Because the UC application feels easy, students have a tendency to skip over the small and important details of their application and end up making massive mistakes. We interviewed 2 of the best college counselors about the most common pitfalls students fall prey to in their application and what families should watch out for.
Table of Contents
How should students approach their UC application and where should they start?
So I think sometimes students want to skip ahead and go to either activities or cues or, you know, academic history. But it is advised that you don't do that because some answers that you put in the About You section can change the questions that you see in those later sections so.
I would like to put a caveat on that, though, William. I do agree, you know, don't fill everything out to the tee, you know, in your second portion of the application, if you haven't filled out the first half, I do recommend that you take a glance at what's coming in the different sections of the app.
So I would open them up and take a look at them. I would just be aware that some questions might change slightly or new questions might pop up, things like that. But it's like a big one that's, you know, part of the conditional portion is your residency status, your whether you're eligible for a fee waiver, whether you were are an undocumented international student or actually a resident of the U.S. or citizen.
So so that kind of different demographic changes things because you do support students differently who, you know, fall into one of those categories or maybe who have served military who might be of Native American descent, whatever it might be. But something that's not going to change is your activities list and your personal insight questions. And those are the things that you do need to work on for quite a while.
Should students type directly into the UC application?
I think one of the most important things to keep in mind actually maybe isn't even what to put where, but you know, the UC app times out after 20 minutes.
So I just want everyone who's listening to this to keep that in mind because I know students love just kind of having it open. You're all used to Google Docs and autosave and everything.
This thing does not autosave. This thing will eat your answers and delete them if you leave it open for more than 20 minutes, walk away from your computer, and then come back the next day and want to keep writing that essay. It's not going to be there anymore. So, you know, look ahead. And I really recommend looking ahead, even though you're not filling those sections out yet.
So, William, I 100% agree. Fill it out in the order given, but definitely glance forward to see what is going to be expected of you in the activity section. What are the questions? And I really recommend creating a Google doc where you're just going to actually write out all the content about your activities that you're later going to copy and paste into the application so that you don't get in trouble with that 20-minute timeout.
The same thing goes for the personal insight questions do not type them into the box. Go through this. They say they're not essays but you still need to treat them like essays in the sense that you want to give a first draft, a go, a second draft to go, a third draft, you know, maybe have someone read it, grammar-check it.
You really want to put some work into those things and so do that outside of the application too. So look ahead at that section, but don't fill it out yet. I guess this is my caveat to William's recommendation.
It is something that should be considered more of a process. I think as far as the activities list and the PIQs, the personal insight questions are not something that you would expect to just sit down and do in one sitting, you know, even even if you have a three-hour block. It's a lot of information you're sharing. It's a wide range of information and the kind of thing you want to be able to put down on the page, step away from coming back to, you know, you want to craft it.
What if you need additional help with filling out your UC application?
Yeah, it's good that you bring those up though because you know if you only have very limited time with your high school counselor and that's really the only person you can ask these questions. And then you're listening to this podcast now and thinking, Oh man, they just talked about a bunch of things and I still have more questions and maybe, maybe we even created more questions rather than answers by pointing some things out you hadn't thought of yet. So let us know if you need anything more than happy to check your app, and give you some advice on your activities section and your personal essay questions.
You know, really go on the website for each UC and go on their prospective student's tab and see what kind of online workshops they have because they are probably more than happy to help you fill that out and help you figure out how to best apply because they love getting applicants right. So definitely take a look at the free resources that they have.
Follow them on Instagram. Using social media to interact with these schools I think is a great idea because that could be a great way to find out more about things like virtual visits, virtual workshops, and stuff like that.
About You Section
Are there any parts of the application that need parental support?
That's the About You section. Definitely. So, yes, the student is supposed to fill this thing out, but that doesn't mean they can't get help from their counselor and help from their parents. They're not expected to just know everything off the top of their head. Right. They have to put in parental information such as annual household income, and things like that.
So really make sure you get all of that right and make sure you double and triple check with your parents that you have all the information in there about me section, you know, to the tee, you're not skipping anything.
You're not missing out on anything. You're not misrepresenting yourself in any way. And I think that's one of the biggest things that the UC admissions officers were talking about in this section is really, really make sure that you don't misrepresent yourself, whether that's by accidentally filling something out wrong or purposefully putting on something that is actually not quite the truth.
They do check on some applications, not all of them. It's kind of a random selection where they will verify, Hey, you put 11 activities, I'm going to actually verify that you were actually involved in these activities in the way that you said you were. So that could happen to you. And if they find out that you put something on there that wasn't 100% truthful, that has severe repercussions.
So definitely have someone check your application, ask your counselor at school questions if you're working with an independent, consult, don't you know ask them questions, have them look over your app. As long as you are the ones filling it out and you're the one submitting it, you are allowed to get insights and recommendations and double checking from outside people.
Why do the UCs ask about gender, race, foster status, etc on their application? Do the application readers use it to factor in their decision?
Something that comes up a lot, I guess when I'm helping students with the application that the ethnicity and ancestry and gender and sexual orientation information, how is that right? So it's used for them to have data to get an idea of who's applying. It's not actually visible to the application readers. So not only do they not consider it, it's not actually visible to them. They don't have access to it. So that, you know, hopefully, that would be reassuring to students if you're at all concerned about sharing that information. I do always tell students it's optional. You know, anything that doesn't have a red star next to it, any question that doesn't is optional.
So you don't need to share that information if you don't feel comfortable. But it could be useful for the statistical analysis that the system is doing. It could be helpful for future students. In some ways, we don't know exactly how they use them. But, you know, you can rest assured that that information is not being used when it comes to making any kind of admissions decisions.
Yeah, I know, that's definitely something a lot of my students have been worried about in the past. So just demographic research, but your reader doesn't see it.
What about undocumented students? How should they handle the UC application?
There's a really specific thing that you need to know about how to fill out the About Me section. You can choose your nationality there and of which country you are a citizen basically. Right? So you can say the USA, you can say other countries. As soon as you put a country that is not the United States, you would then be categorized as an international student.
That's just, you know, who did not attend high school in the U.S. and who needs an international student visa to be able to attend the institution and also will be paying international student prices, which are very, very different from in-state prices when it comes to UCs. So what should you do if you are undocumented? You just put in no selection.
You don't put that you are a U.S. citizen. You also don't put that you are a citizen of a different country. You just leave it blank. Once you do that, the UC will know that you are an undocumented student who probably qualifies for DACA. So keep that in mind. I think that's really, really important. And then also when you're filling out the portion about the household income, be very precise with that because based on that, you will automatically be given fee waivers.
Campuses and Majors Section
What do we need to know?
Definitely educate yourself on that before you're at the point where you have to choose.
.Yeah, it's it is campus specific. You choose a different major or program for each campus when you're applying there. You know, this particular session didn't cover it, but in previous years, we've heard multiple times from UC counselors on individual campuses that there's no penalty for applying undeclared. They are generally pretty supportive of the idea that a student wants to explore different interests before committing to a major.
There are some exceptions of specific majors that you have to be directly admitted into at certain campuses. But the majority of programs that the majority of campuses are not like that. So you can apply as "undeclared"; work on prerequisites, figure out what you know, what subject you want to maybe focus on for your junior and senior year, and then make that change, you know, and declare your major officially by that point.
Yeah. There is another pitfall though in the majors' section, actually Shawnie, you reminded me of it. A lot of students select the primary major that they're interested in and they don't select an alternate major. Even most UCs give you the opportunity to select an alternate major.
So really, you know, there's another pitfall in that section, looking only at that list that pops up.
Instead, a highly recommend you go to the actual UCs. So if it's UC Merced you go to UC Merced’s actual website where you
click on academics and look at all their majors and read about each one so that you make sure that the one you're selecting is the one you're actually interested in. That's really important because something might sound like one thing, but really be another. And sometimes you also have the same name major in two different departments. So understanding what that actually means to study [insert subject]?
You know, physics could happen. Yeah, there might be something physics related in the engineering school and there might be something physics related in the arts and sciences school. So take a look at what each one of those means so that you can choose which one is your first choice, versus which one would you contemplate as an alternative major.
If you don't get in for your first choice, they will then take a look at your application for your second choice. If you don't get in for your second choice, they will then consider you as undeclared. I believe so. Definitely make sure that you are picking an alternate major unless, of course, you're like
"No. it's my way or the highway. Like, this is. This is I'm only doing this." That's okay if you are that. Sure, that's fine. But just know that you know, people change their minds and if it could help you get in, you know, you might want to just pick an alternate major that is a little bit less competitive than your main major, depending on whether the campus that you're applying to, admits by major.
Yeah. Sometimes there's even a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in the same major. Right. And yeah.
And it's and you can look up this is what I would recommend to students if you're not sure of the difference, go on the website, look up the course roadmap or be something along those lines like a course roadmap, a major undergraduate plan.
Yeah, you can actually. Yeah. Curriculum and you can see which courses are required and then also which courses are optional that you can choose from a list. Take four of these 20, that kind of thing, and you'll see the difference. I mean, in short, you know, a Bachelor of Science usually involves more math and science coursework. A Bachelor of Arts is more liberal arts, so more kind of wide range of subjects in the humanities and social sciences and arts.
Academic History Section
When do you need to report 7th and 8th-grade classes?
Yeah, actually brings me to —sorry, William —to a part where you really have to watch out for what the class reporting if you're taking if you've taken Spanish one in eighth grade, maybe you took algebra one, or math one, also in eighth grade. And then as a freshman in high school, you went into Spanish 2, Math 2, and Algebra 2, right? Then you need to make sure to report your seventh and eighth-grade classes.
Otherwise, it's going to look like you didn't actually take those classes, which means that you will not be able to fulfill all your A-G requirements.
So just keep an eye out for that. That's not going to be under the high school section. That's going to be in a shorter, kind of easy-to-miss and easy-to-skip section for seventh and eighth-grade courses.
But also, if you did not take any introductory math or language courses like Spanish one, or math one, or Algebra one, in seventh or eighth grade, then don't feel bad. That's normal. Most people don't, and you just fill that section out as a "No, I have nothing to report", so don't worry about filling that section out. If you have nothing, that's totally normal.
But if you did take those classes, don't skip that section, because otherwise, you're going to be like, wait, they say, I only have three years of math, but I know I did for me. So you see something like that. If you see a little error message or just like a Hey, are you sure you input this right?
Definitely double and triple-check that. And that's where I'm saying, you know, really use your transcript very specifically because the way that you have to self-report all of your courses and grades, it's really it really gets into the nitty gritty. It's the very annoying part of this app, but it also allows you to not have to send a transcript.
Do you need to send a copy of your transcript to UC campuses?
So you actually don't need to send a mid-year report. You only need to send a transcript if you end up enrolling at the UC and then you need to make sure it gets sent by July 1st.
I think that's really interesting how just about everything is self-recorded, including exam scores, which is a different beast when it comes to talking about the ACT and SAT that well probably get to, but you know, just in general, you, you know, as you mentioned, Josefine, self-report your courses in grades. You don't send a transcript until the very end of the process.
And ultimately, that's just if you get an offer of admission and you accept it, which, you know, because that happens before the end of your senior year. So they're not going to get your transcript until after all that they trust you up until that point that you're being honest about your grades. They trust you with your activities. They trust you with any test scores, you know, all other information that you report, which is different than a lot of other colleges where a counselor is an important part of the process because the counselor, the school counselor sends the transcript to the school, sends you some other document, stands out. There's a recommendation.
Letters of a letter, even teachers, because that's a good way for other schools to verify. Like, is a student truthful in their application if their letter rec doesn't mention anything about them also being student-athlete or something like that, even though everything else says they're an excellent water polo player, it's like, wait a second. But on the UC app, there's no discrepancy because you're the only one telling the school and the UCs anything about you. It's very interesting.
But the others.
If you don't need to send a transcript, how much can you fudge on your application?
But that's the other side of it the reason they can do that in a sense is the reason they can do that in one way is that they do verify in the end. So you can't lie about it because they are going to ultimately get a transcript. If you lie about having taken a certain course or the grade you got in it, and especially if you do that for multiple courses and then you get an offer somewhere ultra-competitive like UCLA or UC Berkeley, let's say, or honestly, any of the other campuses do.
They're all very selective. You know, they're going to see that eventually because they're going to get a transcript from your school. And so
They're all very selective. You know, they're going to see that eventually because they're going to get a transcript from your school. And so it's like in a certain way, they're very trusting. But also there is a kind of safety net for it. And, you know, the aspect of it that I have to be honest, that I did not know.
And so listening to this session is something that Josefine already mentioned, is that they can do random verification of activities, you know, so it's almost like.
I didn't know that either.
Yeah, for those who have applied for jobs before, you know, you need to references get checked so you can't lie about that kind of thing. It's kind of like that. It's like you better be honest because there isn't. There's a decent chance they won't, but random means it could be anyone. So if you lie about an activity and you end up being the one who got polled, it's like being audited for your taxes.
You know, another thing for principal, you never know if you're going to end up being, you know, you have to be honest because one year you're signing legal agreements that you're telling the truth essentially. And two, because they can verify that. And so put those two things together and, you know, you can be in a heap of trouble if you are lying.
And so so yeah, not to not to overplay that point, but I just find that to be really interesting and it's definitely worth getting, getting that point across to students. Just it is important to be very honest.
Test Scores Section
Which test scores can you use and how can you show English language proficiency (if you haven't taken 3 years of English).
If you have taken the SAT or ACT and are applying to other colleges and using your test scores, don't waste your time searching around on the application for where to share those scores because they removed the ability to do that. So this is the first year where it's just not even on there.
You can't share your score. You can still share old S.A.T. subject tests if you took those before they were done away with. You can share AP and IB exams and you can share English language proficiency. And that's actually the one exception if you took the S.A.T. and you're going to use it for English language proficiency, you can share that sub-score just the English language sub score for you for your proficiency.
Activities and Awards Section
What are some common mistakes that students make?
The other one, I would say, is kind of what I was mentioning about the activities list really don't miss out on opportunities to share about yourself.
I have so many students who are like, okay, I have my activities list, it's done. And they show me and I'm like, Well, these five things on here are great, but I know like another six things about you that I can't see anywhere on this application. And they're like, Oh, wait, I'm allowed to put babysitting. Oh, I can, I can put that.
I play the clarinet even though I'm not in a band or anything. Like, Yes, please, like they want to know this stuff. So definitely I feel like that's where I see the most because students focus a lot on writing their personal insights, and question responses. Although of course there's the pitfall if a student doesn't know how to really treat it like several drafts, you know, you're trying to really perfect it, if they just type straight into it, that's a huge pitfall is they don't take that seriously.
But most students do and have heard that you know, these four responses are quite important and they put a lot of effort and energy into it, but they kind of forget that the activities should be approached, the same way rough drafting and, you know, running it by a second reader and really making sure everything makes it on there because that's a lot of waste of real estate, as we like to say if you miss out on that.
What kind of information should students include when describing their activities?
I think it's important in the activity section to not just describe the activity as anyone would describe the activity if they were also involved in it, just in their own world, in their own state, in their own school, and in their own lives instead, really describe what you did in the activity. Of course, if it's something that they may not have heard of, like, for example, don't assume that everyone knows what Youth in Government is.
That's a California-specific program called Y and G or Youth in Government. So you do have to explain what that is. There is a space for that. But then when it comes to what did you do, really talk about what you did. Don't just describe, oh, you know, thousands of students came together for a conference in Fresno and then in Sacramento.
Instead, tell me “I organized and ran for the office of X, Y, and Z. I got 500 votes voting me into office for that year.” Right.?
You want to be very specific about what you did and what recognition you received for it.
Like a resume?
Yeah, exactly. Shawnie, that's perfect. That's exactly what you want to lead with an action verb. Basically, treat it like a bullet point list. Even though you're not going to write it in bullet point format, you don't need it to be full sentences. You can say led a group of 22 to win the semifinals period and organized a fundraiser to gain $1,000 towards our trip period.
To see how I started. Each one of those with an active verb led, organized and I find out something very specific that the student did and what it led to for them and for their community. So that's really what we want to know. Kind of what were your responsibilities and what was your impact if you received any formal recognition also, what was that?
And I want to add another caveat to that activities list. You know, I just gave an example of something that's really structured, that's really kind of school, we call it. Yeah, it's just kind of like checked off as a school thing too, right? It's one of your extracurriculars, but you can put whatever you want in the activities list.
You can put additional classes that you took that don't fit the A-G requirements. Maybe you did a Duolingo Hebrew class during COVID, right? Put that in there. Put in there that you did a Duolingo Hebrew class. That's awesome.
Maybe you love drawing even though you've never entered any contests and have done anything specific or taken apart or anything like that. But you draw every day, put that in there, and talk about what you draw, why you do it, what techniques you use, and what you love about it. They want to know these are facets that they can't see about you anywhere else. If you have family obligations and you take care of your siblings every day, every week, or whatever, maybe once a month, pop that on there.
Maybe you're helping your elderly grandparent a couple of times a week. Those things should go on there.
So really ask yourself, hey, in any given week, what do I actually spend my time doing?
For me personally? For example, I cook a lot. Not necessarily because I need to cook to eat. Like I could make my meals simpler, but I take a little more time because I love trying out new recipes.
So if I were applying to you see, I would probably put on there that I spend about 6 to 10 hours cooking per week because I love trying out new recipes and then I might give them a couple of examples of which ones I liked and why I like it. That's totally you can you can pop that on there.
How many activities should you list?
Yeah, so I think one thing that's different about the activity section, there are a couple of things. One is the number of spaces you're allowed, which is 20, which is twice as many as you're allowed on the common app. So that's more of an opportunity. And the UC presenters made sure to stress that the number of activities you have on your application is not a factor.
It's not something to be stressed about if you're not filling out all the spaces if you have five activities. And that's, you know, satisfactorily describes how you spend your time outside of school or outside of the class, then that's great. Don't stress about not having enough, but the other thing that's different that's worth mentioning is the structure of the section is different in the sense that there are, what, five or six different types of activity categories and you have to choose the activity category before you do anything else.
And the category that you choose changes what the boxes to fill in is for that particular activity. So like there's extracurricular activities, there's volunteering, there's other coursework and you know, and a few other ones too.
And so I would just say pay attention to the specific questions being asked and don't assume that all of the questions are prompts for each activity type are the same because they do differ depending on what they ask you to share in differs depending on the category.
And usually, there's a space to add to share a little bit about like if it's an organization thing, they'll give you a room to share about the organization work experience, they'll give you a box to share about the employer. And then there's also a box to share about your involvement in that. So you can provide both the context of it and your specific involvement.
What about the "other coursework section"? Should students report classes that are outside of the A-G requirement?
Yeah, I think the other coursework option under the activities section is underused. And a lot of times because other coursework is, you know, what does that mean? It's anything that's not an A-G requirement and that's quite a bit for some schools some students I mean through entry requirements are English math science, social sciences for English, or language other than English they call it arts.
And then one year of electives. So if you have more, you know, if you have additional coursework beyond any of those requirements, that can be a good place to put that something like health or PE may not seem that exciting to share, but like students might have taken like a film course or economics or rope course work at their school career training course where, you know, there's a private school that we work closely with the Waldorf School, and they take quite a few classes that are very cool, you know, very cool subjects to be learning and like very interesting and academic information.
But they're not they don't have official A-G status. And so, you know, I definitely encourage students to report the courses that they found to be the most informative and interesting that are not A -G courses on their UC application. There's a little bit of space to talk about, you know, what did you learn in the course? What was valuable? What made it meaningful to you?
Fees and Scholarships
How much does it cost to submit a UC application? Are there fee waivers?
If you are going to apply for a fee waiver— if you believe you would qualify— you can only use it for four campuses. So there is a maximum of four free applications that you can do. So you would have to pay for the fifth and beyond. So just to be aware of that and also one thing that was mentioned at the end that it might be kind of an obvious point for anyone who knows.
So for free applications where you don't have to pay the $70 application fee or for international students, it's $80 per campus. Right? So if you want to apply to several UCs, that can add up real quick. So definitely make sure to take a look at that section because the fee waiver thing, it's one of those conditional items. It will automatically appear on your application as a hey here, you, you qualified for this.
If you want to take advantage of that then you have to select "Yes, I will use them." And then you get four free apps. So that's a great one too that I don't want anyone to miss out on. Now the UC application also accept accepts any other fee waivers like NACAC Fee waivers and things like that.
So I highly recommend speaking with your school counselor if you do feel like it is a financial burden for you to apply to the UCs that you'd like to apply to and see what other options there are. Just in case you didn't qualify for the automatic fee waivers through its system. What should first-generation, foster kids, and US veterans keep in mind?
And then, you know, shortly after that section, one more thing that may be relevant to some students and I think it's a good point to make is there's a section that asks about a few background details or the heading is, please tell us more about yourself. It's also optional, but it asks for things like if you've ever been in a foster home or you know if you had foster youth status or veteran status, you don't need to check if you have.
But if you do, the value of doing that is that the system can the UC system can provide new resources and programs that can be helpful to students that are of that status.
Yeah. And there are scholarships based on that stuff so highly. So that's one of the things that every applicant should always remember about the UC application, it's not just your application for admission, it's also your scholarship application. Any information you put on there would allow them, the UC, to match you with resources that they have specifically for someone of your background, whether that means first generation immigrant, first-generation college, someone who was in the foster system, someone who served in the military or whatever it might be.
You may have access to really great support services as well as financial aid based on that. So definitely highly recommend those optional things. Just fill them out because there's really nothing to be lost in it. There are only things to be gained that you might not be aware of since you're not on the inside.
After you finish
What should you look for after you submit your application?
And I would, I would open that up to this applies to any university. If you don't get an email saying thank you for applying, you probably didn't apply. So, you know, it's not just the UC app, it's also the common app or any other university-specific application. Always, always make sure you get a confirmation email because they should be sending you something about how to log into a portal specific to that university to check your admission status, which is super important, that you then continue following up with that because that portal will be different from the portal where you submitted your application.
If you don't get the email and you're pretty sure you submitted the application, what do you do next? This is something that I've I've had students ask recently. The contact school's admissions office at that school. Tell them I submitted my application and I'm almost positive I did, but I did not receive my temporary pin or my login information for the application
The application status portal is a way you can check and verify applications received. or would you be able to send an email to me with this temporary PIN number and the registration information?
Ops! You made a mistake on your application. Can you go back in and fix it?
You can't for the most part, you can change your personal information about you and you can change one other thing...what was it?
Update your course selection I think. Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
But you can't change your academic history. You can't change your activities or PIQs or any of that, just by logging into your application again. If you do need to make any important updates to any of that stuff, you'd have to contact the campuses individually and do it one by one with each campus. Yeah.
And each campus is going to tell you at a different time they're not going to release their decisions on the same day. And so that's what you can then see on their separate application portals.
How do you show demonstrated interest?
My daughter just came into the recording here. Anyone who is aware of the concept of demonstrated interest, the uses do not use it. So it's not something at this point that was made in regards to workshops. They do a lot of really good application workshops that are offered by campuses specifically. Those are great to do. Just don't be under the impression that doing it increases your odds of getting accepted because they don't use demonstrated interest as part of the process.
Any last insight?
Yeah. I would just say, you know, do your best to fill it out. Make sure you are pre-writing anything that wants more than three words basically and then copying and pasting it and checking your grammar, all that fun stuff. And if you can have someone look over your information just to make sure you didn't miss something big.
But good luck. You have until November 30th to submit it. Don't do it at 11:59 on November 30. Please don't you see at my crash you will be wondering why everything is moving so slowly. It'll feel like it's dial-up modem time again for those of you out there who still know what that is. So, so try to submit it a few days before it's actually due this year.
They did open it up so that the submission period is actually two months instead of just one month from October 1st all the way to November 30th. So my big recommendation, get it in before Thanksgiving and enjoy a break.
Josefine Borrmann and William Giacchi are UC application veterans, attend the University of California's annual counselor's conference each year, and have helped hundreds of students navigate tough articulation problems (academic courses), find amazing UC majors, and perfect their activities section /PIQ statements. To find out if we're the right one-on-one counselor for your family, book a free consultation or learn more about our college counseling program.