The 2020-21 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 the previous year. Logic would suggest that institutions receiving as many as 108,000 applications (UCLA) would not employ a particularly holistic admissions process–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, but the UC schools defy convention. And thanks to some recent global changes enacted across the whole UC system, the essays are about to become an even more essential application component to anyone who hopes to study at:

  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UC Irvine
  • UCLA
  • UC Merced
  • UC Riverside
  • UC San Diego
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • UC Santa Cruz

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, with hundreds of other high-profile colleges making similar temporary policy changes due to the impact of COVID-19. It was the changes for fall 2023 and fall 2024 applicants 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,” beginning in the 2022-23 application cycle. This means that, for in-state applicants, none of the nine schools listed above will even look at an SAT or ACT score. The University of California aims to develop their own UC-endorsed test by 2025. So, what’s the takeaway here for you, a future UC applicant? Simple: the essays matter more than ever before as they will be your main opportunity to differentiate yourself from swarms of other well-qualified applicants.

Given this new reality, let’s turn out 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.

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, started a charitable organization, or made sweeping changes 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 share a story that involves your family (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. In general, this is a prompt that appeals more to extroverts, but that does not preclude a story of quiet leadership from being a winning choice in this space.

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: a) Tie your creativity directly to your future major and/or career or b) 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.

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 for something you are good at 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!

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, school debate club, shadowing opportunity with a physician, language immersion program in Peru, etc.

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.

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.) or events like: you moved in the middle of junior year, the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with your activities, your parents got divorced, a grandparent passed away, or any number of other personal/family traumas one can name. If a challenge you have faced and overcome (or are working toward overcoming) is a core part of your personal story, then this prompt is a great choice. Just be sure to include the positive steps you have taken in response to the challenge!

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, but 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.

Don’t ignore the prompt’s suggestion to address how your love of this subject may tie into your area of study at a UC campus 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 community member you will be in your future collegiate home. 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 climate change policy on a global scale, 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, heartfelt, and detailed story in this vein to share, then #7 can be 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?

After completing your UC application and first three essays, is there anything that you have yet to share that is absolutely elemental to who you are as a person/student? 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 the full you, your true essence, your je ne sais quoi, your…you get the idea. If you feel something important about yourself has yet to be communicated elsewhere in the application, then PI #8 is about to become your best friend.

Consider that the admissions reader is already familiar, at least in a cursory sense, 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, so we recommend obliging, by presenting the equivalent to “closing argument” at the end of this admissions trial.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

  • With the introduction of test-optional/test-blind policies, 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, as it is the most open-ended option and allows you to highlight any strengths or passions that don’t fit elsewhere in the application.