This spring, I had the opportunity to interview Cuca Refugia, a UC-Santa Barbara admissions officer. We'd met because I was planning a free workshop to help students complete the UC Personal Statements.
I'd wanted to make sure we were reaching out to students from various backgrounds, especially undocumented students. Ms. Refugia was incredibly helpful in passing along some great tips for applicants from various non-traditional backgrounds.
Fortunately, admissions officers at many schools are sensitive to students from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. But what they're looking for is a cogent expression and understanding of those circumstances.
Among the highlights of our talk: The fact that Cuca Refugia and her colleagues spend a total of about 10 minutes evaluating each application. So, while strong personal statements on their own are no guarantee of admission, they can help you make a strong case for yourself. But you need to understand what UC admissions officers are looking for when they review your application.
Other highlights and tips:
UC personal statements aren’t like traditional essays, unlike say the Common App(lication) Essay. She advises students against getting too caught up in telling a story, or worrying overly about beginnings and endings.
Focus on clarity, depth, and context. “Clarity is how well can you articulate your choices and decisions. Depth means how well can you explain the details behind those choices. And context: how well do you explain the resources available to you behind those choices,” said Ms. Refugia.
Focus on you. “It’s very important that the personal statement is about you. Not your mother, your father, your siblings, whoever. This is the chance for the UC admissions counselor to know who you are,” she says. This is especially important for Hispanic students. “I get it,” she said. “There’s a perceived disloyalty [for Hispanic students] in not talking about the community, struggle, etc. But don’t be afraid to use ‘I’.”
Focus on the present. Meaning, focus as much as possible on the four years of high school. “Don’t focus your statement on something that happened to you when you were five years old. Or 10. The problem, again, is that this doesn’t give the admissions counselor much insight into who you are today.”
Focus on understanding your choices. While the choice of topic is important, what really makes a difference is your understanding of your choices. “I see a lot of essays about, say, building a computer. The topic is fine. But what distinguishes one essay from another is how well you can bring clarity, depth, context. It’s the understanding of why they did this that’s important,” says Ms. Refugia.
Use the personal statements to expand on something important that doesn't come through in the rest of your application. Cuca Refugia pointed out that admissions officers use every piece of the application to judge an applicant’s worthiness except gender and ethnicity.
For example, in the section titled “About You,” students can fill in information such as “first language,” “veteran status,” “foster youth,” etc. But this doesn’t tell the admissions officers very much of anything. If English isn’t your first language, did you learn it four years ago? Or when you were just 3? Or, if you’ve been in the foster system—how long was that? Use the personal statement to expand on important information.
Finally, use the “Additional Comments” box. You can write up to 550 words in the additional comments box, alongside the two UC personal statements. Ms. Refugia encouraged students to take advantage of this. “You can use this box to explain extenuating circumstances or give more insight and background into your situation—things that don’t fit into either statement. For example, you can explain that you work on weekends to help you parents so you don’t have as many extra-curriculars on your application,” she said.
Want to know more?
UC Applications open on August 1st. Click here to learn more.
And in this video, produced by UCSB, UC students and admissions staff share their best tips for writing application essays.