Tips for the 8 University of California Personal Insight Questions

The 2019-20 personal insight questions are your opportunity to make a statement

The 2019-20 University of California application includes eight personal insight questions, and all applicants must write responses to four of the questions. These mini-essays are limited to 350 words, and they take the place of longer personal statements required on many other applications. Unlike the California State University system, all campuses of the University of California have holistic admissions, and the short personal insight essays can play a meaningful role in the admissions equation.

General Essay Tips

Regardless of which personal insight questions you choose, ensure that your essays:

  • Help admissions officials get to know you: If hundreds of applicants could have written your essay, keep revising.
  • Highlight your writing skills: Ensure that your essays are clear, focused, engaging, and free of stylistic and grammatical errors.
  • Fully express your interests, passions, and personality. The University of California wants to enroll interesting, well-rounded applicants. Use your essays to show off the breadth and depth of who you are. 
  • Present information not covered in the rest of your application: Make sure your essays are expanding your overall application, not creating redundancies.

Option #1: Leadership

Leadership is a broad term that refers much more than being the president of student government or drum major in the marching band. Any time you step up to guide others, you are demonstrating leadership. Most college applicants are leaders, although many don't realize this fact.

Discuss the significance of your leadership experience; don't just describe what happened. Also, be careful with the tone. You can come across as arrogant if your essay delivers the overt message, "Look at what an amazing leader I am." Leadership experiences can happen anywhere: school, church, in the community, or at home. This question can be a good option if you have a leadership role that isn't fully evident in the rest of your application.

Option #2: Your Creative Side

Whether you are an artist or an engineer, creative thinking will be an important component of your college and career success. If you respond to this question, consider that creativity is about much more than the arts. You don't need to be an excellent poet or painter to be creative. Explain how you approach difficult problems in unusual ways or have been successful thinking in ways other than the norm.

As with many of the personal insight questions, do more than "describe." Explain why your creativity is important to you. Be specific. If you can give a concrete example of your creativity, you'll write a much more successful essay than if you simply talk in broad terms and abstractions.

Option #3: Your Greatest Talent

This essay topic gives you the opportunity to talk about what you'll bring to the school other than a strong academic record. Your greatest talent or skill doesn't need to be something that is obvious from the rest of your application. If you're good at math, that will be apparent from your academic record. If you're a star football player, your recruiter is likely to know that. This doesn't mean you need to avoid such topics, but you should feel free to think broadly about this question. Your skill could be your ability to find homes for abandoned animals or to successfully tutor fellow students who are struggling.

Explain how your special talent or skill will enrich the UC campus community. Don't forget to address the second part of the question about how your skill or talent has developed over time. That part of the question makes it clear that the University of California is assessing your work ethic, not just an innate skill you might possess. The best "talent or skill" is one that reveals constant effort and growth on your part.

Option #4: Educational Opportunity or Barriers

Educational opportunities can take many forms, including Advanced Placement offerings and dual-enrollment courses with a local college. Interesting responses might also address less predictable opportunities—a summer research project, use of your education outside of the classroom, and learning experiences that aren't in traditional high school subject areas.

Educational barriers can also take many forms. Consider answering questions including: Do you come from a disadvantaged family? Do you have work or family obligations that take significant time away from schoolwork? Do you come from a weak high school so that you need to search beyond your school to challenge yourself and work up to your potential? Do you have a learning disability that you have had to work hard to overcome?

Option #5: Overcoming a Challenge

This option is remarkably broad, and it can easily overlap with other personal insight options. Make sure you don't write two similar essays. For example, an "educational barrier" from question No. 4 could also be considered a significant challenge.

Keep in mind that the question asks you to discuss your "most significant challenge." Don't focus on something superficial. If your greatest challenge was getting past a good defender in soccer or bringing that B+ up to an A-, this question isn't your best choice.

Option #6: Your Favorite Subject

Your favorite academic subject doesn't need to be your university major. You are not committing yourself to a specific field when you answer this question. That said, you should explain what you plan to do in the subject area in college and your future.

Explain why you love the academic subject. The tips on the UC website focus on things such as the different classes you've taken in the subject, but that information is simply a summary of your high school transcript. If possible, include something outside of the classroom in your response. This shows that your passion for learning isn't confined to school. Do you conduct chemistry experiments in your basement? Do you write poetry in your free time? Have you campaigned for a political candidate? These are the types of issues to cover for this essay option.

Option #7: Making Your School or Community Better

This option is excellent for talking about your participation in student government. Describe a problem that existed at your school, how student government addressed that problem, and how your school is a better place because of you and your team's actions.

"Community" can be defined in broad terms. Did you help build a playground in your neighborhood? Did you help lead a fundraiser for your church? Did you serve on a youth board in your county? Did you participate in an after-school program for kids in your school district?

If you write about making your school better, avoid the "hero" essay. You may have taken your school's soccer team to the state championship—an impressive feat that brings prestige to your school—but does that really improve the educational experience for the majority of your classmates? More likely is that your essay will show you bragging about personal accomplishment, not service to your school.

Option #8: What Sets You Apart?

Saying that you are "hardworking" or a "good student" will not set you apart from others. These are important and admirable traits, but they will be demonstrated by other parts of your application. Such statements do not create the unique portrait that the admissions folks are requesting.

The language in this question—"beyond what has already been shared"—should serve as your guide. Test scores, grades, a good work ethic, and your position in the band or part in the play will be evident from the rest of your application. Look for something that makes you unique. Don't be afraid of being a little quirky. An answer such as "I have the skills to survive the zombie apocalypse" could open the door to a discussion of your time in scouts.