7 Tips for Answering the University of California Personal Insight Questions

7 Tips for Answering the University of California Personal Insight Questions

Last year, the University of California (UC) campuses received more than 221,000 undergraduate applications for the fall 2018 term. From all of those, they could admit only 71,000.

To make such tough decisions, the admissions staff will strive to get to know you, but since none of the UCs conduct student interviews and none accept letters of recommendation, your application will be the only way they get to “meet” you. As you can imagine, grades, test scores, and descriptions of activities and awards can only communicate so much about your dynamic, unique personality—so this is where your personal statement comes in.

To assess whether you will be a good fit for the university and excel once you get there, the admissions staff wants to know who you are: your interests, challenges, thoughts, perspectives, experiences. And they want to understand your background and life circumstances so that they can better interpret the rest of your application.

Through the UC Personal Insight Questions, you have the opportunity to fill them in. As the name suggests, these are not your typical “college essays.” You will be asked to choose four out of eight given prompts and respond to each in 350 words or fewer. The UCs are primarily looking to learn more information about you, so unlike many college essays, these questions are best answered in straightforward, rather than poetic or stylistic, prose.


The UC 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. 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?

Guidelines for How to Approach the UC Questions

1. Read Through all 8 prompts

Note any that stand out as topics you might want to write about, and jot down any ideas that come to mind.

2. Brainstorm

You have had innumerable experiences over the years, but perhaps have not spent much time reflecting on how they have affected you or what you have learned. So now’s the time to do some deeper-level thinking.

  • A good place to start is to write down all of your high school activities and awards. Think about what you’ve spent most of your time doing, what’s most important to you, and what you think someone who has never met you might want to hear more about.

  • Then try writing down five of each of the following:

    • Personality traits (e.g., optimistic, analytical, humorous)

    • Interests/passions/talents (e.g., soccer, painting, tutoring)

    • Values (ideas that are important to you, e.g., honesty, reliability, efficiency)

    • Objects (items that capture an essence of you, e.g., journal, necklace, green tea)

    • Challenges (most difficult times of your life)

    • Times you have felt really excited or lost track of time doing something

    • Experiences that have defined you or caused you to change

    • Attributes that make you overall great

  • From your list, choose three to five of the most important aspects of yourself, and write down specific stories, examples, or details that illustrate each one.

3. Write a Stream-of-Consciousness

Pick your favorite UC prompt and spend 15 minutes writing anything that comes to mind. IMPORTANT: It does not have to sound good. Feel free to write like a third-grader or even make no sense. If it’s easier, record yourself telling a story out loud and then transcribe. And definitely don’t worry about the word limit yet.

4. Choose Your Other Three UC Prompts

As you consider which topics to write about, make sure all four responses will fit together to showcase your character as a whole, without overlapping ideas. Be sure to include aspects of yourself that admissions officers would not learn about in other parts of your application. If you are applying to a professional college (such as the College of Engineering or Biological Sciences), somewhere in your writings discuss your intended field of study and any school or work-related experience you’ve had by answering prompt #6 about an academic subject that inspires you.

5. Structure Your Responses

As you edit your drafts, it often works well to tell a story. Offering a glimpse into your life, you in action, can be the most compelling and effective way to make an impression on your readers. You can recount a single experience or a narrative that spans a few years. Keep in mind that you want to focus on who you currently are, so mostly discuss examples from your high school years. You can certainly mention important events from your childhood but then explain how they’ve contributed to who you are today. For some prompts, tying together a series of examples may work better than one story. In all cases, the more specific details you can include, the better. You’re the only one who has lived your life, so add enough specifics to show them your unique way of interacting with the world.

6. Add Personal Insight

Each answer should also include some insight and reflection. Think about why what you are writing matters, to you and to others, and what you learned from each experience. Expressing uncommon ways of seeing things will help your individuality stand out among the other 200,000 or so applicants.

7. Revise and Proofread

As you read over your writing, consider the following questions that admissions officers are hoping to answer about you:

  • Who is this person?

  • Will this person contribute to our campus?

  • Will this person be successful at our school?

  • Can this person write ( with proper grammar and mechanics)?

And you will want to be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • Do you sound like yourself?

  • Are you speaking genuinely?

  • Do you answer the prompt?

Despite all these guidelines, remember that there is not a “right” way to answer the UC Personal Insight Questions, per se. Above all, try to have fun and be yourself without judging your answers too much, and you’ll be good to go.

Need help building the perfect college application?

With Elite Prep’s College Application Services, you’ll work with an experienced counselor and mentor to craft a winning college-application package that shines a light on exactly who you are and what you’ve achieved. Contact your local Elite Prep branch to schedule a free consultation today!


Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.