UC Essay Personal Insight Questions – Prompts and Tips 2022-23
The 2021-22 admissions cycle saw the nine undergraduate University of California campuses collectively attract an all-time record of 250,000+ applications; this represented a 15% increase from two years prior. Logic would suggest that institutions receiving as many as 139,000 applications (UCLA) would not employ a particularly holistic admissions process. Certainly not one that would give any weight to a supplemental essay, much less to four essays. In general, large institutions do indeed rarely devote much time to carefully considering application essays. Yet, true to brand, the UC schools defy convention. And thanks to some recent global changes enacted across the whole UC system, the UC essay prompts have become an even more essential application component to anyone who hopes to study at any of the following UC campuses:
- San Diego
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Cruz
(Want to learn more about How to Get Into the University of California campus of your dreams? Visit our blogs entitled: How to Get Into UC Berkeley: Admissions Data and Strategies and How to Get Into UCLA for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.)
Standardized Testing Changes at the University of California
In May 2020, as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. educational system (not to mention the rest of the country/world), the UC Board of Regents voted to make all of their universities test-optional for students applying to enroll in fall 2021 and fall 2022. By itself, such an announcement was hardly notable. After all, hundreds of other high-profile colleges made similar temporary policy changes due to the impact of COVID-19. It was the changes for fall 2022 applicants (and beyond) that shocked the higher education universe…
To everyone’s astonishment, this gargantuan system that garners over a quarter of a million applicants per year decided to go “test-blind,” moving forward. This means that, for in-state applicants, none of the nine schools listed above will even look at an applicant’s SAT or ACT score anymore. So, what’s the takeaway here for you, a future UC applicant? Simple: the essays matter more than ever before. Your writing will be your main opportunity to differentiate yourself from swarms of other well-qualified applicants.
Given this new reality, let’s turn our attention to the focal point of the article—the prompts themselves. For each, we will offer thoughts/tips to guide you with prompt selection and execution of a stellar composition.
A Prompt-by-Prompt Guide to the UC Personal Insight Essays
*Note: Your response to each prompt is limited to 350 words.
UC Essay Prompt: 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.
Leadership is an admirable quality, but it can manifest in many different forms. This essay is not only for those who captained a varsity team to a state title or founded a charitable organization, or served as student body president. Teamwork and collaboration are also valued leadership skills both in academia and in the workplace, and students with strong interpersonal skills and a high EQ can be an asset to any university. Think beyond the title that you may have held and more about the action(s) of which you are most proud. Note that the university invites you to share a story that involves your family. In other words, it doesn’t just have to be school or extracurriculars.
To sum up, this essay is about leadership, broadly defined. You can chronicle anything from mentoring others on your debate team to a simple instance of conflict resolution within your peer group. This is often a prompt that appeals more to extroverts, but that does not preclude a story of quiet leadership from being a winning choice here.
UC Essay Prompt: 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.
Whether you are a prospective studio art, mechanical engineering, mathematics, or psychology major, creativity and the art of problem-solving will likely be at the heart of what you do. Even if few would refer to you as a “creative type,” this prompt can still serve as a nice platform from which to reveal more about what makes you tick and the unique ways in which your synapses fire.
There are two ways to go with this prompt. First you could: Tie your creativity directly to your future major and/or career. Secondly, you could: paint a picture of your personal brand of creativity that reveals who you are as an individual. Either way, this prompt can inspire some highly-impactful, needle-moving responses from applicants.
UC Essay Prompt: 3) What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
If you are a world-class athlete, you are likely already in the recruitment process. If you placed high in AIME or won a National Merit Scholarship, that is already stated in the awards section. Therefore, using the prized 350 words of real estate to merely rehash the fact that you won an award would not be an inspiring move.
If you read the question closely, UC wants to know how you got good at whatever it is that you excel at doing. A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that becoming a master or expert at anything takes 10,000 hours of practice. Consider talking about the grind and sacrifice it took you to become great at a given skill and how you see that skill becoming even more finely-tuned/developed over time. If this skill fits into your future academic/career plans, all the better—share that too!
UC Essay Prompt: 4) Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This is a prompt that acknowledges the fact that some students are born with more advantages than others. Some teens attend schools with very limited advanced course offerings; others attend high schools with 25+ AP courses. Whether you come from a privileged or an economically-disadvantaged home, this prompt can be a solid choice for you.
First off, it’s important to acknowledge that an “educational opportunity” doesn’t have to be your regular high school curriculum; it can be a summer program, debate club, shadowing opportunity with a physician, or a language immersion program in Peru.
On the overcoming an educational barrier front, this could be an issue of resources/economics or the barrier could be in the form of a learning disability, mental or physical health challenge, or just merely stretching yourself to take an AP Physics course when that area was not your strong suit.
Colleges like students who demonstrate grit, perseverance, and resilience as these qualities typically lead to success in a postsecondary environment. No matter what type of example you offer, demonstrating these admirable traits can do wonders for your admissions prospects.
UC Essay 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?
This is a more generalized version of PI Question #4. Challenges can be anything mentioned in the previous section (disabilities, depression, etc.). They could also be events like: you moved in the middle of junior year or the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with your activities. Or perhaps your parents got divorced, a grandparent passed away, or any number of other personal/family traumas one can name. If a challenge you faced and overcame is a core part of your personal story, then this is a great choice. Just be sure to include the positive steps you have taken in response to the challenge!
UC Essay Prompt: 6) Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Students who are “Undecided” may shy away from this prompt. Contrarily, those who are laser-focused on a given academic area often find this to be an ideal selection. Whether it’s a general love for math/science or literature or a specific interest in aerospace engineering or 19th century Russian novels, use this opportunity to share what makes you tick, the ideas that keep you up at night, and what subject inspires you to dream big.
Explain how your love of this subject may tie into your area of study or even a future career path. Feel free to include details about how the UC school(s) of your dreams can help you further this interest. You can name specific courses, professors, internship/research opportunities, clubs, or other campus resources that you have researched.
7) What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
How you interact with your present surroundings is the strongest indicator of what kind of future community member you’ll be. This PI prompt asks you to define your role within a community—your high school, your neighborhood, your family, or even a club or sports team. Some words of warning with this one: don’t get too grandiose in explaining the positive change that you brought about. Of course, if you truly brought peace to a war-torn nation or influenced global climate change policy, share away; but, nothing this high-profile is expected. This is more a question about how to relate to others, your value system, your charitable/giving nature, and how you interact with the world around you. If you have a sincere and heartfelt story in this vein to share, then #7 is an excellent selection.
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?
Is there anything you have yet to share that is absolutely elemental to who you are as a person? Without the benefit of an in-person interview, it may feel like you never fully had a chance to connect intimately with a UC admissions officer. You have a burning sense that you have not communicated your true essence, your je ne sais quoi, your…you get the idea. If something important hasn’t been communicated elsewhere in the application, then PI #8 is about to become your best friend.
Consider that the admissions reader is already somewhat familiar with your academic history, activities, and awards. What don’t they know, or, what could they understand on a deeper level? This could be a particular skill or talent, or something about your character or personality. This one is intentionally open-ended, so use this space to share your most cherished accomplishments or most winning attributes. The university itself is inviting you to “brag” here. Therefore, we recommend obliging, by presenting the equivalent to a “closing argument” at the end of this admissions trial.
College Transitions’ Final Thoughts
- With the introduction of a test-blind policy, the Personal Insight Questions have never been of greater importance.
- Pick the four prompts from which you can generate the most compelling and revealing essays. No prompts are inherently favored or preferred by the admissions committee.
- If you are able to organically and convincingly tie-in your academic and career interests and/or how a prospective UC institution can help you achieve your goals, take the opportunity to do just that (in any prompt).
- Strongly consider PI #8. It is the most open-ended option and allows you to highlight anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere in the application.
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans two decades. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.