How to Pick Your UC Personal Insight Questions


Note: Before reading this article, you may want to start with Jon G.’s breakdown of the new University of California personal insight questions.


Getting onto the Spaceship

In order to understand how to approach your UC Personal Insight questions, consider an alternative, but parallel, reality.

It’s the year 3000. Planet Earth is on the edge of total destruction. Luckily, Elon Musk’s SpaceX team has set up a thriving colony on Mars. But it’s near max capacity—of the 206,000 humans left on Earth, all clamoring to get onto the red planet, only 123,000 will be admitted, and only the very select few will be invited to live in the colony’s finest districts, such as BerkeleyX and UCLAX. 

In order to ensure you get on that spaceship to Mars, you’re going to need to file an application. SpaceX will only admit the best and the brightest. The team cares very much about your numbers—your GPA and your standardized test scores—but the people on Mars don’t want to live among brainiacs only. They want interesting people with diverse interests and skill sets, creative approaches to solving problems, and an ability to find meaning in this new world. 

And so, to find these interesting people, SpaceX provides those remaining on Earth with eight questions. You’re invited to respond to four.  

We’re not actually talking about sending you to Mars, of course. But the analogy reveals exactly the way that the UC thinks about this part of your application: with few seats available, the UC has crafted these questions in order to build a student body with a range of meaningful interests and life experiences. These questions are designed for you to let the admissions officers know the essential “You” beyond your transcripts and resume. 

But how do I decide which ones to choose? Which four questions will help me describe exactly who I am and why I deserve a coveted spot on the spaceship?


First, go through each question and write some provisional notes. Ask yourself: What would I write about if I were forced to answer each of these questions? Let’s begin by brainstorming, one question at a time.

  1. The “leadership” question. Think back on your high school experiences. Have you served as a leader on a club or a sports team? Have you helped younger kids through community service? Think, too, about life at home. Are you the oldest among your siblings? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to get specific. Can you recall an event or a period of time in which you helped improve a situation by taking the lead? 
  2. The “creativity” question. This is a no-brainer for students interested in the arts. If you’re passionate about literature, music, painting, or photography, this prompt can help show the UC a side of yourself that can get lost in the cold numbers of SAT scores and GPAs. But even if you’re not an artist, this question may be for you. Have you ever taken an unusual path to solving a problem? Have you found unlikely connections among school subjects? As the question itself suggests, creativity is about far more than artistic expression. 
  3. The “special talent” question. Your talent could be anything: singing opera, playing goalie on your soccer team, or cooking incredible pastries. The key here, as with all questions, is that your talent has significant meaning in your life. Maybe your skill with the violin has been central to your development as a student, a friend, a family member, a mentor, or a thinker. Perhaps your handiwork with a yo-yo has made you more social or has taught you the value of persistence.
  4. The “educational opportunity/barrier” question. This question asks you to reflect on the privileges you’ve enjoyed or the barriers that have stood in your way. Have you taken advanced courses in a subject you’re passionate about? Have you had the chance to attend a summer institute in the arts or sciences? If so, explain how this opportunity has shaped who you are today and who you want to become in the future. On the other side of the coin: Are there financial barriers that have interfered with your education? Perhaps you’ve held a job throughout high school and have struggled to balance school, work, and the social pressures of life as a teenager. Barriers, of course, can include more than finances. Perhaps, for instance, you’ve struggled with a language barrier if you or your parents are from outside the U.S. Any meaningful hurdle is worth considering.
  5. The “significant challenges” question. Maybe you have faced a significant obstacle in your life, but it wasn’t necessarily an impediment to your education. Challenges could include the loss of a friend or family member, a move from one place to another, or even an intensive struggle with your worst high school subject. Again, the key here is to find meaning in the struggle: how has this challenge shaped you?
  6. The “favorite subject” question. Each of us has a favorite subject. How has yours improved your life? Keep in mind that your favorite subject does not need to be your best subject or the subject you plan to major in. In fact, the most interesting response to this question might explain how your favorite subject (say, biology) has somehow drawn you to a seemingly unrelated major (say, history). 
  7. The “improving your school/community” question. Perhaps you’ve improved a situation at your school, hometown, or home, but not necessarily from a “leadership” position. If you’ve helped a friend in need, assisted your parents at home or work, rescued a stray animal from certain death—well, you might not call yourself a “leader,” but your contributions are no less valuable.
  8. The “unique” question. This question asks, “what sets you apart from other candidates”? But the UC elaborates that the question doesn’t require you to compare yourself to others. Focus, simply, on “what makes you, YOU.” Is there something essential about yourself that the first seven questions don’t cover? Keep in mind that you should only respond to this question if your answer does not fit into the other seven categories.


Once you’ve considered each question, it’s time to think in terms of meaning. You probably could answer most of these questions if you needed to. But which of your answers will offer the most meaningful insights into who you are as a student, a thinker, a person? 

This question can be difficult, even impossible, to answer until you start writing. As the English novelist E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” 

In order to figure out what exactly you think, and to see which of these eight questions help your case most, begin with these three steps:

  1. Choose five of the eight questions to write on. You want to expand your menu as much as you can. By starting with five questions instead of four, you’ll give yourself more options to choose from later.
  2. Pick the one question that seems the easiest to answer. 
  3. Then write a “zero draft” in response to that question. A “zero draft” is not even a first draft—it will be seen by no one but yourself. It’s vital that you begin writing without an audience in mind. As Professor Betty Sue Flowers explains of writing:
You have to let the madman out. The madman has got to be allowed to go wild. Then you can let the architect in and design the structure. After that, you can have the engineer come in and put it together. And then you let the janitor in to clean it up. The problem is, most people let the janitor in before they let the madman out. 

At the zero-draft stage of writing, you’re simply spilling your unstructured thoughts onto the page, making connections wherever they pop up. As you begin, don’t worry about structure, grammar, or clarity—all of these secondary concerns will only get in the way of developing your ideas.*

Once you’re done with your first zero draft, write another—and then three more. Pay no attention to length. Write as much comes to mind, without care for logic. 

Once you’ve finished, you now have five options to choose from. Which answers allow you to explain what matters to you most? Which reveal your fundamental sense of yourself? 

After you work up your “zero draft” into a more presentable “first draft,” ask a teacher or mentor to read your responses. You’ll need an outsider’s perspective to help you figure exactly how you’re going to get to Mars.

*Quoted in John R. Trimble, Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Il: Pearson, 2011), 22.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities, and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite of Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on October 24, 2016 .

15% of California National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists are Elite Students

This year's National Merit Scholarship semifinalists have been announced, and of the 2,014 semifinalists from California, 332 of them are students at Elite. 

National Merit Scholarship semifinalists are selected based on their scores from the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). This group of semifinalists represents less than 1% of high school seniors in the United States.

You can find a complete list of California National Merit Scholarship semifinalists at The Mercury News.

Congratulations to all the National Merit Scholarship semifinalists and to all our students at Elite!

Posted on October 13, 2016 .

When It Comes to Colleges, the Biggest Name Doesn't Always Mean the Best Fit

What’s in a Ranking?

When the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) released its much-anticipated annual college and university rankings in September, there weren’t many big surprises. In fact, what is remarkable about this year’s rankings is just how consistent they are with those from recent history. 

For the sixth consecutive year, Princeton tops the list of “national universities”; Williams takes the top spot among liberal arts colleges for the 14th year in a row; and the University of California, Berkeley keeps its grips on the top public university spot for the 19th straight year. In the midst of applications season, as millions of high school students around the globe look to these rankings for guidance, it’s worth asking the question: what exactly makes these schools so exceptional, year after year?

To answer that question, let’s look at USNWR’s methodology. The publication ranks schools based on seven weighted criteria designed to measure “academic quality”: 

  1. Graduation and retention rates (22.5%), which measures what percentage of the first-year student body stays on for a sophomore year and eventually graduates. 
  2. Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%), based on the opinions of university administrators and high school guidance counselors. 
  3. Faculty resources (20%), a measurement including class size, faculty salary, the degrees earned by faculty, student-faculty ratios, and proportion of full-time faculty. 
  4. Student selectivity (12.5%), including SAT and ACT scores of admitted students, the number of students who graduated at or near the top of their high school classes, acceptance rates. 
  5. Financial resources (10%), measuring the average spending the university devotes to each student. 
  6. Graduation rate performance (7.5%), the percentage of students who graduated as compared to USNWR’s projections. 
  7. Alumni giving rate (5%), the percentage of alumni that donated money to their alma maters. 

While all of these criteria are useful factors in measuring the integrity and prestige of colleges and universities, what’s left out—indeed, what would be nearly impossible to measure—is the quality of education that you, prospective college student, will benefit from over the next four years. 

What’s absent in any sweeping ranking system like the USNWR is the question of fit. Truly, the only measure that matters in choosing a school is where you will thrive—where you will find your passion, your peers, and the beginnings of not only your career but life as an adult. This is a question that no ranking system can answer for you.

What’s in a Name?

While prestigious names like Princeton, Williams, and UC, Berkeley have the built-in advantages of name recognition, such institutions are not necessarily the right fit for most students, even some of the “best and brightest.” According to William Deresiewicz, former professor at Yale University and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014), the best education for most students will not come from within the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. 

“Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think,” Deresiewicz explains, “but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions.” In other words, while many of the top-ranked schools in the country do help prepare students for professional life beyond college (especially through name recognition), they’re not always the best places to foster genuine knowledge and understanding—key, transferrable skills not only for developing the life of the mind, but for navigating the ever-changing global economy and job market of the 21st century.  

But aren’t the top schools supposed to be the most rigorous? According to Deresiewicz, not necessarily: “There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a ‘nonaggression pact.’ Students are regarded by the institution as ‘customers,’ people to be pandered to instead of challenged.” As Deresiewicz explains, admission into the Ivy League and similarly prestigious universities is a reward for a job-well-done in high school, but it does not necessarily translate into the best college education.

To understand why this is so, it’s important to understand who makes up the faculty at the top universities—at the likes of Princeton and Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago. The majority of professors at these institutions are hired and promoted for their research and hardly (often not at all) for their teaching. As a result, the highest achieving professors are often not the best teachers, since they are usually not incentivized to spend much time on their classes and their students. As Deresiewicz explains, “the profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.”

Finding the Right Fit

If you’re interested in getting the very best education possible, chances are you won’t find it at the very top of the USNWR rankings. You’re more likely to find it in what Deresiewicz calls the “second tier—not second-rate—colleges” such as Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke, where teaching plays a central role in hiring and promoting professors. Uninterested in competing with the Ivies for points on the ranking systems, these liberal arts schools are more focused on educating students than on padding admissions statistics and their endowments. 

You might also find your ideal education at a quality public university, from any of the University of California and California State campuses to the University of Michigan, University of Texas, or University of Maryland, to name a few. These schools often lose rankings points for having large class sizes, but such schools often feature a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body. As most college graduates will tell you, you will learn just as much from your peers as you will from your professors. A student body made up of a diverse range of life experiences and perspectives would make for an invaluable contribution to your intellectual and personal growth. 

When deciding on which school to choose, it’s important to look beyond the rankings. What will I study? Which schools are particularly suited to my major? Which school’s faculty will help me learn most? Which school’s student body will help me grow? These are questions that you can only begin to answer by visiting campuses, speaking to alumni in person and online, and looking inside yourself to get a better sense of where and what you’ll want to be in four years.

In other words, finding the best fit means finding your own criteria for “academic quality.” 


Want to learn more? Sources I consulted in writing this piece include:

Nick Anderson, “U.S. News college rankings: Princeton, Williams and UC-Berkeley at the top, again” (Sept. 13, 2016)

Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), excerpted here; see a talk by Bruni here

William Deresiewicz, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” (2014)

William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014)

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities, and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite of Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on October 5, 2016 and filed under College Admissions.

What's Up with the New University of California Personal Insight Questions?

The University of California has introduced eight personal insight questions as part of its application process/review. These questions are designed to elicit responses from students that align with one or more of the comprehensive review criteria that the UC uses to determine admissions.

Here are the eight personal insight questions:

  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. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Of the eight questions, students must select and respond to only four, so choose the four that you want to write about. Ideally, the questions you choose will allow you to put your best foot forward and let your personality shine through.

Each response has a max limit of 350 words, but there is no minimum. So, if you get your point across in fewer than 350 words, that is completely okay.

It is also important to note that you may not use the additional comments section to answer another one of the questions beyond the four you select. Many of the questions have two parts, so it is vital that you answer both parts (notably, numbers 1, 3, 5, and 6). However, all of the questions have equal value. And get this, writing style and grammar are not part of the review, but you should still (and always) aim to write responses free of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors.

Fortunately, your responses are considered in light of your application, so they will not be read in a vacuum. The whole point is to contextualize your high school experiences and accomplishments in order to enlighten the admissions reader as to why you would be a valuable addition to the UC community. 

Admissions readers are looking to see what they can learn about you, essentially conducting fact-finding missions. Stick to the facts and think, “Will a stranger understand me from this context?” Since UC admission review is a cumulative process, you want to convey as much information as possible to the readers. Treat your personal insight responses as your interview, and using your own unique voice, communicate the information that paints you in the best light possible.

So, what exactly are the UCs looking for?

  • Direct responses to the questions – get straight to the point and elaborate, no flowery/metaphorical language
  • Greater authenticity – maximize the student voice (I, my); use your everyday vocabulary
  • Total clarity – Who are you and what is the context of your accomplishments during your 4 years of high school?
  • No guessing – Any relevant information that reflects individual circumstances and adds depth to the application (they can’t assume anything you haven’t told them)

Remember, this is your application, and if you don’t shine the spotlight on yourself, no one else will. The best person to authentically tell your stories is YOU!

Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite of Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."

Fall Test Prep and College Application Workshops are Here!

The school year is underway, and Elite's Fall Session classes are here! Give your students the academic edge they need with one of our many autumn offerings.

Contact your local Elite branch today to schedule a free diagnostic test and consultation to find which programs are right for you.* 

Fall Session classes include:

SAT Prep

Elite’s SAT Reasoning Test Prep Program consists of a weekly practice test and three lecture classes covering Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. In the lecture classes, students  review the practice test with experienced instructors and continue their learning through a series of lessons containing exercises designed to develop their reading, math, grammar, and writing skills.

AP Tutoring

Advanced Placement (AP) Courses offer students an opportunity to earn college credit and strengthen their college applications. Elite’s instructors are the best around, and many are AP high school teachers or college instructors who are experts in their fields.



The Elite PSAT Program is designed for students in 9th and 10th grade who want to get a head start on preparing for the PSAT and SAT. PSAT Boot Camp offers a set of three interlocking classes (Critical Reading, Writing and a Math class previewing Algebra II) taught at a pace more suited to younger students.

SAT Subject Test Prep

Elite provides comprehensive preparation for many of the SAT Subject Tests consisting of weekly practice test sessions and review classes with instructors who not only are knowledgeable about their subjects but also understand how to help students prepare effectively for the SAT Subject Tests.Click here to learn more about SAT Subject Tests.

ReadiPrep™ English

Aimed at students in grades 5-9, ReadiPrep™ English focuses on developing studies’ critical reading and thinking skills through an interconnected course of study involving reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar studies, persuasive writing, and test skill development.

College Application Workshop

College admissions are more competitive than ever, and a finely-crafted essay can be the part of your application that distinguishes you from the crowd. In Elite's College Application Workshop, students learn how to write unique, memorable, and powerful application essays. Teachers meet with students individually to proofread, critique, and revise multiple drafts, helping students create polished and compelling personal statements. In addition, teachers can provide step-by-step guidance in listing extra-curricular activities and completing college application forms.

*Classes and schedules vary by branch. Check your branch's fall schedule for details.

For class schedules and registration info, contact your local Elite branch today!

Posted on August 31, 2016 .

Summer Boot Camp in Shanghai

This summer, Elite China offers the same top American academic preparation and counseling services for all students in grades 3 to 12 at our two Shanghai locations:

Pudong: No.1789 Yunshan Road; 021-61945586
Xuhui: No.406-1 West Jianguo Road; 021-60293805

Contact your closest campus for more information or visit

Posted on May 16, 2016 .