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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Pick the one question that seems the easiest to answer.
- 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.
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.