The University of California system represents the most prestigious public education institution in the world. If you’re a California native looking to apply to undergraduate universities, chances are you’ll be applying to at least one of the nine UC campuses. You very well may be applying to all of them, which is feasible given their shared application system. Each year, the UC’s attract tens of thousands of applicants from around the world, making it among the most fiercely competitive universities to get into. UCLA alone received more than 110,000 freshmen applications in 2018 who competed for roughly 15,000 seats.
As we’ve written before in our College Essay Blog Post, your admission essay is the only way to add character to an otherwise punctuated list of accomplishments. Essays are your best shot at demonstrating personality, explaining how you perceive the world, and describing your most compelling motives. These ideas tend to get lost in a general transcript. The essay is a looking glass into the greater “why” of your candidacy. All things being held equal, an average applicant can become a superb applicant based on essays alone.
Essays serve as the only means for you to vouch for yourself because letters of recommendation and alumni interviews are not required. The purpose of this blog post is to provide detailed guidance on how to write UC essays or Personal Insight Questions.
UC Personal Insight Questions
For freshman admission, there are a total of eight UC essay questions. You’ll be choosing four of them to answer. Each of the short essays has a 350 word limit, and varies widely from the essays you’re probably used to writing in school. Your responses will lean heavily on co-curricular and extracurricular activities and life experiences and the ways in which you’ve grown as a human being.
First, we’ll list out your options and evaluate how best to approach them given your experiences. We’ll then get into what each of the prompts is trying to extract from you, and how to give the admissions officers a brilliant response. We will provide three examples for each prompt to help you start brainstorming.
The Eight UC Essay Prompts
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 admission to the University of California?
Commonalities between Prompts:
Prompts 1 and 7 are about your relationships with people, ideas, and environments around you. Both prompts are asking you to place yourself in the world at large, then asking the follow-up question of how you’ve made an impact.
Prompts 2 and 6 are about your mind, your core characteristics, and what makes you an individual. Both prompts are asking general questions about how you perceive yourself in your mind’s eye and the kinds of inner-dialogues you have.
Prompts 3, 4, 5, and 8 are about your achievements. If you’re very proud of certain accomplishments, awards, or achievements, these are the prompts you’ll want to answer.
Detailed Analysis on Each UC Essay Prompt
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.
This prompt is explicitly for describing your leadership experience in more detail than the “president” or “team leader” title on your CV or resume. College admissions officers are looking for ways in which you fostered mentorship, resolved tension, and organized group effort in the environment surrounding you, e.g., school clubs or teams, community events. You want to draw upon strong examples in which you made a positive impact on others. Remember: Leadership roles are not limited to titled positions or to the school environment.
Example 1: You reinvigorated interest in a club that had initially been losing members.
Example 2: You inspired a friend or classmate to take a leadership role.
Example 3: You organized community events to help promote a cause you deeply care about.
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.
This prompt lends flexibility to how you applied creativity to academic fields, extracurricular endeavors, and beyond. If you are artistic (e.g., painter, illustrator, poet, photographer, etc.), you can certainly write about being creative in your artwork. But don’t be discouraged by this prompt if you are not in such traditionally “creative” roles . The prompt’s emphasis is strongest on problem-solving and innovative thinking. Maybe you created your own program to help organize information, or maybe you created a rack to help hold your sports equipment. The opportunities here are broad.
Example 1: There was a leak in your home toilet that your parents were about to call a plumber to fix, but you figured it out.
Example 2: You figured out an alternate solution to an academic problem in class that differed from your teacher’s.
Example 3: You grew up in more than one culture and were adept at blending multicultural elements in your artwork.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Don’t make the mistake of simply listing the skills or talents you’ve developed. The real trick to writing a great response to this prompt is by tying character and personality traits to the activity. Describing your specific traits (e.g. tenacity, humility, grit, and compassion) that helped you hone your talents is just as important as the skills or talents themselves. Elaborate on why this activity is worth it to you, and how your character is exhibited through this activity. You also want to address how you have cultivated this talent to display just how much work it took to get to where you are.
Example 1: How a character trait of yours made acquiring a skill possible.
Example 2: How developing a talent revealed a part of your personality that you didn’t recognize prior to practice.
Example 3: How developing certain skills helped you strengthen your character.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This prompt contains two different but related topics: a significant educational opportunity or an educational barrier. You can write about either topic, or address both if they are related in your case. Try not to get bogged down in what an “educational opportunity” is. Define an educational opportunity as anything that has added value to your educational experience and has better prepared you for college. The obvious examples would of course be participation in honors and AP courses, academic enrichment programs, or advanced classes outside of your high school.
If you choose to go down the educational barriers route, think of barriers broadly. It can be academic (e.g., dealing with a weak academic subject), cognitive (e.g., a learning disability), socio-economic (e.g., if accepted, you would be the first person in your family going to college), or cultural (e.g., being a recent immigrant to the U.S. adapting to the new living and learning environment). Then, more importantly, what personal characteristics or skills did you rely on to overcome this barrier? How has the process shaped you as a person? How do you plan to use what you have gained in the future?
Example 1: Describe a situation where you went above and beyond an assignment’s requirement in order to enrich yourself.
Example 2: Describe how you have managed to deal with a weak academic subject and become a better learner as a result.
Example 3: Describe how you have managed to overcome a learning disability and how the process has changed the way you view academic success.
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?
This prompt has two parts: the most significant challenge and its effect on your academic achievement. The word “challenge” can apply to a very broad range of events. Maybe you struggled in a certain course. Maybe you had to deal with health issues, family issues, or financial struggles while simultaneously completing your coursework. It is OK to use this prompt to explain why you may have done sub-par in a particular area of your academics. But more importantly, you want to describe the learning and growth that you experienced was involved. Be sure to share the ways or aspects in which you matured along the way. What’s most interesting to college admissions officers is “what changed due to this challenge?”
Just like our “educational opportunity” definition given for the previous prompt, “academic achievement” goes far beyond your GPA. It could mean your intellectual goals or your struggle to balance homework with your part-time job. We recommend thinking of the challenge first before deciding whether it could be weaved into something academic.
Example 1: Describe working a part-time job while trying to deal with your rigorous academic workload.
Example 2: Describe how prejudice or stereotype in school or a specific field may have held you back from pursuing an interest but didn’t.
Example 3: Describe how a certain peer pressure from your school and/or family has changed you and affected you academically, and the steps you have taken to overcome it.
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Before tackling this prompt, make a short list of the academic subjects that really sparked your interest. Consider what you have done in and outside of school to further develop that interest. How do you plan to advance in academic subject in college? If you have participated in research projects and internships, this is the place to include them. If in any case you aren’t passionate about a particular subject or aren’t sure what you would like to pursue in college, it is OK to describe your intellectual curiosity and your love of learning.
As is the case with many of these prompts, focus less on the “what” and more on the “why” and how engagement in these academic pursuits have furthered your interest in the chosen subject. Don’t be afraid of sharing the puzzles or struggles you have had or are still trying to figure out.
Example 1: Describe the moment you first discovered your love of a subject or career path.
Example 2: Describe the application of your favorite subject in the real world and how that has inspired you.
Example 3: Describe the subject of interest that wasn’t offered at your high school and how you went above and beyond to pursue that academic interest.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Similar to previous prompts, the definition of “community” should not be stymied. Your community includes your school, maybe a local park, or maybe your city’s library. Community could also be more abstract, like your culture or ethnicity. With this in mind, remember that your writing must illustrate your role in the community you have defined. Why do you identify with this community the most? Questions like these should lead you to demonstrate the positive influence you have made. It’s important that you stay genuine. Do not overstate your impact. Remember the metaphor of the butterfly’s wings: small change is still change.
Example 1: Describe a volunteer position or project that really made you feel like a member of your community.
Example 2: Use metrics to define your impact on your community.
Example 3: Describe how you assisted a teacher in the class and helped enhance the learning experience of others.
8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?
This is the most open-ended prompt. You can literally write about most anything. If you want to get creative with your writing, this is where to do it. This isn’t the best prompt to talk about academic achievement or community service, as there are better prompts for those topics. What you write for this prompt should also not be repetitive of the other three prompts you have chosen. Instead, use this prompt to write an aspect of you that the admissions officer would never know based on other parts of your application. This is your wildcard. Use this prompt to be as creative as you can while not being too outlandish. Here are some examples from our students who did well with this prompt:
Example 1: An excerpt of a novel you were writing.
Example 2: How a religious belief has influenced you.
Example 3: A hobby or personal interest that hasn’t been shown on any other part of your application, but is an important part of who you are.
“Brevity is the Soul of Wit”
Being limited to 350 words is a challenge, especially when you’re trying to describe significant events from your life. There will be little room for flourish or flowery language but, in many ways, this is good for your personal insight questions. There is no room for hyperbole or exaggeration, nor is there room for idle descriptions. You won’t be tempted to add padding or adornment to your accomplishments; there would simply be no room.
You may also be tempted to try to fit everything you have accomplished in a 350-word essay. Don’t do that. Broad strokes of many extracurricular activities hardly leave any impression. Instead, focus on one or two specific moments, incidents, or experiences that you can use to illustrate a key, larger, and deeper theme.
Make no mistake, the short essays are a deliberate application requirement. Can you get your point across in an efficient way? At Peninsula Academy, we often quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” You can still write a descriptive, whipsmart response in a short answer format. If you ever need help, remember there are resources at PA to help you find the way.