If you plan to apply to any schools in the University of California system, read below to learn how you can best respond to the Personal Insight questions. Remember, these schools are not on the Common Application, so you’ll have to apply directly through the University of California portal.
You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions. Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
1. 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 can come in a variety of forms. Whether through an experience as a team captain, head of a student organization or during a summer job, the important thing is to focus on how you “positively influenced others.” Why were you considered a leader during this specific experience? What type of adversity did you face? Did the issue require a certain strategy? What did you learn (about yourself) as a result?
2. 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.
For those of you who don’t think that creativity is your forte, start by asking family and friends to give you suggestions. Creativity doesn’t have to come through conventional channels like art or music. People employ creative skills in a variety of settings, such as science fairs or math competitions. When speaking to how you express your creative side, try and let your guard down. Coming across as candid, open and vulnerable is valuable to an admissions officer.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Remember, nobody is born a great piano player or athlete. All of us, to some extent, must hone our talents and skills through hard work and dedication. It’s important to focus on the word “developed” in this prompt. The University of California uses this question, in part, to determine a student’s uniqueness and niche, but also to understand how you learn and acquire skills – in addition to your longstanding dedication and commitment to a certain activity.
Large universities have hundreds of different programs and roles to fill on campus and are always open to hearing what interesting skills a student can bring with him or her to help fill those roles.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This question will help admissions officers assess how you might take advantage of the education and resources at your disposal at the University of California. You’re really provided two options (opportunity vs. barrier), but just pick one to elaborate on in your response.
If you pick the former, describe your growth or change as a result of being given this educational opportunity. (Was it an after-school program for gifted students? A STEM magnet program within your high school? A full merit-based scholarship to a local independent school?) And if you address the latter, be sure to emphasize how you were affected by the educational challenge you faced and how it will serve you moving forward on campus and beyond. Be sure you’re answering the question and describing the ways in which you took advantage or overcame the opportunity/barrier instead of just describing what it was.
5. 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?
Similar to the previous question, the important element here is to focus on your actions (“the steps”) and the outcome and impact of the challenge. Don’t linger on the sorrows of adversity – admissions officers don’t want just another sob story. Instead, focus on how you overcame the challenge. Note: Even though the last part of the question has an academic focus, it does not mean that the challenge you faced must have been academic in nature. (In fact, it probably should not be an academic challenge, since that is the focus of Question 4.)
This question can be especially valuable for those students who consider their grades lower than they otherwise would have been because of a family circumstance – perhaps there was a death in the family or a parent lost a job, requiring you to work 20 hours each week or take care of your younger siblings.
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Admissions officers are trying to assess the future you by evaluating your past academic accomplishments. Keep that in mind as you describe your favorite subject. For instance, if your response is biology but you plan to enroll in the undergraduate business school, that will likely cause some confusion; however, if you are able to more specifically intersect your passion for biology with a business-related angle (say, your interest in founding a bio-related startup), that can make for a very compelling and unique answer.
What have you done in the past to fuel this academic passion?
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Use this question to elaborate on one of your more meaningful extracurricular activities. Making a positive impact can come in many shapes and sizes – don’t worry about having a “change the world” type of story. Small actions can be just as persuasive to an admissions officer. Perhaps you started a recycling club at school, or maybe you ran the tech portion of the drama club (an often unsung and invisible position) for the last four years.
Admissions officers want students on their campuses who will get involved and make a difference.
8. 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?
Most UC campuses will receive more than 100,000 applications this year! With such a large volume of applicants, standing out is not always easy. Start by brainstorming your unique qualities and work from there. For example, saying that you’re “hard working” will probably not jump off the page to an admissions officer – most UC applicants are, or should be, hard working. Instead, do you have interests, hobbies or passions that are unique to just you? Is there something about you that – for some reason – didn’t come through in the rest of your application?
Remember that, while grades and test scores are important, essays are almost equally as important because they are an applicant’s opportunity to make a connection with the admissions officer. Students should do their best to let their voice and personality shine through so their application makes a lasting impression.
Stephen is the co-founder and COO of AcceptU. He received a BA from Cornell University, an MA from Columbia University Teachers College, and a Ph.D. from Rice University. Prior to founding AcceptU, Stephen was an Assistant Dean of admissions at Cornell for four years and an Associate Dean of graduate admissions at Princeton University for six years. Stephen is an IECA Associate Member.