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The University of California (UC) is one of the most prestigious public research universities in the country.
It’s known for pioneering innovations and its unique ten-campus system.
When it comes to admissions, UC’s application is just as unique as the university itself.
- UC has its own application portal, and you only need to fill out one application to apply to as many UC campuses as you would like.
UC also takes a slightly different approach to the essay, instead posing eight Personal Insight Questions (PIQs).
In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about responding to UC’s PIQs and boosting your chances of admission!
What Are PIQs?
As mentioned above, PIQs are Personal Insight Questions – these are the UC essay prompts.
- UC asks eight of these questions, but you’re only required to respond to four of them. Each response must be limited to 350 words.
On UC’s website, the university states that the purpose of these questions is “getting to know your personality, background, interests, and achievements in your own unique voice.”
The eight Personal Insight Questions read as follows:
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.
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.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
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?
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
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?
Which PIQs Should I Choose?
In short, it’s up to you!
UC’s website explains that all questions are given equal consideration during the review process, meaning the questions you choose won’t put you at an advantage or disadvantage.
However, UC does recommend that you select questions “that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.”
Basically, you’re on the right track if you choose the questions that best fit your personality and experiences.
We do have one additional tip when it comes to choosing your four PIQs:
- Make sure that your questions don’t overlap.
Each PIQ you answer should reveal a new and interesting piece of your “puzzle.”
- For instance, don’t write about being president of the Math Club for #1, your creative problem solving for #2, your impressive mental math skills for #3, and how Geometry inspires you for #6.
Together, these four questions should form a complete picture of you.
Demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded, unique individual who will make positive contributions to UC.
General Tips for Responding to the PIQs
First, we want to emphasize the importance of starting early. UC’s uniqueness continues with the university’s application deadline:
- November 30.
That’s a full month before the Common Application deadline (and most other college application deadlines).
For this reason, you’ll want to start as early as possible on your PIQs.
Don’t wait until the last minute and end up submitting work that isn’t your best. You might even want to start over the summer.
- Once the school year starts—along with the activities and responsibilities that come with it—you’ll be surprised how quickly that November 30 deadline looms.
Luckily, UC is extremely open about their application and admission process.
The university has provided a wide variety of tips about responding to the PIQs.
Below is an overview of UC’s general tips, along with a few of our own:
- Use first-person “I” statements (per UC).
- Write in your own voice; your writing should “sound” like you. At the same time, avoid being too informal and/or using slang.
- Proofread and edit. UC states that you won’t be directly evaluated on spelling and grammar, but errors “can be distracting to the reader and get in the way of what you’re trying to communicate.” (Plus, spelling and grammar errors don’t make a great impression!)
- Get feedback from friends and family members.
- Write persuasively. UC explains that you should use “specific, concrete examples” to support your points, rather than relying on lists.
And UC’s last piece of general advice?
The university considers many other factors, and these responses “can only add value” to the application.
Common PIQs Mistakes to Avoid
UC’s website also provides a list of common mistakes to avoid as you complete the PIQs. These mistakes include:
- Talking about one campus: You’re talking to all UC campuses you apply to in your responses. (Unless you apply to only one UC school, don’t make your responses school-specific. All the UC schools you’ve applied to will read your PIQ responses.)
- Inappropriate use of humor
- Creative writing (poems, clichés)
- Quotations: They want to know your words and thoughts, not someone else’s
- Generalities: Stick to facts and personal examples
- Repetition: Provide new information that can’t be found in other sections of the application
- Asking philosophical questions: Get to the point and say what you mean
- Acronyms: Spell it out!
Writing Each Personal Insight Question
Now that you’ve got a good idea of what UC is—and isn’t—looking for in your PIQ responses, let’s take a closer look at each question.
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
UC clarifies that “leadership experience” is a broad term. You don’t have to have an official title to be a leader.
Perhaps you’ve been in charge of a specific task, acted as a mentor to others, or taken the lead role in a project.
A leadership experience could also mean resolving a dispute “at your school, church, in your community or an organization.”
It could be something outside of school as well, like helping out or taking care of your family.
To begin writing this essay, first provide some context about the individual or individuals you led.
- What sort of problem or dispute existed before you stepped in?
- Why was this an important problem to solve? (This section should be the shortest, since it’s not yet focused on you and your leadership abilities.)
Then, describe what actions you took.
- How did you plan to address the issue?
- Were there any difficulties along the way, and how did you handle them?
- What were the results of your leadership?
As you wrap up, you may want to reflect on how this experience influenced you.
What did you learn about being a leader? Has your perspective on leadership changed as a result?
Remember to be as specific as possible. Instead of giving a general summary of your role as club president, choose to focus on a particular dispute or issue that you successfully tackled head-on.
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 this prompt, UC poses the following questions to consider:
- What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?
- How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
As with the term “leadership experience,” UC is using a broad definition of “creativity” here.
It doesn’t have to be a visual or performance art.
Creativity can be expressed through anything you make or generate, even an idea or theory that didn’t exist before.
Basically, UC is asking how you express creativity in your life. And how does this play a role in your personality, outlook, decisions, or goals?
Start by defining your brand of “creativity.”
- What do you make or do?
- What problems do you solve, and how do you solve them?
- How did you become interested in this activity in the first place?
Next, explain what this creativity means to you.
- What drives you to be creative?
- Why do you enjoy this particular activity or pursuit?
- Does it come naturally to you, or do you have to work hard at it?
As usual, you’ll conclude by reflecting.
- Do you plan to turn this into a career?
- What have you learned through this creative pursuit?
- Has it influenced the way you think or interact with others?
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
UC explains that this is the time to share a talent or skill you’re proud of, even if it isn’t one for which you’ve been recognized or awarded.
The overall tone of this essay should convey passion and excitement about the talent you choose to discuss.
Remember that specificity is key.
So if you have a talent or skill in mind, come up with a specific story that showcases it.
- What event or experience can you narrate in order to convey your skill/talent to admissions officers?
This prompt also asks about how you’ve “developed this talent over time.”
- It’s appropriate to talk about struggles or obstacles you’ve overcome.
- Perhaps this skill didn’t come easily to you, but your determination and persistence eventually paid off.
You’ll also want to reflect on why you feel that this is your greatest talent or skill.
- How has it impacted you, others, or your future career goals?
You can tell this story in chronological order:
A description of how you first became interested in this skill/talent or struggled to develop it, an event that shows your improvement or accomplishments in this area, and the impact this talent or skill has had on your life.
Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
For this PIQ, UC asks you to consider:
- An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.
- If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?
Here, you’re either detailing an educational opportunity you’ve taken advantage of or an educational barrier you’ve overcome.
With both of these approaches, you should be revealing both your commitment to education and your strength of character.
If you write about an educational opportunity:
- Describe what the opportunity was, why/how you received the opportunity, and why it was so “significant.”
- Demonstrate that you understood the value of this opportunity and took advantage of it.
- Was the opportunity challenging? How did you learn and grow from it?
- What did you do to ensure you benefited from this opportunity as much as possible?
- Has it influenced your career plans or your outlook on education?
- Have you discovered new abilities or learned something new about yourself?
If you write about an educational barrier:
- Describe the barrier. What setback or challenge impacted you academically? It should be something that stood in your way of academic success or prevented you from accessing certain opportunities. As you discuss it, avoid an overly negative tone. Try to speak neutrally and factually about what happened.
- How did you deal with this barrier? Talk about the steps you took to overcome the barrier and how you felt throughout the process.
- Reflect on how this experience has affected you. What did you learn about yourself, and how has this experience shaped you?
Make sure that your response to this PIQ showcases positive aspects of your character, such as determination, a love of learning, problem-solving, persistence, etc.
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 essay is similar to the “educational barrier” option above. However, this PIQ gives you a bit more freedom to discuss any challenge, even if it’s not directly related to education.
Remember, you’ll still need to explain how this challenge impacted you academically.
- Start by describing a problem or challenge. Again, don’t dwell on negativity or point fingers; simply convey what happened.
- Then, describe how you solved this problem.
- This shouldn’t be a story about how someone else solved a problem for you.
- Instead, you should be demonstrating your creativity, persistence, and resiliency. What specific steps did you take to overcome your problem?
Go for a bit of suspense. Sure, the admissions officer knows you’ll succeed in the end (otherwise you probably wouldn’t be telling this story).
But you can add a bit of tension by including details about how you initially struggled to solve the problem or faced additional setbacks along the way.
And of course, don’t forget to reflect.
- How did this experience affect different aspects of your life, including school?
- What did you learn from overcoming this challenge?
- Did you change anything about how you think, view the world, interact with others, or approach difficulties?
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
UC asks you to consider the following:
- Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
- Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?
This PIQ is another that requires an enthusiastic, passionate response.
You don’t have to write about the academic subject at which you excel the most.
- You can write about the subject you enjoy the most, one that interests and inspires you. (Of course, you should still have some accomplishments to describe, even if they’re personal accomplishments instead of major awards.)
- If you have a definite career path and major in mind, this is a great opportunity to talk about how you developed that interest. You should also outline specific activities or tasks you do both in and out of school to further this interest.
- Even if you don’t have a career path or major in mind, this essay can showcase that you’re a curious and passionate learner who enjoys the pursuit of knowledge. Is there a subject or topic you explore even in your downtime? Perhaps you read articles or books, watch videos, or design projects related to this topic?
To answer the last part of this PIQ, you’ll need to do your research.
- What classes, clubs, internships, or research opportunities does UC offer in your area of interest?
- What can you do at UC (that you can’t do everywhere else) to continue exploring your favorite subject?
Here, you can showcase both your interest in UC and how you would contribute as a student.
Keep in mind that all the UC campuses you’ve applied to will read your essays, so try to choose opportunities that apply to UC in general.
If you’re only applying to 2-3 schools, you may choose to briefly mention one or two opportunities you’d enjoy at each.
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
As you respond to this PIQ, UC wants you to consider:
- Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?
- Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
Community and your ability to contribute are important in college, and here’s your chance to discuss both.
You may want to start by defining what community means to you.
- What is your community and why?
- What role do you play in this community? Use specific details to convey how meaningful this community is to your life.
- Next, think of a problem you’ve solved within this community or an aspect of the community that you’ve improved upon. Provide some context on what the community was like before you affected some sort of change.
- Then, describe the steps you took. How did you notice that something needed to be done? What was your thought process as you decided exactly how to act? What did you do, and what were the results?
This essay should convey the love you have for your “community” and what actions you’ve taken to improve it in a specific, meaningful way.
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?
For this prompt, UC expects you to consider:
- If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?
- From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.
This prompt basically gives you the opportunity to write about an experience that you haven’t had the chance to share yet.
Most experiences could fit into the other seven PIQs.
But if there’s something extraordinary or unique you’ve experienced, something that makes you “stand out as a strong candidate,” then you can mention it here.
- Explain what happened, why it happened, your role in what happened, and how you grew from or were impacted by this experience.
- How has this experience affected the contribution you’ll make at UC or the viewpoint you’ll bring to campus? Remember to use specific details as you make your points.
What About “Additional Comments?”
After you complete your PIQs, you’ll see a section titled “Additional Comments.” This section is completely optional.
UC emphasizes that this section is not meant to be used as a continuation of your PIQ responses.
Instead, this section should only be used if you need to:
- Clarify important details in your application (honors, awards, activities).
- Share information about unusual circumstances or a nontraditional school environment.
- Describe anything else that you have not had the opportunity to discuss anywhere else in the application. (UC capitalizes HAVE NOT, indicating that this should be something that absolutely hasn’t come up elsewhere.)
This section has a 550-word limit, but it really shouldn’t be utilized unless you have something vital to say that you couldn’t fit in anywhere else.
Conclusion: Writing the UC Personal Insight Questions
As you apply to UC, you’ll be asked to answer four Personal Insight Questions (PIQs), with a word limit of 350 words each.
You’re given eight questions to choose from, and all questions receive equal consideration.
Here’s a simple strategy to follow:
- Read the PIQs, then carefully read them again.
- Start brainstorming how you could respond to each question, possibly by creating bulleted lists. If there are some questions you know aren’t the right choice for you, you can feel free to leave those out.
- Look over your brainstorms and decide which are the strongest. Make sure you choose four essay topics that don’t overlap, each offering a different piece of your personality “puzzle.”
- Write your essays. Remember to tell a story (with specific details) and then reflect on it, particularly how your experiences have shaped or impacted you.
- Proofread, edit, and receive feedback from friends and family members. As you revise, be sure to maintain your unique voice.
- Finally, submit and relax.
Following these tips can help you write your way to a UC acceptance letter!