top of page

More insight into the UC Personal Insight Questions

November is here and University of California applications are due. (Nov. 30, 11:59 pm deadline. Pro tip: get them done before Thanksgiving!)

The application is relatively straight forward, (UC/CSU tips) but students often stumble on the writing requirement.

As detailed in a previous blog post, the questions are pretty clear. They are looking for information about YOU and how you have become the person you are now. You pick 4 out of the 8 questions. The ones you pick should all show different things about you: your characteristics, traits, background, ability to persevere, academic interests, how you have dealt with challenges and opportunities, your life’s context, and more. Choose answers that show the admissions officers a more fully rounded picture of who you are aside from grades and test scores. They can see your grades and test scores, let them see beyond the application to actually see who you are. What insights have you gained from your experiences, environment, interests, and overall circumstances?

None of the PIQs are more important than another. Choose what you feel you can write about. Choose four questions that show different sides of who you are.

When UC admissions read the Personal Insight Questions (“PIQ”) keep this in mind: Does your answer “add value” to the application, or is it a “missed opportunity.” According to the UC presenters at the UC Counselors Conference, and reading the postings from the UC: The PIQ can ONLY add to your application.

Examples of Missed Opportunities:

Writing an essay that doesn’t tell them anything new.

Not answering all parts of the prompt.

Repeating details found elsewhere in the application without any sense of self-reflection or insight into who you are.

Writing a beautiful essay filled with metaphors and symbolism is a missed opportunity if there is no personal insight.

They are not looking for beautiful writing and perfect sentences. They are looking for a glimpse into what makes YOU you.

Admissions officers say that they will overlook clumsy writing as long as they can understand what the student is saying, and it contains self-reflection.

Self-reflection: how did the topic impact you? Did it change or influence how you did things or thought about yourself and others? What did you learn from your experience? Why do you love your hobby, love a particular academic subject, geek out about your pastimes? What have you done that impacts other people, and why do you do it.

Value-Added” does not have to be something big and earth-shattering. The colleges know you are a teenager who hasn’t solved the world’s problems, brought peace in our time, or written the most exquisite essay. You can write about something small or mundane, as long as it has meaning to you and you tell the reader why it is important.

You have 350 words, pick one event, one specific thing and focus on talking about it. They generally expect responses to be between 250-350 words, but if you can say what you need to say in less words, that is okay.

Remember the basic rule of all college application essays:

What do you want the colleges to know about you?

Why do you want them to know it?

You can do this.

They are not expecting your classic structured English class essay. They are looking for an answer. Focus on the impact of the event on the student, or the impact the student had on others. The student is the main subject, not someone else who they admire or not. That other person is not attending college!

Remember to provide specific examples of what happened, what you did, what you thought.

Cut to the chase: this is what I did and why I did it.

Admissions officers want to know the context in which you grew up, your background, how you’ve managed to get through school. Be positive.

The purpose of the PIQ:

1. It completes the application. You can’t submit it without them. (Remember to draft them in a separate document, then cut and paste!)

2. It sets students apart. There are tons of students with similar grades and test scores, which show how well a student works. They want to know how a student thinks, what is important and meaningful to them, and why. It gives the UC a sense of what the student might get involved in on their campus and what they are interested in. The experience a student describes may not be unique, but their perspective on it is!

3. Provides context for the student’s life. The UC don’t compare students with other students. They are looking at each student’s individual experiences and environment.

4. Self-advocates, because the student focuses on what is important to them. Shows the school what makes you the unique person you have become.

Pro Tips:

If you are dealing with a difficult subject, don’t spend a lot of words explaining how difficult your life has been. Briefly explain, then spend the rest of your words describing how you have emerged, or are emerging stronger and more capable. Focus on the positive traits and characteristics that you want the schools to know about you. If you can’t write something positive, then perhaps you should choose another prompt.

If you want to write about activities, sports, or extracurricular activities and you are worried that you’ve already done that in the Activities section, consider: can you provide new or additional information, and most importantly, can you describe how participating affected you. What did you learn about yourself or others?

If you are writing about an experience or event in the past, you must be able to connect it to who you are today and why it still affects you. How is what happened relevant to your current experience? How does it give context to explain who you are?

In general, don’t use dialogue and scene setting to describe your story. They do not need to walk through the event with you, they want to know what happened and why you are telling them this.

Don’t focus on the structure over the content. Don’t have enough words for a transitional sentence introducing something new…your English teacher may not approve, but the UC readers want content more than beautiful writing.

Take a breath.

Look over the 8 questions, see which ones you can write about.

Get drafting!

Remember, the PIQ are an opportunity to add value to your application.

95 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page