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. The tips below can help guide your responses to each of the prompts.

General Tips for the Personal Insight Questions

Royce Hall at UCLA
Royce Hall at UCLA. (Marisa Benjamin)

No matter which four personal insight questions you choose, make sure you take the following into account:

  • Do your essays help the admissions folks get to know you as the unique individual that you are? If hundreds of applicants could have written the same essay, you need to keep revising. Remember that the purpose of the essays is for the admissions folks to be able to distinguish you from other applicants.
  • Do your essays highlight your writing skills? Be sure to take time with your essays so that they are clear, focused, engaging, and free of stylistic and grammatical errors. These essay style tips can help.
  • Do your four short essays present four different windows into your interests, passions, and personality? You don't want to write four essays that are all about music or chemistry or football. 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. 
  • Do your responses present information about you that goes beyond what the admissions folks can learn from the rest of your application? Make sure your essays are expanding your overall application, not creating redundancies.

Option #1: Leadership

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The first personal insight question asks about your leadership experiences: "Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time."

Some points to consider when responding to this prompt:

  • "Leadership" is a broad term that refers to much more than being the president of student government or the drum major in the marching band. Any time you step up to guide others, whether from the front row or back row, you are demonstrating leadership. Most college applicants are leaders although many don't realize this fact.
  • Don't let the word "describe" lead you astray. The best essays do more than just describe; they "analyze" and "reflect" upon the leadership experience. Make sure your essay discusses the significance of the experience, not just a description of what happened.
  • 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, community, household, etc.
  • This question can be a good option if you have a leadership role that isn't fully evident in the rest of your application. Question #1 gives you a space to draw attention to your leadership accomplishments.

Option #2: Your Creative Side

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The second personal insight question focuses on creativity: "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."

Whether your an artist or an engineer, creative thinking will be an important component of both your college and career success. Question number two tries to get you to reveal your creative side. If you respond to this question, consider the following:

  • Creativity is about much more than the arts. You don't need to be an excellent poet or painter to be creative. Do you approach difficult problems in unusual ways? Have you found success thinking in ways other than the norm?
  • As with many of the personal insight questions, be sure you do more than "describe." You'll also want to explain why your creativity is important to you. Whether you're a musician or a designer, what is the value of your creativity?
  • Be specific. If you can give a concrete example of your creativity, you'll create a much more successful essay than if you simply talk in broad terms and abstractions.

Option #3: Your Greatest Talent

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Question #3 asks you to talk about something you do very well: "What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?"

The University of California system is highly selective and has holistic admissions. They are looking for students who offer more than just good grades and standardized test scores. Question #3 gives you the opportunity to talk about what it is that you'll bring to the school other than a strong academic record. Keep these points in mind:​

  • 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 forever homes for abandoned animals or to successfully tutor fellow students who are struggling.
  • Be sure to put yourself in the shoes of the admissions folks: Is the talent or skill that you focus on something that will enrich the UC campus community?
  • Watch your tone. An "I am the greatest" essay is going to create a negative impression.
  • 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.
  • Be sure to be reflective: How has this talent or skill played an important role in your life?

Option #4: Educational Opportunity or Barrier

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College success is all about taking advantage of the opportunities you are given, and Question #4 asks you to discuss your relationship to educational opportunities and challenges: "Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced."

If you respond to this prompt, consider the following:

  • Educational opportunities can take many forms. The obvious include things such as Advanced Placement offerings and dual enrollment courses with a local college. Interesting responses, however, can 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. 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?
  • Here, as with many of the UC personal insight questions, the word "describe" can lead you astray. Good essays do more than "describe." You want to "discuss," "analyze," and "reflect upon" the educational opportunity or barrier that you've chosen for your essay. Describing is something you do in grade school book reports. College students analyze.

Option #5: Overcoming a Challenge

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Life is full of challenges, and Question #5 asks you to discuss one 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?"

Consider the following when writing an essay for this question:

  • Option #5 is remarkably broad, and it can easily overlap with other personal insight options. Make sure you don't end up writing two similar essays. For example, an "educational barrier" from question #4 could also be considered a "significant challenge."
  • While this question is broad in that a "challenge" can be many, many things, keep in mind that the question asks you to discuss your "most significant challenge." Make sure you 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.
  • As with most of the questions, make sure you do more than "describe." You'll want to spend time analyzing and discussing the challenge than simply "describing" it. 

Option #6: Your Favorite Subject

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All colleges look for students who have passion for learning, and question #6 asks you about what it is that you love to learn: "Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom."

Here are some tips for this question:

  • Realize that 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.
  • Be sure to 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. The purpose of the essays is for the UC admissions folks to get to know you better, so you'll want to spend some time explaining why the subject is important and interesting to you.
  • If at all 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? 

Option #7: Making Your School or Community Better

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At the heart of personal insight option #7 is service: "What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?" 

You can approach the question in many ways, but be sure to keep these ideas in mind:

  • 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?

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The best essays present you as a unique person, and option #8 requires you to articulate that uniqueness: "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?"

  • Avoid generic answers here. 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 with this question. Test scores, grades, a good work ethic, your position in the band or part in the play... All of these things are evident from the rest of your application. Look for something that makes you the unique person you are. 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.

More University of California Information

Royce Hall at UCLA
Royce Hall at UCLA. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

While your personal insight essays will play a meaningful role in the admissions process at any of the UC campuses, your academic record and SAT or ACT scores will be extremely important. What grades and scores you need can vary significantly from campus to campus, and if you compare SAT scores for the nine undergraduate campuses you'll find that Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD are more selective than the other campuses. The youngest of the campuses, UC Merced, has the lowest bar for admission.