UC Personal Insight Questions: The Ultimate Guide

UC Personal Insight Questions: The Ultimate Guide

This 2016-17 UC application year, you must write 4 short essays totaling 1400 words (350 word limit each). To give you some context, in previous years, students had to write 2 essays totaling 1000 words… So, you’ll have to come up with 2 more extra topics this year AND write more.

I hate to break it to you, but I believe these shorter essays are harder than the old ones. But, don’t worry — I got you. Let’s break down how exactly we should answer the new UC Personal Insight Questions.

How to Answer The UC Personal Insight Question #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.

Before we dig into each step, here’s a UC Essay Example for this Personal Insight Question. This student got into UC Berkeley’s prestigious EECS programming in the Engineering school… but he’ll be attending Stanford instead 🙂

First off, keep this in mind: Whatever UC prompt you pick, the essay responses (for the most part) will still need to have an underlying story. This is a must. Moreover, you only need ONE REALLY AWESOME ANECDOTE instead of 2-3 MEDIOCRE mini anecdotes. Quality of quantity, right?

So, let’s get down to answering this essay prompt:

Step #1: Brainstorm one anecdote in the scope of leadership

When you’re brainstorming about activities involving leadership, think outside the box. The notion of “leadership” doesn’t mean that you have to be the captain of the volleyball team or have a leadership title… you can be a leader and demonstrate leadership abilities in so many other ways.

Actually, here’s something interesting: Currently, I’m working with students who have drafted up their UC essays to this first prompt, and I’ve noticed that their interpretation of “leadership” is very generic. In other words, many students are already writing about being a club president, first chair flute, etc. This means that other students across the world (like YOU) who are applying to the UC system may also have the same generic interpretation of “leadership.”

So, be careful… you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s.

Step #2: Pinpoint the conflict in the anecdote

As we already talked about, this short essay should have an underlying foundation of a story. Because stories have a conflict and resolution, we similarly need these two components in your essay. A conflict in this case can be a mistake, a challenge, an obstacle… it’s literally any roadblock that got in your way that you had to resolve. So, make sure that you include this conflict in your essay

Step #3: Include a resolution from your anecdote

Anyone can, (in theory) tell a decent anecdote. The storytelling part of writing is not going to be the most challenging part for you.

Your biggest challenge for these UC essays is to explain succinctly what you learned from this story. Your analysis of this particular experience must therefore be insightful. I mean, these essay questions are called personal insight questions, right?

This ability to be insightful and introspective is one of the key components these questions are measuring. Actually, the ability to be self-aware and insightful is one of the many factors for “success in college” as noted by Warren Willingham.

How to Answer The UC Personal Insight Question #2

Before we dive into this question, I have good news! Here’s a UC essay example for this essay prompt from a student of mine 🙂 . 

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.

I actually really like this prompt (and encourage you to consider selecting it) because the notion of creativity can be applied to every industry and discipline.

This leads me to a tip:
If anything, I would err on the side of staying away from the “arts” when answering this prompt. I say this only because you don’t want your interpretation of this essay prompt to be perceived as overly narrow.

Here’s how you can go about answering this:

Step #1: Brainstorm an activity or anecdote that showcases intellectual vitality.

Here are some questions for you to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Are you the type of person who is constantly thinking and loves new ideas and challenges? Are you sort of like an Elon Musk in that way? If so, what is an event or activity that has constantly pushed you to solve problems in innovative ways?
  • Are you innately curious and show your curiosity with action? Besides going down the rabbit hole of Googling everything, is there a subject that you’ve always been drawn to that you want to know everything about? If so, write about it!
  • Are you good at challenging ideas in a thoughtful way and seeing a problem or issue through multiple lenses? If yes, what’s an event or activity that showcases this?

Step #2: Analyze what this creative side means to you

Remember, you need to take each essay one step further — Don’t just express your creative side; tell the admissions officers why this is valuable and how you’ll take the learnings you’ve gleaned from your creative side and apply them to the rest of your life!

How to Answer The UC Personal Insight Question #3

What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

I encourage a lot of my students to consider selecting this essay prompt because it has a lot of potential.

Remember, you can have a relatively loose interpretation of many of the UC prompts. In other words, you don’t have to be recognized as a “superstar” in basketball or robotics to answer this question effectively.

This leads me to a tip:
Refrain from writing about activities that many other students might also be good at. For instance, you might take great pride in playing violin or coding; however, a lot of students can share this commonality and could actually be better than you are. So, it’s usually better to brainstorm attributes about who you are that is unique and creative that makes you difficult to “compare” with other students.

Here’s how we can break down this prompt:

Step #1: Brainstorm your unique talent or skill

So far, I have students that have creatively interpreted this essay prompt in many ways; for instance, I have a student who is writing about emotional intelligence as a skill she takes great pride in. I have another student who is writing about his love of drawing tattoos (he doesn’t have a tattoo but can talk for hours about the historical significance of tattoos).

Once you’ve nailed down your talent or skill, strive to find an anecdote that captures you in your element.

Step #2: Analyze

This is that part where most students will struggle. So, spend extra time analyzing why this skill or talent is significant in your life. What has this ability taught you? How has this talent/skill opened doors for you? Why does it matter to you?

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Question #4

Before you begin reading this UC Essay Guide, check out this awesome UC Essay Example for this prompt.

Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

This essay prompt is interesting because it allows you to write about either an opportunity or a barrier — these are almost complete opposites.

So far, I have a few students that have picked this essay prompt and have written about taking advantage of educational opportunities; more specifically, they write about taking advantage of all the AP courses their school offers. I tend to cringe when I read these drafts. Let’s be real… many other students applying to your dream school are go-getters and have taken advantage of educational opportunities by taking challenging AP courses. That’s neither interesting nor special.

This is why I advise this: If you choose this prompt, try brainstorming an anecdote about overcoming educational barriers.

Here’s the basic outline to tackle this prompt:

Step #1: Brainstorm an anecdote showcasing the educational barrier.

Overcoming barriers is almost always a stronger anecdote than taking advantage of opportunities. Actually, the ability to overcome obstacles is an attribute that is highly correlated with success in college; thus, admissions officers are on the lookout for this personal quality in your overall application.

Step #2: Explain how you overcame your barrier.

What do you do when the going gets tough? How do you overcome obstacles?

Grit and resiliency are key personal qualities that admissions officers love to see. Thus, you want to explain clearly how you solved the problem that you were facing in your response so that you can showcase these key qualities.

Step #3: Analyze!

Yup, as always, you have to explain the significance of this experience. More specifically, describe what you learned from this experience and how you’ll apply these learnings to your future.

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Question #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?

For the most part, if this essay prompt doesn’t jump out at you from the get-go, then perhaps this isn’t the best prompt for you to answer. I say this becomes this is a slightly tricky prompt.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we start: A “significant challenge” is NOT getting an F on a chemistry test, working hard, then ultimately receiving an A in the class as a final grade. In other words, an academic challenge isn’t a “significant challenge” in this instance.

So then, what are significant challenges you can write about here? Well, they can be obvious issues like family, socioeconomic, personal, and health challenges.

If you do have a personal challenge that you feel comfortable writing about in one of these UC essays, then here’s the place. The trick is this: Your story cannot be a sob story. Let’s break down how you can go about answering this prompt:

Step #1: Describe the significant challenge.

You can describe the issue in one of two ways: A bird’s eye overview of the issue or a specific example/anecdote when the issue was at its peak.

Step #2: How did this challenge affect you?

This is where you can explain how this challenge impacted you academically.

Step #3: What did you learn from this challenge?

The most important note to remember about this essay prompt is this: You must end your essay on a forward-looking note! If you don’t end on a positive note, your writing will be crossing into the dangerous territory of a sob story, which is never how you want to end your college essays. Sum up your essay by showcasing how you’ll take the learnings from this experience and apply them to your future.

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Question #6

Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

If the Stanford Intellectual Vitality Essay and the USC Major Choice Essay (or any other major-specific essay) had a baby, it would be this prompt. In other words, this is a prompt where you can reuse a short response essay you’ve written for another university.

So far, A lot of students I work with have been picking this prompt; therefore, keep in mind that this is going to be a relatively common essay that the UC admissions staff will see. Moreover, be strategic about the academic subject you pick to write about. For instance, if you want to write about biology as your favorite academic subject, but you’ve never taken AP Biology and it’s offered at your school, then it doesn’t look like you love biology all that much (you’re not willing to challenge yourself). In the same vein, if you pick biology as your favorite subject but you didn’t do well in the class, then it doesn’t look like biology is actually your favorite subject… so I wouldn’t write about that.

The bottom line is this: If you’re picking a school-related subject, then pick a subject that you’ve done well in.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not limited to writing about JUST subjects offered at your high school. If you truly enjoyed a class you’ve taken through summer school, community college, or online courses, then these are great topics to write about as well!

Either way, whatever subject you pick, you need to create an essay with a unique spin on it. To do this, geek out about your favorite subject. So, let’s break it down on how you can answer this prompt:

Step #1: Introduce and show your passion for your favorite subject

Don’t say that your favorite subject is biology and leave it at that; you must geek out about a specific biological concept that you find intriguing. Geeking out will show your passion for learning and your intellectual curiosity.

Step #2: Explain why you find this subject interesting

Admissions officers want to understand what motivates you as a student. They want to understand WHY you find this subject interesting — do you like physics because your father is a mechanical engineer and you can have intellectual conversations with him now that you understand the concepts? Do you like economics because you can now understand how the market works and that’s why you’re dabbling in stock trading?

Step #3: Describe how the subject led you to take action to learn more

The other piece of the puzzle is to explain how this academic subject has influenced you. The best way to do this is to show how you’ve taken action on this academic passion of yours.

I’ll give you an example: I have a student who is writing about her passion for feminist theory, which is a class she took for fun at a local community college. In her essay, she geeks out about the feminist theory and her views on feminism in the scope of the current presidential election. This class opened her eyes and taught her to be more self-aware of unconscious gender biases in her everyday life.

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Question #7

Psst! Check out this awesome UC Essay Example for this prompt!

What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

This essay is relatively straightforward, so don’t fall into a very common trap of picking a volunteer activity and writing about how you love helping others. Please, please, please… do not write, “I love helping people” or any variation of this phrase in this essay (or any other college essay, for that matter). Why? Well, I can ask almost anyone off the street why they donate to charity or like to volunteer, and every person will say that they love helping others. So, “helping others” is not a unique trait that you have. What IS unique is your motivation behind why you like to help others. To delve deeper into the motivation behind anything, keep asking yourself “why.”

Anyways, I digress. If you’ve had a truly meaningful experience that has influenced your environment or the people around it, then this is the place to write it! But, you have to be strategic about the experience so it doesn’t cross into cliches. Here’s how to break it down:

Step #1: Brainstorm an anecdote showing how you’ve contributed to your community

For this essay (especially), you must have a specific anecdote so that you can explain its significance to you. Showing the reader how the event unfolded instead of telling is always more powerful.

Step #2: Explain why you were inspired to act

Your internal motivation to partake in the activity is a key data point that colleges want to understand. What motivates you? What moves you?

Step #3: Analyze what this experience has taught you.

You must always strive to complete this sentence in the most meaningful way possible: “This event taught me that…”

Once you’ve distilled the insightful learnings from this experience, the next step is to apply these learnings towards the future. Ask yourself this: How can you apply these learnings to your future moving forward?

How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Question #8

Check out this awesome UC Essay Example for prompt #8!

What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

At the heart of it, this question is asking you: What makes you, YOU? I really like this essay prompt — so much so that I sincerely recommend that you consider picking this essay prompt because it has a lot of potential to showcase who you are to the admissions staff.

Actually, because this prompt is so open-ended, you can reuse the anecdote and analysis from your Common App essay here. More specifically, this is how I’d break down this essay:

Step #1: Brainstorm an anecdote that resonates with you

I know, this is pretty open-ended of me to say, but use this guide about how to brainstorm college essay anecdotes to get find that perfect story. Trust me — this essay, no matter how short, will be strongest with an anecdote to carry your main message.

Step #2: Describe the problem or obstacle in the story

All stories have some sort of conflict, right? Describe it here. The conflict is the tipping point that helped you realize and learn something from this experience. Additionally, admissions officers love to see examples of resilience, creativity, and grit in handling a problem, so this is a great opportunity to showcase these attributes.

Step #3: Analyze!

Yup, you guessed it! You need to tell the readers what you learned from the experience. In other words, explain why this instance mattered to you. You’ve been living on this earth for 17-ish years — of all the stories you can possibly tell me, why are you telling me this one? Spend some time reflecting on this.

UC Personal Insight Questions: 15 Tips and Examples

UC Personal Insight Questions: 15 Tips and Examples

Wondering how to successfully write UC essays? You’re in luck! In this blog post, we’ll go over UC Personal Insight Questions tips and examples that’ll take your essays to the next level. 

And what does it look like when you effectively follow these UC essay tips? Behold: our 20 UC Personal Insight Questions examples.

Table of Contents

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #1: Make one anecdote the star of your UC essay

These UC essays are especially tricky because of the word limit: you only have 350 words to convey your message per essay. That means this: Don’t do too much in one short essay. In other words, don’t try to write about 3 different topics in one essay so that you can “fit” all you want to say. It’s always better to go for DEPTH per essay rather than BREADTH. 

Let me repeat that again: Depth > Breadth. 

Breadth is something you can easily tackle in your overall application because you literally have 4 UC essays to showcase breadth of experience. Depth is the piece that everyone’s answers to the UC Personal Insight Questions lack — so if your UC essays have depth, you’ll no doubt stand out from the crowd.

So how exactly do you add depth, you may ask?

In order to delve deeply into a subject, you only have space for one anecdote — one experience — as the main star of your UC Personal Insight essay. Here are basic steps:

  1. Showcase your anecdote by first setting up the scene of the story. 
  2. Showcase the conflict or obstacle that you encountered.
  3. Showcase your role in solving the conflict.
  4. Analyze how you grew and what you learned from this experience. 

So what does a UC essay with great depth actually look like? Checkout these UC Personal Insight Questions examples: 

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #2: Showcase growth throughout your essay

Writing about growth is honestly perhaps one of the more important UC Personal Insight tips I have for you. 

Why? Well, the answer is twofold. 

Firstly, admissions officers *love* to read about how you’ve grown from an event. An applicant’s ability to recognize learnings from an event and grow intellectually and personally is extremely important to colleges. Thus, admissions officers are on the lookout (especially via the UC personal insight essays) to pinpoint applicants that can bring this growth mindset to the UCs.

Secondly, writing about growth from an event is usually very difficult. So, not many students actually do this. Most UC essays I read fall short in this analysis department, so if you can go the extra mile and knock this out of the ballpark, you’re golden!

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #3: Showcase intellectual curiosity

Many of the UC personal insight essay examples I’ve shown you do a fantastic job showcasing intellectual curiosity — your UC essays should do the same. Admissions officers always look for students who demonstrate intellectual curiosity (basically, it means love of learning) in the UC application and UC Personal Insight essays. 

Now, it doesn’t work if you simply use the phrase, “intellectual curiosity” in your essay and call it a day. You have to show that you love to learn about XYZ.

Here’s another UC Personal Insight Essay Example that is dripping with intellectual curiosity. Clearly, the student loves to learn about a topic specific to him.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #4: Showcase something personal not on your UC application

You don’t have a lot of space in the UC application to write about all your accomplishments, interests, and dreams for the past 4 years. The UC Personal Insight Questions is your only opportunity to literally “speak” to the admissions committee about attributes that aren’t immediately clear in your overall application. 

So, what’s my UC essay tip here?

Use at least one of your UC Personal Insight Essays to showcase a personal aspect of who you are — something that isn’t highlighted in your activities list, if possible. In other words, tell them a personal story or a personal interest. Do you have:

  • A unique hobby? 
  • A story about moving and changing schools? 

Anything interesting will work! Also, here’s a hint: A fantastic UC Personal Insight Question to use for this type of essay is prompt #8.

Take a look at this UC Personal Insight Essay Example. This student does a fantastic job showcasing a lightbulb moment she had while doing yoga! If she didn’t write about this event, the admissions officer for UC Berkeley or UCLA would never have known this unique aspect of who she is!

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #5: Refrain from a wall of text

Take a look at the image above. What do you think looks more pleasing and interesting to read, especially to a tired admissions officer? 

Need I say more? Wall of text = not fun to read.

So, here’s a tip: break up your UC essay into several different paragraphs. Use dialogue if your anecdote warrants it, and allow that dialogue to take up one line of space.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #6: Use colons, dashes, sentence variations essay

This is a pretty great hack to elevate your UC essay (as long as you’re grammatically correct): Vary your sentence structure every so often by using dashes, semicolons, colons, dialogue, and rhetorical questions, just to name a few. Obviously, don’t overdo these to the point that it gets distracting, but doing so gives an illusion that you’re a better writer than you actually are 🙂

This is a quick and dirty essay tip to employ that many of my students do. If you take a look at this UC Personal Insight leadership essay example, this student makes use dashes effectively.

If you’re unsure about the grammatical rules of these devices, take a look at a resource like this one.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #7: Be concise & remove redundancies

This is a huuuuuuge UC essay tip. 

100% of my students have had issues with sentence and word redundancies at some point, so I’m willing to bet you’ll encounter this as well. Keep in mind: you’re limited on a 350 word count. Each sentence and word must add value to your story…if it doesn’t add anything, then get rid of it!

Here’s an easy way to check for redundancies: Avoid using the same word in the same sentence. In fact, you should keep away from using the same word more than twice in the same paragraph!

I’ll give you an example using a UC personal insight essay excerpt from this previous student:

I know I need to come up with something to help Jason remember, and with something he understands. Suddenly, I have it…Jason’s eyes light up with understanding, and I can’t help but smile with pride with how my on-the-spot creativity helped Jason learn something he before struggled to grasp.”

Yes, even the word, “I” can be taken out. I’d correct this excerpt like this:

“I need to come up with something to help Jason remember and understand. Suddenly, I have it…his eyes light up with understanding, and I can’t help but smile with pride by how my on-the-spot creativity helped Jason learn a concept he before struggled to grasp.”

To be honest, I’d edit this short excerpt even more because it can be written in a much better way. But, for now, at least the redundancy is slightly better and we’ve deleted 4 words 🙂

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #8: Don’t sound negative

This seems pretty obvious, but always have a positive spin on anything you write. Honestly, this is sort of a personality issue more than anything, but sounding even remotely negative is rarely a good thing in these UC Personal Insight Questions. 

Here’s an example from a UC essay draft of a student of mine that we had to correct:

“For an advocacy group that existed to protect homeowners, it definitely could’ve done with a better piece of real estate. When Laura first showed me the cubicle I’d be working out of, I thought it was a practical joke. That said, I had no reason to grumble…”

You know what I mean by slightly negative? It’s not overt, per se, but this sort of writing style reflects you in a negative light, so don’t do it!

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #9: Avoid vague language


This is a big one. Many students write in such vague ways that it can be ridiculously frustrating for a reader. 

One trigger word that shows this vagueness in language is the word, “different.” Here, I’ll literally give you an example from a previous student’s very rough UC Personal Insight essay draft.

“I felt intrigued that I was unaware of these different aspects of music and that I was unaware of how I can intertwine different topics to improve piano playing to the point that theory was just as important as the physical part of piano.”


When I read something like this, it’s like, “What DIFFERENT aspects of music are you talking about?!” In the context of this essay topic, this was an important learning for the student, but she didn’t explicitly tell us. If I were to rewrite this, I’d write something like this (of course, I’m just making things up):

“I was intrigued that there were many aspects of classical music that I was unaware of; elements like notations and dynamic markings are crucial to mastering the piano and playing with purpose. The theory of why certain notes are flat or sharp–the underpinnings of musical theory– communicate the intended message of the composers, and may be even more important than simply “just playing” the piano.”

See? So much less vagueness. Try it.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #10: Work on transitions between paragraphs and sentences

Lack of transitions and choppy sentence structures are relatively common in college application essays. Once you’re on your second or third draft, do this:

  1. Scrutinize each and every single sentence. Does the first sentence flow into the next sentence seamlessly, or does it feel choppy and/or disconnected?
  2. Now, step back and look at the transitions between paragraphs. Does the NEXT paragraph pick up where the last paragraph ended? Make sure that the flow — the transitions — are there.

Check this link out if you need inspiration for transition words/phrases.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #11: Use Contractions

Formal writing (the kind that you might be used to in analyzing Jane Eyre for English class) is great for school. But, the UC personal insight essays (and Common App essays, for that matter) are NOT school essays. They are basically stories about YOU. And, you have these tired admissions officers reading your UC essays —  you definitely don’t want to make their jobs more difficult and boring. 

That’s why informal voice is important. 

Now, don’t be casual to the point of sounding sloppy, but contractions are ok to use. However, you don’t want to overdose on flowery language, either. Be straightforward enough in your writing — don’t convolute words because it sounds more “intelligent.”

If I had to characterize the kind of clothes that your UC Personal Insight Question should be wearing, I’d say this: JCrew, not Brooks Brothers. In other words, stylish and approachable.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #12: Explicitly answer the essay prompt

I know — this seems pretty obvious, but some students don’t even do this, so it’s worth mentioning. 

Here’s a quick and easy essay tip: Reuse the words in the prompt so that it’s extra clear you’re answering the prompt. In other words, if the UC Personal Insight Question is this:

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.

Use words like “creative” and “original” in your essays (especially towards the end) to drill it into the reader’s heads that you’re 100% fully and explicitly answering the prompt.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #13: Think twice before answering prompt #5

This is prompt 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?

Now, if you do have a life event or something that has hindered or influenced your academics in any way, you have two options: You can write about it here OR you can write about it in the additional comments section of the UC application. 

My UC essay tip: choose the latter. Here’s why:

There are actually two additional comments sections — one has a limit of 550 words and the other has a limit of 550 characters. That’s more than enough space to write about the personal hardships if you feel like it needs to be mentioned. That way, you’ll have 4 full UC essays focused on showing exactly who you are to the admissions officers! 

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #14: Vary introductions

Here’s another super useful UC essay tip: Vary the intros per essay. 

Think about it this way: You’ll be writing 4 different essays, and at least two of them should begin in a different way to capture the attention of the droopy-eyed, tired admissions reader. 

For instance, if two of your essays begin with imagery as an intro, then start another essay with dialogue.

UC Personal Insight Essay Tip #15:Ensure that each essay is distinct 

Here’s the final UC essay tip — showcase different data points about yourself per essay. In other words, your 4 responses to the UC Personal Insight Questions should combine to give a holistic view of who you are as an applicant; don’t squander an opportunity to showcase yourself by being redundant in your UC essays. 

Ask yourself this: what four distinct data points do I want to show the admissions officers about who I am? 

Capturing yourself in 4 short, 350 word essays is no easy task — but if you follow these UC essay tips, you’ll be in shape to pump out some stellar content! 

Have more questions on how to effectively answer the UC Personal Insight Questions? Ask us in the comments below!