In 2021, the University of California system received 249,855 applications. That’s an increase of 16.1 percent over 2020! As UC schools receive more and more applicants who fit their academic standards, they’re relying increasingly on essays to help choose students with compelling interests, unique stories, and who have made an impact on their community.
The UC Personal Insight questions are your chance to present who you are from a number of angles: The leader, the thinker, the artist, and more. You can tell stories that take place across a number of different time ranges, from your decade-long artistic journey as a pianist to a single fencing match that made you rethink your approach to competition. This guide will help you navigate the eight UC prompts and decide which four best fit your profile.
(Directions: You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions. Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words. Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.)
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.
All kinds of leadership are welcome for this prompt, from more traditional leadership positions like President or VP of a school club to family leadership during a crisis. This prompt is your chance to show off not only the impact you’ve made or the accomplishments you’ve racked up, but also the growth of your own unique approach to leadership.
Leaders come in many types: leaders by example, master communicators, and expert planners are just some examples. When writing this essay, it’s helpful to keep in mind the vision of yourself as a leader that you want to present. It’s okay if this vision changes in each paragraph, such as if you’re an ace debate team leader who became a mentor to your teammates in your junior year. Don’t be afraid to highlight major shifts in your leadership approach when they can help construct a more accurate picture of your vision and use paragraph breaks to mark phases in your development.
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.
This is many students’ favorite essay! It’s a chance to express not only your passion for a creative activity, but also to explore the inner workings of your creative mind.
Don’t be afraid to choose this essay even if you don’t have a long list of accomplishments in your chosen activity. It’s how you approach the activity that counts.
As a painter, for example, you could tell the story of how you started off with oil painting, gained new techniques and sophistications in a summer program, then discovered that painting while listening to music helped free you from inhibitions. As a playwright, you could talk about how your initial plays freshman year were written to impress an audience, but after reading and watching the intensely personal plays of Sarah Kane, your plays in your junior and senior year became truer to a personal vision.
One final thing to consider about this prompt is the time frame of the essay. Do you want to describe a single creative work you’ve made, or your artistic growth over a longer period of time? The answer will depend on the trajectory of your growth and what formative events have shaped that growth.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
This prompt is similar to the “creative side” prompt, but more open-ended. Talents that may not fall neatly under that prompt, such as athletic talent or a communication skill, can fall under this prompt. Like in the “Creative Side” prompt, this talent should say something about who you are: how you think, what drives you, and how you convert thought into action.
When writing, pay attention to the “over time” portion of the prompt. You’ll want to select the start and end points carefully, as too long a time frame could leave you no room to go in-depth into any one topic and too short a time frame could leave out critical moments in your growth. Before writing, it’s good to brainstorm specific settings or events in which you’ve developed your talent. It’s all right if those settings are drastically different from each other, and it may even strengthen the essay to explore how you brought a talent you learned from one setting to another, such as how your listening ability as a math tutor allowed you to teach larger-scale summer writing classes.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
This prompt is similar to the “additional information” section of the Common Application in which you can describe extenuating circumstances that may have impacted your academic record or personal development. Because of the short length, be selective about what parts of your experience you want to talk about. For example, if you mention a concussion sustained in wrestling, you may want to save at least half of your essay to talk about your progression and recovery.
A good idea is to give specific, tangible examples of your growth while overcoming that barrier, such as how you learned to make a homework schedule so you had enough time to help take care of a younger sibling.
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 similar to prompt 4, but the word “most” in the prompt is an important qualifier. Admissions officers will be expecting a challenge that is multifaceted, and one that you’ve tackled from multiple directions. To avoid running over the word limit, see if you can consolidate your efforts to overcome the challenge into just 2 or 3 distinct approaches. This will help you structure the essay and avoid it turning into just a list of steps that you took to overcome the challenge. Also, remember to leave enough space (usually around 100-150 words or more) to reflect on your growth due to the challenge. What’s changed about the way you think and see the world after tackling it?
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Similar to the “why this major” question many Common Applications schools have as a supplemental essay, this is a place to show off your thirst for knowledge! UC Admissions officers aren’t looking out for an unorganized list of events or accomplishments, but for what motivates you to pursue this subject over time.
Don’t be afraid to embrace unexpected connections when writing this essay! For example, while you may have taken AP Psychology in 10th grade, it was in 11th grade when you were able to apply developmental psychology concepts from the course to tutoring elementary schoolers in an afterschool program. Just be sure to be selective about which connections you want to focus on. For example, although you may have attended four or five marches for social justice, you may want to only select two that were especially formative.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
This essay is a chance to show off the impact you’ve made on others! Students often have trouble defining the community they’ve made an impact in, but the definition is wide, ranging from a nationwide advocacy project to a neighborhood or extended family community.
This essay can include elements from the other prompts, and may include leadership elements, greatest challenge elements, or even elements of the academic subject essay if you’re sharing a passion like poetry with other students in your area. If you mention personal growth, you can talk about the interplay between your personal growth and how you were able to impact the community. Maybe thoroughly understanding environmental science gave you the knowledge necessary to advocate for stricter plastic chemical laws in city council meetings, for example. Or perhaps you were essential in bringing your extended family together over Zoom every Tuesday night, during the long pandemic separation.
8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?
The good old grab bag prompt! This essay is an opportunity to discuss your personal development from a perspective not completely covered by the previous prompts, or that may combine elements of several prompts. Some examples could include:
- An essay response recycled from another application or supplement, such as one about how a favorite book or movie has impacted your growth
- An experience of growth or rite of passage that isn’t captured in your other responses
- How your perspective on an issue, event, or idea has changed over time, and what you have learned from this change.
When selecting prompts, balance is key. To avoid redundancy, you wouldn’t want to talk about the same summer industrial design program in two separate prompts, for example. Think about the different sides to yourself—the leader, the thinker, the artist, and more—and how each essay can bring a fresh perspective.
Also, remember that 350 words is not a lot of space to describe an activity that you may have been doing for over a decade! Selectivity is essential, and naming which events, realizations, and relationships have shaped your growth is important. Thinking also about which of those events should center a paragraph can also help you craft crisper, more well-defined paragraph structures.
Finally, as colleges are increasingly looking for changemakers who can guide, organize, and inspire a student body, showing your impact on others is a must. Prompt 7, the “community” essay, and prompt 1, the “leadership” essay, are the most obvious place for showing that impact, but you can even show impact in the “academic subject” prompt through related outreach, such as science demonstrations, running a Girls in Engineering club or volunteering as a tutor. You may want to think about the different kinds of impacts you’ve made on the community, and center prompts around each. For example, you may show off your organizer side in one essay and your ability to inspire others in another.