Nailing the University of California Personal Insight Questions

by | Nov 1, 2019

In 2017, the University of California – one of the world’s most prestigious public university systems – replaced the personal statement requirement with a set of “personal insight questions.” These University of California personal insight questions require students to pick four questions out of eight and provide 350-word answers.

The university’s website says it hopes these requirements will enable students to provide context to their applications (“if we met face-to-face, what would you want us to know about you?”). At the same time, they certainly will make the application process more complex for students and parents, who have now to write the UC answers in addition to the Common Application essay, supplemental essays, and in some cases, the Coalition Application essay.

A Few Tips

Here are a few thoughts and tips to keep your application process on track.

  • Any essay prompt offers the opportunity to write about and highlight moments in your life when something changed, or when you changed as a result of that experience, says Jane Hirschhorn, essay coach.
  • Writing four short essays is significantly harder than writing one longer essay because you have to come up with four topics. So make sure you allow time to write these statements. It’s virtually impossible to write them just days (or even a week) before they are all due.
  • Line up your community early, or get professional help to edit your essays. Family members can be a great resource in editing and revising your essay and brainstorming essay topics. So can friends and other mentors. Or schedule a free consultation with LifeLaunchr, so you can get an expert eye to help you create, revise, and edit your essay.

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions

The UC Personal Insight Questions don’t require you to write narrative essays. Instead, focus on answering the questions clearly and concisely, and provide relevant details of your life experiences, as LifeLaunchr coach Jamie Wallace explained in this 2018 webinar with LifeLaunchr founder Venkates Swaminathan:

The University of California Personal Insight Questions

Here are the eight PIQs, with tips on how to address them. The University says you should “select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.”

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

Leadership is a constant theme in college applications, so think through the situations in life when you’ve displayed leadership or led a team. It could be at school, in your religious community, or in a community group. For many students, this is a great opportunity to write about your experiences being on a sports team. It could even involve your family or friends.

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.

The premise behind this question is that “every person has a creative side.” So even if you think creativity isn’t your most important talent, ask a friend or family member for instances of when you showed your creative streak. Maybe you dress in a way that expresses your creativity or have a talent for music or art you’d like to share.

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

Remember, it’s up to you to interpret the word “talent.” It doesn’t have to be conventional, like playing the violin or soccer. Of course, it could be those things. But it could also be your ability to create diverse relationships with different kinds of people or be a connector. Think outside the box. And show how you worked on this skill, and that you didn’t just rely on natural ability.

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

This question asks about both opportunities and barriers. For some people, you’d want to write about an educational opportunity. Maybe you went on a trip to Africa to work on a farm or took a course in robotics or video game development. But it might also be a barrier you’ve worked to overcome. One student I coached spoke of his family’s circumstances: a brother who was in prison, a sister who’d dropped out, a father who worked to support his family from six AM to midnight every day. His success had come only because he had the ability to overcome some very significant barriers.

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?

This question and the previous one have a lot of similarities. Challenge is a word that can be interpreted broadly. Maybe it was an illness you went through or a family member’s illness that affected you. Focus on how you worked through it. What resources helped you most? What did you learn from it?

Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

This would have been my favorite question! Finding a way to explain why physics, music, or mathematics interest you can be fun. Think of the academic subject which challenges you most. Where did you spend time outside of class to learn it? If your school offered AP or IB or Honors classes, did you take them? What was it that attracted you to this subject, and how did you grow as a result?

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

Remember that the word “community” can mean many things. It can be your sports team or your orchestra. It can be your religious group or the animal shelter where you work. Think about how you contribute not only in terms of the work you do there, but your attitude and approach.

What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

This is the final, catch-all, question! If your background or story don’t neatly fit into one of the other boxes, consider answering this one. Maybe you have a gift for video game development. Maybe you are a deeply religious person. Ask yourself how you’d be different than all the other students, and how that difference would enhance the university community.

The UC personal insight questions create some new challenges and some new opportunities. Answering four questions will require more time, so factor in the time you’ll need. Especially if you’re also applying to schools that require the Common App or Coalition Application since they have different prompts and different requirements. Make sure you get help from the many resources available to you!


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Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

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