EDIT: Added link to live YouTube video on the topic
The University of California applications have opened up and it is CRUNCH TIME. There are a whopping 8 different topics for the Personal Insight Questions (PIQ). In this article, we will go through each of the topics and list the reasons you should choose the prompt, avoid the prompt as well the components that make it a strong or weak response.
#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.
This prompt really excels if you have had a leadership role, either formal or informal, that was challenging and involved other people. When choosing this prompt, make sure that your role was significant. Without that, it will be difficult to come up with the nuances that are required in order to add the substance to the story, while being honest.
A strong response in this category includes a challenging experience. One that you can really describe as putting in your “blood, sweat, and tears” (yes, I know that is cliche, but it has that reputation for a reason). Your essay needs to define your definition of leadership throughout your essay. It should be through your actions, trials, tribulations, and ultimately the results, that make fill this essay.
#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.
To all you artist types, this prompt should really stand out. It allows you to use the creativity that you have spent so long nurturing. Even if you are not applying as an art major, if you feel like some form of creativity really defines you, this is an excellent opportunity. Obviously, the topic you choose to write about should be about an activity that has occurred multiple times. You want to really show here your persistence to the craft.
Remember, your PIQs are your opportunity to reveal yourself. Don’t force yourself to write about something you don’t feel positive about.
A strong response for this PIQ can be achieved by describing in detail what about the activity makes it creative to you. You want to dive into the details about the process that makes it art to you and not necessarily the results.
You want to avoid writing the activity without commenting and discussing the importance of creativity. This is not another place to list your awards and activities. Instead, emphasize the meaning of this activity to you.
#3 What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
This prompt is great if you have a non-academic skill that you have developed or honed in during high school. What will help you even more with this prompt is if this skill has more use than only personal. Admissions officers love to see a good deed done and here would be a great place to showcase your service and developed skill.
Some topics to avoid include athletic based skills that revolve around the persistence or overcoming narrative. This is an overused plot that typically does not stand out. If you are committed to using athletics, try to dig deeper and find another key narrative that you can write. The great thing about sports is that they teach numerous skills that can be applied to many scenarios. Next, make sure you have at least 2 separate examples that support your narrative. This shows that this skill is something that you have developed and applied to multiple scenarios and situations and that this growth is holistic.
Remember — greatness should be defined as something greater than self-service.
“Greatness should be defined as something greater than self-service.”
#4 Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
High School is the time for many experiences. Hopefully, some of those experiences can apply to this prompt. Think of summer programs, clubs, athletics, and work experiences. You should note that the educational opportunity does not necessarily have to be academic in nature, as long as you gained something valuable from the experience. It definitely can be an educational opportunity, especially if you were able to overcome a barrier to your educational experience in high school.
Obviously, avoid this prompt if you do not have meaningful experiences outside of school. A common misconception with this sort of prompt is that people use it as a place to include death, depression, or suicide. While these topics are most definitely important and should be noted on your application, this is NOT the place for it. List these things under the “Additional Comments” either in the “Academic History” section or after the PIQs.
A strong response for the people writing about an educational opportunity includes the clear takeaways from the opportunity and why they are important to your future. For the people discussing the educational barrier, a great essay is made by a clear solution to the problem. Moreover, explaining how you overcame the barrier, and what you learned about yourself from that experience. Avoid writing a what based article without a clear conclusion to sum up your learnings.
#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?
This prompt is perfect if you encountered a non-academic challenge that ended positively or taught you something about yourself. Once again, avoid writing about death, depression, and DRAMA. They typically need many supporting characters and take up a lot more space. Remember, the essays are all about YOU, YOU, and YOU.
A strong response here is made by the challenge being personally significant. Without that, your conclusion will be seen as weak and therefore not significant either.
Avoid a challenge that was about grades or was academic in nature. Again, this story is played out and makes you seem superficial with not much experience to talk about. Also, please avoid any challenge that reeks of privilege. You have to keep the issues you discuss in perspective.
#6 Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
This is a good prompt for you if you haven’t addressed the reason for pursuing your major in any other prompt. It is also a great choice if you have a wide array of learning experiences, including classes and extracurricular activities. Especially ones that demonstrate consistent interest in an academic subject. This is best if the topic pertains directly to your major.
If you have not really furthered your interest in any subject outside of class, this topic is not for you. Furthermore, avoid this topic if the academic subject that you pick has nothing to do with the major you are applying to.
Strong response comes from explanation of what specific parts of the subject inspire you. Make sure to include concrete examples of how you’ve furthered this interest outside class, ideally through additional studies, readings, and experiences.
Weak responses generally include discussion of class experience but limited to no exposure outside of class. Furthermore, lacking specifics about what subject parts inspire you also derail an effective response.
#7 What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Have you truly had a meaningful service experience? Then, this prompt is for you. Really, that’s all you need to make an effective use of this prompt, and is one that we recommend often. A strong response here just requires you to be vulnerable. Often, starting as a new volunteer is a daunting experience, so describing how you felt when you started and comparing that with how you ended feeling (and impacting others) is the best. Don’t forget to clearly define how your contribution “made your community a better place”.
Remember to avoid listing volunteer experiences that are unrelated. You don’t want to detract from your story. Staying focused is key for this prompt. Defining how your work made the community a better place is a must. Without it, your impact doesn’t show, and your essay is less memorable.
#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?
This can be construed as a wildcard prompt. One where you can tell almost any story. This is powerful but also dangerous. You need to be able to communicate the story with an arc that highlights the positive experiences you have. You should use this prompt if you believe there is a character attribute that is extremely important to you. Just because others may be the same doesn’t mean they hold that attribute as importantly as you do.
Skip this prompt if you have no meaningful examples to back up your statement. Also, skip this if you have too many small examples to back up your statement, rather than 1-2 hallmark examples. Once again, this prompt is not about perseverance. It is rather cliche and this prompt just isn’t the one for that.
Alright… that’s all 8 prompts summed up with our best tips and tricks to help you out in our week of UC Applications.
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