reporter at mdegeurin@businessinsider to discuss sharing your story.