As the school year was about to end, three friends gathered in the college counseling room at Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 public school near USC. Dozens of college pennants hung from the ceiling and the walls were plastered with posters with tips on how to prepare for and apply for college.
The friends talked about one of the biggest headaches on the University of California undergraduate application: the personal statement essay.
Senior Jocelyn Sandoval took hers out of her backpack.
"I think it showed my leadership and I think it showed how I react to certain situations and it kind of showed my potential, my ability to move on and work within certain circumstances," she said.
She must have nailed it: she'll be attending the University of California - Los Angeles in the fall.
Her friend, 11th grader Ariana Reyes, looks up to Sandoval's accomplishments because she also wants to attend UCLA, to study biology. But Sandoval's tips on how to write her personal statement won't help Reyes much: this year, the UC system announced that it's completely overhauling the essay section of its application.
While Sandoval wrote two essays when she submitted her application last year, Reyes and the hundreds of thousands of other high school seniors preparing their applications for this fall must write four.
“Oh my God, it’s a lot," Reyes said. "I’ve had to go deep into my thoughts. I think about it at night: what am I going to write?"
But while students like Reyes are nervous about the extra questions and about being the being the first class of applicants using the new prompts without clear examples of successful essays, UC officials and some college counselors say the changes could benefit students by giving colleges a better sense of who students are beyond their test scores.
But others worry that asking more of students will widen the gap between students who receive strong support preparing their applications and those who don't.
The old essay prompts asked students to describe how a particular experience and the world around them shaped who they are. But that style of broad question has fallen out of favor with college admissions offices, said UC spokesperson Claire Doan.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that [the old prompt was] too general, it doesn’t allow students to have a more focused platform, it doesn’t allow them to express themselves," Doan said. "In certain ways, it felt like it was more of a struggle."
Students will now choose among eight prompts designed to allow the students to portray the aspects of their life they feel are most relevant: they can write about how they've showed creativity or leadership skills, a favorite class or academic subject, or a challenge in life or educational barrier they've overcome.
“It’s less quantitative and [gets at] more of who they are, and it provides context for the entire application so you can explain what you’ve been through, what you’ve accomplished, why your grades were a certain way, or what you’re amazing at that isn’t reflected in other parts of the application,” Doan said.
The changes come at a time when admission to California's public colleges and universities is more competitive than ever. The UC system received over 206,000 applications for undergraduate admission in the most recent cycle – a record.
Private college counselor Kathryn Favaro said that the specificity of the prompts could allow students who are the first in their family to go to college or who’ve had other challenges explain how they’ve overcome them.
“Maybe a student has had a difficult home life and before never felt before that that was something they could even write about," Favaro said. "And now they’re seeing a prompt that’s very literally asking, maybe, why their academic record was affected and they can talk about that. And the school can take that into consideration and accept students who maybe aren’t as perfect in terms of their numbers but have amazing personal qualities."
On the other hand, Foshay Learning Center English teacher Kate McFadden-Midby said that the old, more general prompts often pushed disadvantaged students to write exclusively about the economic and social challenges they've faced. By requiring a range of essays, McFadden-Midby said, the UC system is opening opportunities for low-income students to show who they are as a person beyond just the obstacles they've faced.
But McFadden-Midby also worries that the expanded essay requirements will make it even harder for students who don't have support from parents or college counselors to put together a strong application.
"Not only do they not have these private college advisors," McFadden-Midby said, "but they also have parents who often don’t speak and write English really well and who most of the time haven’t gone to college so they don’t even know the ropes very much."
McFadden-Midby teaches Ariana Reyes and her classmates at Foshay, many of whom come from working-class families. To help close the gap between her students and those with the resources to access private coaching, she's requiring that they begin to draft their four essays as a summer assignment.
She's also planning to come to the school during her free time once this summer to help students on their first and second drafts, and she said she'll also schedule two Saturday personal statement writing workshops once the November 30 application deadline nears.
That's a wise strategy, said private college counselor Audrey Kahane.
“By early by early July I like to get students started on the essays to sit down take a look at prompts, think about how you might approach them and then set up a schedule for yourself," Kahane said. “It could be that you decide that you do two of these questions each week. Space it out. Make a calendar for yourself with deadlines and allow for first, second, and third drafts. And if you set up that kind of structure the stress level will go down because you know exactly what you need to do each week.”