Pick the 4 Best UC Personal Insight Questions for YOU!
If you’re applying to any of the University of California schools, you need to write four short essays.
To start, read through all eight of the Personal Insight Questions you have to choose from.
(Find specific ideas and strategies for each of the 8 new Personal Insight Questions at the bottom of this post!)
The goal is to write four short essays that as a whole will provide the UC admissions deciders with a picture of what makes you unique and special—and help set you apart from the competition.
Think of each short piece (no longer than 350 each) as a lens for them to see and understand different parts of you.
Also, keep in mind how these four pieces fit together to showcase your character and personality as a whole.
Each short piece for your Personal Insight Questions should feature an interesting topic on its own. And all four topics should complement each other to paint a varied and balanced picture.
In effect, these four short essays will serve as your one personal statement, which colleges and universities use to help decide if you will be a fit at their institution.
The best ones are engaging (especially at the start), meaningful and memorable.
Here are some strategies, tips and ideas on how to pull this off
and ace your Personal Insight Questions:
Read all eight questions first. Then read them again.
The UC Admissions Department has worked hard to provide you many tips and brainstorming ideas to help you respond to their Personal Insight Questions. Make sure to use them.
There’s no better way to learn what they want from you, and how to give it to them.
Start with the Personal Insight Questions and related instructions, then read about each prompt on the PDF writing worksheet, and also check out their Writing Tips, especially the tips on Avoiding Common Mistakes in sidebar box (below). It can be overwhelming, but they cover everything.
Note which ones you like the best right off the top, and take notes of any ideas that pop out on your first read.
For each prompt, figure out what it wants you to write about, and then brainstorm specific examples from real-life to illustrate your topic. This will make sure each mini-essay has a clear topic and focus, and isn’t too general and dull.
Pick your favorite prompt and write it out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s a great starting point, since you will see that these aren’t that hard and embolden you to move to the next.
As you get ideas for the different prompts, start to think about how your topics will work together. Make sure your topics don’t overlap and that you highlight something distinctly different about yourself in each essay.
Look for topics that showcase parts of you or your experiences and accomplishments that admissions officers would not learn about in other parts of your application. Use those!
Let yourself write in different styles and tones with these essays. Some might be more serious and others lighter in nature. That’s a good way to add variety and interest to your total essay package.
Even though these are shorter essays, you still need to make them interesting to read, especially at the start. Make sure not to simply answer directly each question.
For example, don’t start your essay for Prompt 6 (about your favorite subject) with something like: “My favorite academic subject is math. It has influenced me in many ways…”
Instead, think of your favorite subject, and then brainstorm what first inspired you or excited you about it, and start with that specific example of the “time.” Or start with a specific example of “a time” you were challenged in that subject, and why you then got hooked on it.
Since there are four separate essays, consider taking more of a risk with at least one of the essays. Think a little out of the box for your topic idea, or use a more creative writing style or approach.
Even short essays can be dull. One of the best ways to inject interest is to think of some type of problem that relates to your topic, whether it’s leadership, creativity, talent, skill, favorite subjects or volunteer work. Start by relating that specific problematic “time” or incident and go from there.
Consider starting with the last of the Personal Insight Questions, Prompt 8, about what “sets you apart.” It is the most open-ended, and brainstorming for topic ideas can spark ideas for the other UC prompts, or even prompts for other longer essays, such as The Common Application or Coalition main essay. (In fact, you can use any or all of the 8 UC prompts to inspire topic ideas for your other required essays!)
If you faced some type of hardship in your life or background, strongly consider writing one of your essays about Personal Insight Question 5. This is your chance to show the UC what obstacles or barriers you have overcome to achieve your current accomplishments. It makes a big difference when they understand how far you have come!
If you are considering writing about Personal Insight Questions Prompt 4 and your educational experiences, notice that it’s really two separate questions asking about either an education opportunity or an educational barrier. Don’t try to answer both questions in your one essay. Pick one or the other to make sure you have a focused essay.
The best way to avoid a dull essay is to look for ways to “show” about your point instead of just “tell” about it. (Showing uses examples; telling explains.)
For example, for Prompt 3 (about a talent or skill), instead of explaining how and why you are great at the piano, think of “a time” or moment that you faced some type of challenge involving your piano playing and start with that. Don’t just tell (explain) how you got good at it and how good you are. That would not go over well. Give specific examples so the readers can see for themselves. This “Show First” approach applies to almost all eight prompts.
Every student works differently when it comes to thinking and writing. Some might like to pick the four that appeal to them and crank out four, rough short essays, and then go back and see how they fit together, and edit and change them to produce a strong mix.
Others might want to start with the one they feel the strongest about, polish it up and then go onto the second and do the same. No matter what your style, at some point, read your four essays to look for overlap and make sure you have diversity and balance.
Remember that the UC is weighing all four essays equally. So don’t put all your energy into just one or even two of the essays. Make sure they can each stand alone as interesting and complete essays about one main point.
The word limit is 350 for each Personal Insight Questions essay. There’s no minimum. I would make sure to write at least 250 for each essay, and best to shoot for 300-350 to take advantage of the space. Why waste a single word? (The total word count is 1,400)
I would write your essays on a Word doc or by hand, and then transfer the final essays to the UC application only when you are finished. Don’t include the entire prompt; just the number, such as “Prompt 3.”
Consider how to order your Personal Insight Questions essays. You could go in the order of the numbers of the ones you wrote about. My opinion, however, would be to put your strongest (most engaging and interesting) essay at the top, and work down by variety and strength from there. Don’t stress about this; just something to try.
Write these short essays as you would a longer personal essay. Use the first person (“I” and “me” and “my” and “us.” Avoid “you”!). Do not simply list accomplishments, achievements, awards and work. Avoid overdone or cliche topics. Seek feedback from a trusted person. Proofread closely before submitting.
This might be the best for last: One way to approach these essays strategically would be to first write down the activities, accomplishments, personal qualities, core values, meaningful experiences and other aspects of yourself that you want to showcase to the UCs.
Then scroll through the 8 Personal Insight Questions and match up which prompts would best showcase these features in your essays. That way, you are in command of shaping the picture of yourself that you want to show the UCs, instead of randomly writing essays to answer the prompts.
If you actually read all these 21 tips, then you are obviously a serious student and someone who does their homework.
Now, take a deep breath and do your best not to over-stress on these. These four essays will not make or break your chance at a UC school. They are just one piece of your application. Give them your best shot.
Keep everything in perspective. You are already ahead of the pack and will land in an amazing school!
One of the best tips the UC admissions provided are these common pitfalls—especially because they are the experts at how students in the past have hurt their essays:
Avoid common mistakes in Your Personal Insight Essays:
- Talking about one campus: You’re talking to all UC campuses you apply to in your responses
- Inappropriate use of humor
- Creative writing (poems, clichés)
- Quotations: We want to know your thoughts & words, not someone else’s
- Generalities: Stick to facts and personal examples
- Repetition: Give us new info. we can’t find in other sections of the application
- Asking philosophical questions: Get to the point and tell us what you mean
- Acronyms: Spell it out for us!
Above all, don’t sweat these.
These Personal Insight Questions essays are just one piece of your application.
These are all about a subject you know better than anything else: Yourself!
Now just spend some time to figure out what parts you want to spotlight, and get cranking.
If it helps, here are the 8 questions without the additional advice if you want to compare them:
Freshman applicants: Personal insight questions
Answer any 4 of the following 8 questions: (click blue to see post on that 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.
- 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.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- 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?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- 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?
If you need more help with these, I offer tutoring and editing services. Learn more on my SERVICES page.
Check Out These Related Posts!
If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.
I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of these questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.
Too busy to read all those posts? No worries.
Start with these 10 basic tips to make sure
your UC essays hit the mark:
- Content: Use these essays to share more about your talents, accomplishments and experiences, and explain what they meant to you (eg What you learned about yourself). Pick prompts that allow you to feature what you want to add to your overall application; not simply ones that are easiest to answer. Say you worked as an intern in a science lab; this is your chance to explain what you did and learned. Or that you played classical piano since age six; this is where you can go deeper and share how that shaped you somehow beyond your playing ability.
- Impact: The best trick to making your essay engaging and meaningful is to include some type of related problem. For example, if you are writing about leadership (#1), look for examples from your past where you tackled some type of problem in a leadership role. (Problems=challenges, mistake, obstacle, setback, conflict, phobia, flaw, obsession, change, etc.) This can work for all eight prompts.
- Substance: Always include specific examples (moments, incidents or experiences from your life) to support your main points in these UC essays. If you don’t have at least one of these real-life details in each essay, it’s almost a done deal that your essay is far too general and will lack meaning. If possible, start your essay with one of these specific examples to grab your reader at the start; then explain their larger meaning and go from there. (Example: If you are talking about leadership, start with a specific “time” you acted as a leader in a group setting. Then explain what qualities you used, your thoughts about what leadership means to you, and why, and what you learned.)
- Meaning: In the second half of any of these UC essays you can’t go wrong if you shift from explaining your answer, and supporting it with real-life examples, into explaining WHAT YOUR LEARNED about YOURSELF in the process. This is how you can share something you did, and what you love, or how you are, and also expand into WHAT YOUR LEARNED in the process. If you want to shift even deeper, include a sentence or two on WHY IT MATTERS to you and the world that you learned that lesson.
- Hardship: If you have experienced any type of hardship in your life, such as a major financial setback in your family due to job loss, low income, deportation, mental or physical illness, or other reasons, make sure to use at least one of these prompts to share that with the UCs. The best one (in fact, it’s designed for this purpose) is #4, at least the second half asking about an “educational barrier you have faced.” You can also use #5 about a “significant challenge,” just make sure to include second part about how it affected your academics. The UCs want to know if it has been more difficult for you to achieve your success so far, and why. Also, if you will be a first-gen student (first in your family to attend college), tell them! (You can also use the “Additional Comments” section in the Other Academic History section to share personal obstacles to your success.)
- Majors: If you know what field you want to study or major in at the UCs, it would be a good idea to use one of these prompts to showcase that, and include what inspired you and why you want to pursue it, and how. (Colleges like to see this.) You could use almost any of the eight UC essays to share your intended field of study or major, or even the general field that interests you at this point. Find the prompts that most naturally allows you to work what you want to say into your related topic.
- Effort: These prompts can feel overwhelming at first. Read through all eight so you get a sense of the different topics and options. If any of them spark an idea of a related experience or point you want to showcase about yourself, consider writing about that one. At the same time, you can make a list of the experiences, accomplishments, talents or whatever you want to share with the UCs, and then find the prompt that makes it the easiest to write about them.
- Strategy: When you pick your four prompts for your UC essays, make sure the points you make, or the major experiences you share, don’t overlap. Ideally, you want these to highlight a variety of your experiences, accomplishments and talents, but also your defining qualities and values. Look for variety and balance among the four your write about. Make sure your essays are about YOU, and YOUR experiences, and not general discussions about your topic or others.
- Style: The UCs have made a huge effort to get out the word that these short essays do not need to be literary masterpieces. Of course, try to know the MAIN POINT you want to make in each one so they have a focus, and support that with specific details and real-life examples. Start with something specific, if possible, and then state the more general main point, and finally, share what you learned. Write in a casual, familiar tone; don’t try to impress with fancy descriptive language or big words; get out a rough draft and then go back and trim under 350 words and proof it for errors. Don’t sweat these!
- Formatting: When you copy and paste your four Personal Insight Question UC essays into the application, it only accepts plain text. That means any formatting you did will be lost. So, for indicating paragraphs, do not indent and instead break them up with a double space. Instead of italics (which won’t show), use quotation marks to indicate things like titles, foreign words, etc. Bolding also doesn’t show; instead use CAPS, but sparingly.
Extra Tip: If you need to explain anything about your academic performance (such as issues related to your grades or performance), don’t necessarily use these UC essays to explain why. Instead, there are two places to share these explanations in the “Additional Comments” section of the UC application: One is under “Other Academic History” and the other with the “Personal Insight Questions.” (Read how UC Berkeley advises applicants to use the Additional Comments section.)
In general, only use these two sections to explain unusual circumstances that you didn’t address in the four Personal Insight Question essays. Examples: changes in your grade patterns; a move in high school that prevented you from taking higher level courses; medical or psychological issues that affected your performance; financial issues (parental job loss; homelessness; low-income); immigration status issues, such as you are first generation (first in your family to attend college: MENTION THIS!) or deportation of family members; unexplained gaps in educational history, such as gap year or other absence. They are not essays so be direct and succinct; bullets points often work well.
If you want more help on specific Personal Insight Questions and UC essa, check out these 21 Tips for UC Personal Insight Questions that I wrote last year when they first came out. All the info and advice is still relevant and helpful.