Great Sample Essay Question Topics & Ideas


Prompt: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Tip: Writing for this topic is a strong way to start your application. If you’ve shown leadership in high school, write about it. And leadership doesn’t necessarily have to mean you’re the founder or president of something. There are so many ways to show leadership—maybe you took on huge responsibilities in your family, for example, or maybe you identified a need in your school or community and worked to do something about it. If you’ve ever been called a leader, consider writing for this prompt.


Prompt: 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.

Tip: You can either describe one way you’re creative (like dance) or multiple ways (perhaps you play multiple instruments). The UCs are interested in more than just your academics, and this can be a great chance to bring variety to your application.


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

Tip: Don’t choose an abstract quality that’s already clear from your application. If you say something like “I’m hard-working,” it’s likely to be redundant. Why? Because chances are your GPA and course rigor already show that. 

Another tip: Make sure you connect your quality (whatever it is) to specific things you’ve done. Otherwise, your PIQ may sound super general. How will you know if you’re being specific enough? Read your PIQ and ask, “Can I visualize this as I read it?” If not, brainstorm more specific examples of how this quality manifests itself in your life.

One more tip: If you pick a sport for this prompt, it can lead to a PIQ that’s bland/basic. Saying, for example, that volleyball is their greatest talent can lead students to write about how it’s taught them things like “discipline, hard work, and perseverance.” Instead, I recommend that you consider describing a talent or skill you’ve learned through volleyball—looking out for others’ needs, for example, or the ability to think critically. Show how volleyball has taught you that. Then, if you do end up mentioning how volleyball has helped you learn this, you can maybe even segue into how you’ve been able to use this skill elsewhere in your life (at home, for example, or in class). 


Prompt: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced?

Tip: If you’re considering writing about an “educational barrier,” ask yourself: Is this something I could briefly describe in my Additional Comments section? If you’re unsure what that section is or what kind of information can go there, check out this link. If you can describe it briefly there, don’t waste one of your PIQs on this prompt.


Prompt: 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? 

Tip: Some topics are stronger than others when it comes to this prompt.

In the past, I’ve seen students write successfully about challenges such as: 

  • Racism, sexism, crime, violence, unemployment, physical disability 
  • How a difficult family situation led you to take on more responsibilities

I’ve found that these tend to be less successful topics: 

  • Breaking up a romantic relationship
  • Not making a team or club 
  • Taking a difficult class
  • Being shy but then finding your voice (it’s just a really common topic)
    • Getting a bad grade (you can put this in the 550-character “Academic History” section of the application)

Another tip: If you’re considering writing about something from this second list, ask yourself: Is there a different UC prompt that might help me more effectively address one of the points of comprehensive review? I say this because I’ve found that even a “just-okay” PIQ on a community service project, for example, can improve a student’s chances of acceptance more than a PIQ about a break-up.

One more tip: If you’ve faced challenges, but aren’t sure if a topic will work or not, consider this three-part structure: 

  1. Challenges + Effects (⅓ of PIQ)
  2. What I did about it (⅓ of PIQ)
  3. What I learned (⅓ of PIQ)

Then spend 15 minutes working through the Feelings and Needs Exercise (explained in more detail in the next section) and ask yourself, could I expand on the “what I did” and “what I learned” sections enough to fill ⅔ of the PIQ? More on this in the next lesson.

One final tip: Make sure to address how the challenge impacted your academics, since the prompt asks about this. If you experienced big challenges but were still able to maintain good grades, you can say simply, “Despite these challenges, I was able to maintain my grades” or something similar.


Prompt: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Tip: This is a great prompt to consider. Why? It’s a solid way to demonstrate your intellectual side, plus you can pack in a lot of information. More on this in the next lesson.

Another tip: If you’re planning to major in engineering or computer science, you should definitely consider it, as those are often impacted majors (which means that a lot of students choose them) and you really want to show the UCs you have what it takes to excel in those fields.

If you’re applying as a transfer student, you must write it as one of your four choices.


Prompt: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Tip: This is another prompt to strongly consider. Why? The UCs love to know whether and how you’ve made an impact on your community. Can you think of any ways you have? Or several ways?

Another tip: If you don’t choose the UC7 prompt, it’s a good idea to demonstrate impact on your school or community in two of the other prompts.


Prompt: 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?

Tip: This is kind of like the “topic of your choice” prompt on the Common App. Use this one if you have something you definitely want to include but aren’t sure which other prompt it works for.