University of Illinois Essay Prompts

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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asks for two supplemental essays, both quite short. Both of these essays relate to your choice of major; one looks forward, and the other back. We encourage you to write about extracurricular involvement for both of these; due to how short both essays are, you will likely not run out of material.

We’ll analyze an example of each essay, and explain what the author did well, and what UIUC is looking for when they ask these questions.

Career Goals - Example

How does your selected first-choice major relate to your future career goals?* (150 words)

My drive to create change was spurred at an AI4ALL summer camp, where we learned about the intricacies of image recognition, natural language processing, and different mind blowing applications of AI that I thought could only exist in sci-fi movies. When my group started working on our Disaster Relief project where we used NLP to classify tweets after disasters into those asking for help or not, I realized problem solving was my dopamine. Do we use a supervised or unsupervised ML algorithm? How do we read all the tweets from a document and which data structure will we use to store them? Should we use a confusion matrix or an AUC-ROC curve to measure efficiency of the 5 ML algorithms we wrote to choose one? Forcing myself to think on a deeper level than I ever have, I pushed myself to draw diagrams, ask questions, scour the internet, and iteratively develop code. It culminated in writing a program that could help millions after natural disasters. As someone who’s passionate about solving problems regarding mental health, law enforcement, and biases in technology, I could clearly envision using computer science to combat all these issues. Computer science was a tool to bring the impossible within reach. Now, opening a blank text editor, I know computer science was my way to create a real impact in people’s lives.

Career Goals - Analysis

This question asks about both your major, and your future plans with it. UIUC does not expect you to know the future, or predict perfectly where your studies will take you. Their goal with this question is to get a sense of your goals and aspirations, and to see what drives your desire to study the topic you chose for your major.

In the example above, the author spends most of the essay talking about their past experience with computer science, and why they enjoy it so much. It is only towards the end that they describe the sorts of problems they want to tackle in the field. They are not specific about what career exactly they want to have, but instead describe the kinds of work they have enjoyed doing, and express a desire to do so on a grander scale.

There are myriad careers available within the field of computer science, and the author has clearly not settled on one; instead being interested in the field generally. They do want to study and try to solve big problems, and use programming to make the previously impossible become real and easily accessible. 

This is a good way to answer this question if you are certain about the field you want to work in, but less certain about career. If you have a passion for a certain field, or aspects of it, display them, and explain why it excites you so much. What problems do you want to address? What questions do you want to answer? What about this topic excites you and draws you in?

If, however, you do know exactly what career you want to pursue, we encourage you to discuss it. Further, you should explain how the major you have chosen, and its related field of study, will help you advance towards your stated goal. 

If you want to be a doctor, explain how biology will give you an understanding of the basics of medicine, or how sociology will help you address your patients better. If you plan on going into business, explain how statistics will help you understand the market, or how economics will enable you to track and take advantage of future trends.

Whatever career you wish to pursue, explain how the major will give you the tools to do so. If you have past experience in the major, you can discuss some of that as well, but this will be covered in more depth in your other essay.

Experiences - Example

In the past 3 to 4 years, what experience(s) have you had (inside or outside of the classroom) related to your selected first-choice major or academic interest?

Freshman year summer, I attended a 3 week AI4ALL Summer Program at Arizona State University where I had hands-on experience learning about AI and ML. My final project was called Disaster Relief which used Natural Language Processing to classify whether a tweet is asking for help or not after a natural disaster. In order to choose the most accurate algorithm, I coded various machine learning algorithms including naive bayes, support vector machines, K-nearest neighbors and neural networks.

Sophomore year, I engineered an automated trash can system, named iSortTrash, that used convolutional neural networks to classify recyclables. This autonomous trash can has 3 cameras, each running separate 2D convolutional neural networks. The 3 cameras take an image of the trash placed, and the trash is classified into 5 categories: plastic, glass, paper, cardboard, metal. (have each LED panel light up) Based on the category, the correct LEDs light up and the human can place their trash in that bin. The prototype uses a server client model where the laptop is the server and the raspberry pi is the client. The 3 pictures taken were sent from the raspberry pi, over to the server which classified the image and came up with 1 final output, which is then sent back to the raspberry pi which sent an electrical signal to the corresponding LED.

Sophomore year summer, in a 12 week Artificial Intelligence and Data Science Program, I developed a suicide prevention app that utilized facial analysis, habit tracking, and voice recognition, giving me experience with coding software which can analyze videos, images, and speech.

Junior year summer I attended the Jerome Fisher Management & Technology Summer Institute at UPENN where my group created Pillola, which is the reinvention of the pill bottle that aims to tackle the issues of pill security and medication management. The bottle reminds the user to take their medication with audio alerts and mobile notifications, dispenses the correct doses at scheduled times, and provides secure access with fingerprint identification. With the Pillola app, both seniors and their loved ones are able to track every aspect of pill usage, including whether the pill was taken and at what time. The app records this information in detail by tracking user input from the keypad sent through the NodeMCU over the cloud.

Through various computer science classes, including AP Computer Science A, AP computer science principles, robotics honors, and computer science 2 honors, I became fluent in various programming languages including Java and python. I also was able to teach other people programming by running the Girls Who Code club and teaching my CS classes at school.

Experiences - Analysis

This is less of an essay, and more of an expansion of your activities list. UIUC wants to know what you have learned and accomplished that relates to your desired major. This will be easier to answer for some majors than others, and some students will have more to talk about. The purpose of this essay is to show what you know, and to demonstrate your commitment to the topic you wish to study.

In the example above, the author clearly has a lot of experience with computer science and can cover all of it. First, they discuss their involvement in extracurriculars chronologically before concluding with a brief overview of computer science related coursework they’ve done.

Their essay focuses on the projects they’ve done, what specifically they achieved with each, and what they learned each time. This is not a narrative essay, but a summary of accomplishments and learning experiences. The focus on projects and achievements is important, as demonstrating the ability to create something and to see a project through to completion is a good indicator to a university that you are well equipped to do so in the future.

This essay is rather long because the author has a lot of experiences to discuss; they have done a lot within their chosen field. Note that the essay does not take time to discuss their emotional involvement in the field; there is no space for that. Instead they talk with clear passion without saying explicitly that they have passion for the field.

If you have fewer experiences, you should describe each of them in more depth. While the other essay that UIUC asks for covers the “why” of the major more, you can include that information here as well. You should still focus on concrete projects and accomplishments wherever possible.

Some majors, like paleontology or archaeology, are not easy to experience while still in high school, due to practical limitations. Fortunately, these fields also tend to be undersubscribed, so there will be less competition for spaces in these majors. If you have no practical experience outside of school with your major at all, you should focus on which classes you took prepared you for it, and how you were inspired to pursue the major in the first place.

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